Part of me was hoping that Wednesday night’s episode of Black-ish would give me the Magic Words: the exact right things to say to my daughter when she starts asking me about institutionalized racism. It didn’t, because, really, how could it?
Every day I live in fear of the thing that’s going to burst my daughter’s bubble of innocence. She just turned five, and this was the first year she had classwork dedicated to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The assignment was for the kids to write a sentence about what their dream was and to draw a picture illustrating it. She went first to her pre-K happy place of “getting presents all the time.” I attempted an age-appropriate explanation, stammering out something about how King’s dream was that everybody would treat each other equally. I don’t remember exactly what she wrote instead, but it was something about people being nice to each other. Ok, great; still safe. The conversations about firehoses and bad policemen could hold off for another year.
But I know it’s a conversation I’m going to have to have with her. I know someday soon I’m going to pick her up from school and she’ll ask about some news event and I’ll have to explain how it’s rooted in deep-seated inequality, the same way I had to explain death to her last fall. “Guess what?! So-and-so’s grandma is dead!” she had exclaimed, as if discussing a dramatic plot point from an animated movie. That night, I talked to her about how death is a very sad loss but it’s something that happens to everybody, using the example of my own deceased mother. I got that specific species of “oh” that floats out of a kid’s mouth when they’re pondering something that’s just out of reach. She got what I was saying in the moment, but since then there’ve been few signs that there was much permanence to the epiphany. She gets that death is something to be talked about carefully— I think saying it happens to everyone was the key. I won’t be able to do that when talking about racism.
I do some of the things that you’re supposed to do when raising a black kid in America. I try to make sure she watches TV shows with characters who look like her, explain that her hair is awesome and keep books with little brown kids on the shelf. All of that feels like a weak force-field against the bullshit I’m trying to protect her from. There’s a tricky choreography between preparing a kid and giving them a bunch of existential worry they can’t handle. She still freaks out that she’s going to have to stop sucking her thumb. How is she going to react to realizing some people see her as less than equal?
On Wednesday night when I was writing, I saw people tweeting up a storm about the new episode of Black-ish. Written by Kenya Barris, the “Hope” episode of Black-ish was about police brutality and focused on the dilemma parents Bow and Dre faced when talking about the complexities of the issue with their teenage and younger children. I’ve loved how the ABC sitcom about an upper-middle-class black family hasn’t shied away from thorny, sometimes divisive topics, so I decided to watch it as inspiration for when I have to give The Talk to my kid.
It used to be that topics like this were “very special episodes” and whatever tensions bubbled up were neatly resolved by the final commercial break. “Hope” did the opposite. It invoked the uneasy symbiosis between black folks and the police, as well as the anger and frustration that comes from watching police destroy black body after black body with no repercussions. As the Johnson family settled around the TV to see whether a grand jury would hand out an indictment for a police-involved shooting, teenage Zoe says, “It’s the one where they shot the kid in the middle of the street, right?” As she tries to remember exactly which case they’re talking about, her parents and grandparents jog her memory in the worst way, reminding her “No, that was Chicago... no, that was Charleston... no, that was New York.”
This is what my daughter’s life is going to be, I thought: an endless chain of killings that I’m going to have to provide context for. She’s a child who did nothing to deserve the unjust system she’ll have to grapple with. Worse still, I’m going to have figure out ways to make her believe that she still has a shot of making something of her life, despite the fact that I know she’s going to encounter words and images that will make her feel like she doesn’t.
In the show, Bow’s dilemma is in maintaining her kids’ innocence in a world that will prematurely view them as monstrous threats. In the end, that innocence dies because, as Dre says, “they’re not just children; they’re black children.” The best thing the Johnson kids—and my daughter—can get is a clear-eyed but carefully modulated explanation of the world as it is. I just need to figure out how to do that.