“I see a lot of black faces here.”
And the air sharpens to fine, crystalline points as every pair of ears on the bus perks up. The speaker, a small boy, white, maybe five years old, is riding with his mom. We are all on board my morning B65, en route from Crown Heights to Downtown Brooklyn.
At this point in its route, the B65 is definitely a Black World bus. This side of Crown Heights, despite rampant gentrification and displacement, is still predominantly black. There are plenty of newer, non-black residents, and many of them are parents with small children.
I can’t see the little boy or his mother from where I’m standing. We boarded together two stops ago, but they went immediately to seats at the back. I saw a neighbor up front and stopped to chat.
“I see a lot of white faces,” the little boy says. He has the high, clear, carrying voice of small children. I can hear him as if he is standing at my side, speaking directly to me. “A lot of white faces,” he says. “And a lot of black faces. Why?”
I can’t see the boy or his mother, and I wonder how she looks in this moment. Is she mortified, worried that the next words out of her baby’s mouth will be problematic, making some kind of value judgment that should (at worst) be kept to himself or (at best) not be thought at all?
In the tone of the child’s voice, there has been no indication that he feels any kind of way about what he’s seeing. He seems simply to be making an observation. The same as if he were looking at cars: I see a red car. I see a blue car. I see a lot of tan Camrys (or is that just me?).
The collective ear-perking, breath-holding on the bus is electric, palpable. Because all of us — Black riders and white — want to see where and how this goes. This is a moment, maybe, the kind of moment where a parent has the opportunity to settle something in her child’s mind, plant a small, sturdy seed.
But those of us not sitting near the mother are thwarted. In the way of many moms, she has the ability to speak clearly but quietly without whispering. I can hear that she is speaking but can’t actually hear what she says.
Whatever she says, the child’s response is inaudible. So, at the very least, her self-consciousness in the moment has made her hush him.
But I want her to know that we’re probably all rooting for her. We want to hear what she says and we want her to get it right. And, even though we want her to get it right, mostly we want to know that white parents can and will answer those questions, that they will try to plant those seeds. We want to know that neither fear of erring nor the false belief that a) some age of child is too young for this talk or b) this isn’t a conversation they as white people are able to have will keep them silent, make them hush their children.
How do you have this conversation? What do you say to your child that doesn’t silence her, that doesn’t make him feel as if he’s done something wrong, that leaves the door open for more conversation? Surely it’s easier to have this conversation at home, and that may be the reason the mom asked her son to speak quietly. But if you shush your child on the bus then try to bring up the subject when you’re on safer ground, the moment is lost. You’re no longer surrounded by all the black and white faces and the immediacy, the curiosity, is gone.
I keep saying that I’m no longer going to do white people’s homework for them, and that’s true, that’s entirely true. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to see and hear how well they’re doing that homework. Seeing and hearing how people respond in awkward moments like this morning’s bus ride is one way that happens.
I hope I see that woman and her son on the bus again soon. I hope her son forgets to speak quietly and has more to say about the people he sees. What he says, whatever it is, might tell me how the mother answered this morning’s question, how she explained that there are light and dark faces on the bus.
When I went to see Selma, many of the people in the theater were parents and kids. And the kids were young: most were probably eight or nine. The daughter of the mother and daughter who sat beside me was maybe as young as seven. At first, I was surprised to see so many young ones, but it pleased me, too. How the parents taught their way through the movie pleased me even more. Throughout the film, they leaned over and shared history, context, meaning. They drew attention to specific people and actions. They asked their children to share their feelings and thoughts and ideas. They did this calmly and with care and in ways that didn’t disturb my viewing of the film. They stayed in their seats after the movie ended to keep talking, keep teaching.
This is one way white people can do their homework, can help their children start doing theirs.
No age is too young for this conversation. The first times I encountered racial prejudice, I was five years old. The people who created those encounters were also five years old.* Those children had clearly already heard a whole other conversation. Moms like the mom on the B65 this morning, like all other moms and dads need to figure this out. Yes, it’s awkward. Yes, you worry about making a mistake. Yes, of course. And maybe you think it’s better to teach your child the myth of colorblindness.** Don’t do it. Telling your child color doesn’t matter, that they shouldn’t see color is a disservice not only to your child, but to all of us.
This isn’t easy. None of it’s easy. Not for you, not for anyone. But really, you can do this. And, just like on the bus this morning, we are all rooting for you.
It’s the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge, hosted by the wonderful people over at Two Writing Teachers! Every day this month, hundreds of writers will be posting their stories. Head on over and check out the other slices!
** Seriously. Colorblindness is a lie. If it’s a lie you’re telling yourself, you need to stop. No, seriously.