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Get on the Bus

In the wake of Michael Brown's death, one mom starts the conversation about race at home

Another shooting. I almost wanted to turn away from the news articles, the Facebook links, the emails. I am tired of reading “not one more,” then reading about one more. But the exhaustion of seeing daily news about violence — rather than experiencing it — is a privilege.

So I knew that I had to learn more about the names and words appearing every day in rapid succession: Michael Brown. Unarmed. Execution. Protest. Uprising. Police. Ferguson. But I didn’t want to know — or maybe the truth is, I didn’t want to feel.

Then someone asked how I have taught my children about race and civil rights, and I remembered: It started with a chalk diagram.

Five years ago, our friend Colin sent us a postcard—a reproduction of a chalkboard with a rectangle and smaller squares within the sides. Simple, really, except for an arrow pointing to a square in the middle of the rectangle and two words: “Rosa Parks.” I knew what it was before turning the postcard over: the court exhibit of the bus where Ms. Parks famously refused to give up her seat.

My then 4-year-old daughter, Sophie, found the postcard lying on our dining room table. “What’s this?” she asked. As an antiracist college educator, I’d thought about, talked about and written about race in the United States for more than a dozen years. I know that as an Asian American, I owe so much to African Americans. I might have answered that it was “just a postcard,” but I couldn’t. My daughter was asking the question, so I took a deep breath.

We talked about racism and segregation in the simplest terms possible. How humans invented race based partly on skin color. How racism is systems of discrimination against groups of people. How segregation is racism in action. Since her father is white, her parents’ marriage would have been illegal in most states until a few decades ago. We talked about the Montgomery Bus Boycott and where Rosa Parks’ actions fit into that context.

Then we talked about where I would have sat on a segregated bus in the South in the 1950s, and where Sophie’s daddy would have sat. My daughter’s skin is light brown, and mine is darker brown. “This is a time when I really want you to think hard about the rules,” I told her. “There are a lot of rules that are important, but the rules aren’t always right. There are times when you have to decide if you think the rules make sense. Does segregation make sense to you?” She shook her head. “What would you do?” I asked her. “I would want to sit with Mama,” she said.

As we talked, I remembered hearing Angela Davis speak in 2008, urging a college audience not only to focus on the heroes, but to honor the power of everyday people in the civil rights movement.

Since that first conversation, we’ve talked about slavery, about the incarceration of my Japanese American father and his family during World War II, about American Indian boarding schools. There are other difficult conversations about race that I’m not looking forward to having, but they are necessary. We need to talk about what racism looks like in the national debate about immigration, in the staggeringly disproportionate rates of incarceration for black males, in housing segregation in our hometown, and in racial profiling.

I’m not saying this is the only way to approach race and parenting, or even the best way. But what I hope Sophie gets out of our conversations isn’t just a sense of dates, figures and facts. I hope it’s the start of a lifetime approach to history and race. Let’s not pretend bad things don’t happen. Let’s ask what we don’t know, let’s find out more, let’s talk about shared responsibility.

The hardest lessons are the ones that I’m still figuring out myself, but thanks to Ferguson, I’m recommitting myself to learn and teach them for the rest of my life: how to transform the fear behind violence. How to use the sorrow that resides in helplessness. How to travel back to humanity from a cowardly cynicism or a numb grief. How to arrive at the complex peace that is understanding. How to marshal, for all our sakes, the justice that lives in outrage.

For another parent perspective on Michael Brown's death and the events unfolding in Ferguson, read The Fear of a Black Mother.

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