I’m presently between jobs, and am working the summer as a counselor at a music camp for elementary aged kids. It’s an expensive and elite program, and a majority of the youth are wealthy and white.
Navigating this environment over the past week has been uniquely grueling. The gruesome violence against Black people by the state and white supremacist hate groups has been relentless. My community was in upheaval as I found myself in the midst of a pool of complacency and inaction. Friends texted me and left sobbing messages on my voicemail while I sat in a circle with kids and adults who seemed untouched by the terror and sadness gripping me. The lack of acknowledgement was at moments unbearable.
During a class on silent movies, an instructor presented my group of students with a film of a young man joining the confederate army. He gave them a preface:
“We are going to be watching a movie about a complicated time in U.S. history. I’m going to skip some scenes because I disagree with the images they show. I don’t want us to think about the characters in this film in terms of good and bad, but instead in terms of the North and the South. I don’t think we are ready to talk about it now, but as you get older there are important themes in this film it will be necessary for you to think more about.”
I found my stomach wrenching in reaction to this speech, immediately noticing I was one of only two people of color in the room, and the only Black person. I took a moment to recognize that I was gaining a unique vantage point on white privilege in action.
Having to watch a film on the confederate army during this of all weeks aside, I was shocked by seeing a room full of wealthy, white kids—all of them labeled as gifted and specially talented—being told they were not yet old enough to talk about racism. At no point in my life as a young person of color was that speech ever given to me. I decided I couldn’t wait for another opportunity to address this discrepancy.
On Friday during a free period, I sat my group down. I told them it had been a hard week for me, and that I trusted them enough to be honest with them about why. I asked them to recall an incident during our recess in the park the previous week:
“Can you all remember last week when we were crossing the street by the park, and there was a car double-parked in front of the crosswalk? What was everyone’s reaction?”
“We wanted to call the police.”
“Right. You remember how that reaction made me upset? Why do you think that was?”
A few of them thought hard:
“Maybe because that wasn’t a real emergency, and we should only call 911 when there’s a real emergency.”
“No, that’s not really what I was thinking. Here’s something: I’m Black, and in my community many of us do not call 911. Something very bad or scary might happen to us, and we still do not call the police. Why do you think that might be?”
They were not sure.
I asked them if they knew the history of the police force in the U.S., where police had originally come from. When they didn’t, I assured them most adults didn’t either. We talked about slave patrols, about how policing evolved in this country as a means of controlling property, and that for generations Black people were that property. We talked about how legal things can be wrong, and breaking the law can be right. We talked about how “terrorism” is a term that, in our current political climate, we tend to thrust onto Arab people, Muslim people, ignoring the official bodies that terrorize us in our own cities and neighborhoods every day, and that invade the very communities we passively allow to be referred to as “terrorists”.
The conversation ultimately came to revolve around weapons and gun violence. One young person asked why people charged with stopping conflicts carried around guns in the first place, and suggested disarming the police all together. We closed by returning to the scenario in the park that had begun the talk and asked each other what concrete alternatives to calling 911 we could use in situations when we feel unsafe in our community.
I was, in a qualified way, very proud of this group of young people for their poise and bravery in having this conversation. I was also left frustrated with the coddling of white children—who are clearly more prepared to dig into these questions than many of their adult counterparts—and the excuses made on their behalf that keep those in positions of violent authority so ill equipped to examine their power.
Because I am half white, other people of color often look to me to explain the functions of whiteness to them, hoping to gain insights into how to better engage the white people in their lives around issues of injustice. In reality, however, my proximity to whiteness grants me few insights that people of color don’t already universally possess. The saddest thing is that my closeness to white people gives me less hope for the future of Black struggle, not more. I see first hand how painfully slow the process of change can be, how fruitless the discussions. During weeks like this one I fear violent revolution because I can’t see any other way to get white people to look at themselves, to relinquish their resources, to move.
Yet my conversation with young white people taught me something important, too: Imagining a world without police, striving toward abolition, is not possible if we are not given the tools for that imagining early on. It is a cemented world view, perennially unchallenged and totally devoid of self-reflexivity, that makes engaging white adults so difficult.
White fragility is such an offensive performance to me precisely because white people have such strong stomachs in the face of their own violence. They can evict the poor and elderly from their homes to build new condos and be unmoved. They can support invasions, deport families, incarcerate children. They can defund schools and mental health clinics in communities of color in service of facelift projects in their cities’ wealthiest sectors. They can consume the pornographic images of Black people being slaughtered on a daily basis, and barely be distracted from their coffee.
Yet when the time comes to examine their role, to be held accountable, they are suddenly weepy, suddenly sensitive. But if that sensitivity were real, were anything more than an avoidance, it would have emerged long before the forced dialogue. Indeed, if it actually existed, it should have shown itself centuries ago, and none of what is currently happening would be happening.
When I came home from school and told my parents about an ugly thing I was called, or a cruel way I was treated by an adult, no one ever told me that when I was old enough they would explain what was happening to me. It was already happening, and I needed the tools to learn how to navigate it as it continued to happen. Ready or not, the adults charged with my care had to figure out how to protect me, how to make me feel valued and prepared in a world bent on my destruction.
Our extreme caution as educators in having real talk with young people around their relationship to structural racism reveals not only our cowardice in actively confronting white supremacy, but our open lack of compassion for children of color. For even when we make the ageist assumption that Black and Brown kids are too young to talk about racism, it’s rarely argued they are too young to live through it. Few ever stand up and make the claim our kids are too young to be homeless, too young to have police officers in their classrooms, too young to go hungry or see their public schools shut down.
If we are comfortable with kids of color experiencing these violences, but uncomfortable asking them for their mere observations, something is deeply wrong with us. And if we reserve even more caution for the white kids who are unaware of these violences altogether, we contribute actively to the maintenance of white supremacy and Black death.
Black and Brown children do not have the luxury of waiting until they are ready to confront racism. For anti-racist education to happen, white kids cannot be afforded that luxury, either.
And to be clear, I don’t think white children are the future of Black liberation. I think the time for conversation has long passed, and that dialogue is not nearly enough to address the imminent violence Black people are facing. I don’t think any structure changes because those being crushed by it politely ask those at the controls to stop crushing them.
But if I can get young white people to think twice about calling the police on a single mom trying to drop her kids off at the pool, or an upstairs neighbor playing their music too loud, I will count that as this week’s tiny victory.