Yesterday we were driving towards Lake Shore on Roosevelt, and SI called to me from the rear- “Mommy? Who’s that man in the statue?”
“What statue, honey?” I asked, not thinking about it. I put on my turn signal and got ready to head south, past the museum and Soldier Field.
“The really high statue, with the man on it, holding his hand up.”
I knew the statue she meant. It stands at the start of Columbus Drive, and it features an idealized Christopher Columbus, looking majestically south, for some reason.
“That’s Christopher Columbus.”
“Why is there a statue of him?”
I’m a big believer in honesty when it comes to children. Even if it might seem like it’s too much, too soon. If it’s too much, too soon, kids have a tendency to just sort of tune you out, or change the subject. They’re easily bored by things that make no sense to them at all. So I started talking, in the absolute authority that is the Voice of Motherhood.
“Some people think Columbus was really great. They say he discovered America. Both of those things are not true. He was not great. And he did not discover America. All he did was make colonizing America profitable.”
SI didn’t miss a beat. “What does profitable mean?”
“It means he found a way to make money for the king and queen by coming to America. And the way he made money was not great. It was very, very. very bad.”
“What did he do to make money?”
“He made people into slaves. And he killed people. And he made the Americas a place to go to find and have slaves.”
“There are slaves in America????”
“Not anymore, but there were. For a long time. For hundreds of years before America was a country, and for another hundred years after that.”
“Why did he make them slaves?”
“Because of the color of their skin.”
We were passing the football stadium now, and my heart was pounding. This was the first time I’d really talked to my children about American slavery. We’d talked Jewish slavery plenty, during Passover. I’d mentioned there were slaves in America, too, and we’d talked about people who would hurt other people for how they looked. But until this moment, I’d avoided pointing out that it was possible, however wrongly, to apply value to a skin color.
DD started stammering, “How, what, how, why?” and I started blathering back.
“You know how you have friends with all different colors of skin? Well, people with brown skin, all shades of brown, were called black, and people with light skin were called white- even though nobody’s skin is really white OR black, but that’s what they were called, and what people still say about skin color. That it’s black or white. And that’s not really true either, we all have melanin in our skin- it’s part of our skin- and some of us have darker skin because of it and some have lighter skin. But people who were black were made to be slaves. And Christopher Columbus started making brown skinned people into slaves here, in the Americas, and he killed so many people. And then people started bringing slaves here from other places, because even where Columbus came from they already knew that it was wrong.”
There was silence for a minute in the back of the car.
DD sniffed. “So K,” (her best friend from school,) “is a slave?”
She sounded like she was going to cry.
“No, honey, she’s free. But there are still people in this country who think she should be, and they’re wrong. Just like they’re wrong when they say Columbus discovered America, or that he was a great man.”
We’d made it past the Museum of Science and Industry now, and the children were silent, thoughtful.
“Is Christopher Columbus still alive?”
“No honey,” I almost laughed.” He’s been dead hundreds of years.
“So why is there a statue for him?”
“Because people don’t really know how bad he was, honey. But if somebody tries to tell you he was great, you can tell them I said he was NOT great, and he did NOT discover America, okay?”
I thought I was done having potentially uncomfortable talks about race with my children for the week, if not the summer. But that was yesterday afternoon. And last night, a white supremacist marched into a church with an important history in the progress of Civil Rights, and began killing African Americans. Because of their skin color.
My five year old children fear for their friends, and I do not blame them.
I live in a predominantly black neighborhood. My children are the only white* kids in their ballet class- heck, in the entire community center where they HAVE ballet class. Until now, I’ve never given them any reason to question it. To wonder if they were in any way different. I’ve told them their whole lives that all people are the same on the inside, fundamentally, and that it’s not okay to be mean to people because of how they look. Period.
One day a little white boy in DD’s Hebrew school class told her friend he didn’t like her because she had dark skin. She told me and our transgender nanny in a rush of awe, and before I could start in with a lecture, she told me how her Indian teacher had sat down the whole class and they’d talked about how they were all different and special and unique and wonderful.
This is the rainbow bubble I like to live in. A diverse city environment, a tolerant, relatively liberal city. A place where my daughter and her black friend can talk about race with their Indian teacher in the middle of a Jewish school.
This bubble isn’t the real world.
The real world is one in which black people are shot down by police officers, yes, in our own city, without arrest, charge, or trial. It’s one where a white man was taken alive into custody when he was known to have killed nine human beings for the crime of having brown skin. He had even left some people alive specifically to testify to his intentions.
That is not just a hate crime, it is an act of terror. And I will tell you what I have told my five year old daughters.
White people are not treated the same way as any other people in this country. White people are excused, pardoned, explained away. They are called isolated lunatics, deranged gunmen, religious fanatics who aren’t supposed to represent their religion entire.
But brown skinned people are called thugs. They’re called rioters. They’re called criminals. If they’re also not Christian, they’re called terrorists. They’re locked up in prisons far away from here and they’re tortured. They’re beaten to death in holding cells. They’re thrown into prisons without being charged with crimes and left there until they kill themselves.
These are not things that happen to white people in this country.
And that is not okay.
I told my children it’s their job, now and forever, to remember to listen to their friends who have skin that is not white. To listen to them, to believe them if they say somebody did something they didn’t feel was right, to defend them when people say unkind things, to get help if people try to hurt them.
I told them they’ll have more jobs as they get older, too. Harder ones. Ones I will talk to them about when the time comes. The children asked for snacks in front of the TV. Like I said, if they’re not ready for a conversation, they get out of it.
I’m hoping that they will be able to have these conversations, even if it’s hard, when they’re older. We all need to learn to have these conversations. We all need to learn to look for prejudice in our lives, and to confront it.
We need to look around us and say yes, white supremacy is a real and terrible thing. Yes, there are terrorists at work on our soil, and they are in plain sight, using the color of their skin and the name of their God as a camouflage. Yes, this is the real world, and we can fix it if we take the time to confront it.
I want to teach my children to be part of a solution. I want to be part of the solution. Any decent human being should.
Every time we drive to the Target, we go past that statue of Christopher Columbus. I want my children to remember- we have enshrined hatred. We have called it “American” and set it up on high.
I want them to know that we can just as easily tear it down. One little rainbow bubble at a time.
*For more on my kids and perceived whiteness, please read this post.
Read more about frank conversations with my daughters here: Yes, Daddy has Cancer in his Brain, Now Eat Your Dinner
Read my latest post here: Portrait of a Three Year Old
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