Anti-Hate/Anti-Racism Parenting: The Importance of Belonging, and Supporting the Belonging of Others
“That was where I saw white parents pushing double-wide strollers down gentrifying Harlem boulevards in T-shirts and jogging shorts. Or I saw them lost in conversation with each other, mother and father, while their sons commanded entire sidewalks with their tricycles. The galaxy belonged to them, and as terror was communicated to our children, I saw mastery communicated to theirs.” Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Between the World and Me
Being a mother is the experience of having your heart live outside your body. How ever you come to motherhood, the realization of this feeling is both comforting and frightening. As a Black mother, for most days, the feeling is like any other mother. But there is a second level of fear, of all the things I can’t protect my son from, and of all the things that I can’t help because of how my son is perceived. I have come to realize that most of my fears for my son related to race stem from the lack of belonging, and the struggle to be comfortable and safe in spaces where his presence can feel foreign. This summer, I have had reminder after reminder that some bodies get terror, because those bodies don’t belong. A particularly visceral reminder of a man crying out for his mother as he died with a knee pressed to his neck. Or a young man shot while on a jog in his own neighborhood, but where still he was perceived as not belonging.
The first time I talked to my son about race, he was four years old and we were going to a place we have frequented very often since before my son was two: the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. As we walked towards the entrance, my son looked at me and said: do Black people go here? As the child of two parents who have shared painful memories from integration and the Civil Rights movement, I assured my son that we belong wherever we are. I try to mirror that belonging, but it is hard to feel you belong in a space when no one looks like you. The simple truth of belonging, that some people are taught they always belong, and others are not, was my son’s reality at four years old.
Our moment walking into the front of DMNS was two years ago this summer. Thinking about that discussion in the context of this year, and of my son transitioning to a school where few children look like him, I realize that the most important relationships he will have are those with allies. My son needs space to grow into himself, and he needs to be able to do that in places where he can be who he is, without the weight of race. For that to be possible, he needs supportive teachers who accept him for who he is, and who have done their own internal work to understand how they feel about race, and how to not make their feelings a burden for those around them. My son also needs friends with parents who have had conversations about race and about kindness, and who encourage their children to be friends with those with whom they find commonality without regard to race. I will work hard to support my son in this search for allies at his new school, but I hope for everyone reading this, they are being an ally in their daily life, and teaching their child how to be an ally to those around them.
My son heard the n-word as a pejorative just a year ago, when he was in his early months of kindergarten. Fortunately, he heard it in the proximity of a Black male teacher and had someone on hand to respond for him and to help him navigate this situation as a five-year-old child. When he casually mentioned it as I picked him up from aftercare, my heart stopped. But fortunately, he didn’t have to navigate this incredibly hurtful experience alone, and he felt supported and valued. His teacher helped him navigate it in such an appropriate way.
I hope that even during this year when so much feels uncertain, we all find our common shared humanity and support one another, and our children, in belonging, and feeling that others belong and are safe and valued in the spaces where they are.
Beth Robinson is an employment attorney. She has represented both private companies and government entities for the past 13 years. She is currently a Senior Assistant Legal Counsel for the Colorado Judicial Department. In this role, Beth provides advice and counsel on a wide range of employment law related issues to internal clients and advises regarding compliance and risk for the programs and policies of the Colorado Judicial Department. Beth earned her B.A. in English from Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, and her J.D. from Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.