I was going to do some Thanksgiving prep the other day. You know, make a pie crust. Maybe even some stuffing. That’s what you do two days before Thanksgiving, right? Instead, my children and I spent the afternoon at a Ferguson protest in support of Michael Brown.
On our way to the protest, my teenage daughter shared a photo of herself and her sisters on a local news station’s Facebook page and immediately received dozens of negative comments about bringing children to a protest. Some suggested that Child Protective Services be called while others mocked her for everything from her presumed ignorance to her age to the color of her hair. The consensus was overwhelmingly that it is stupid, if not negligent, to bring children to a protest.
Living in Seattle, I’m nowhere near Ferguson. I’m as lily white as they come. I’ve never experienced racism, and in fact I’ve noted my own privilege plenty of times. I’m not sure that I used to notice it at all, or was even aware that it existed, until I moved to the troubled neighborhood of South Seattle a few years ago.
We were the racial minority in that neighborhood, but we were also the privileged minority. The police were friendly…to us. A young black woman was less lucky when a police officer punched her in the face next door to the Starbucks we frequented. I’m pretty sure that a lawsuit came out of that case, but the Seattle Police Department is no stranger to lawsuits. In a city that’s famous for its progressive values, it’s almost shocking to remember that here, too, was the site of the 1999 WTO protests and that just last month a judge threw out a lawsuit by members of the Seattle PD who felt that reforms designed to curb the use of excessive force violated THEIR civil rights. Seriously, I’m not making that up. They really tried to sue for that.
Last week’s protests were peaceful. Hundreds of high school students joined hundreds of members of the community to march through the streets of Seattle. The groups converged on the steps of the Federal courthouse, where a rally was held. We stood in the rain, hands up, chanting “hands up, don’t shoot,” and “no justice, no peace, no racist police.” We came together to lend our voices to the growing chorus of outrage against a system that rewards violent white men and institutionalizes the murder of black men.
Frankly, I would rather have baked a pie that day than attended a protest. But, as a mother, it’s my job to teach my children right from wrong, and you don’t do that with words. You do that by getting out there in the rain, with nowhere to pee, feeling a little awkward and wondering what you have to add to a racial discussion, but throwing your hands up and making your voice heard anyway. You do it by leading by example, not by ranting on Facebook. You do it by, cliché or not, being the change you want to see, and trusting your kids enough to allow them to be there, too.
Statistically, my kids had a dramatically higher chance of being harmed on the drive to the protest than at the protest itself. I decided not to let fear rule me and I made a parenting decision that introduced my children to social activism.
My young daughters held their hands up and joined in the chants, asked a few questions, and then played on the steps of the courthouse as the protest continued behind them.
Afterward, we walked away from a courthouse lined with police officers, knowing that we were safe and that we wouldn’t be stopped, harassed, or otherwise harmed as we walked. No one would detain or search us. No one would pull my car over for a “routine” traffic stop. No one would pay us any attention at all, unless to smile at my children or perhaps say hello. Unlike Michael Brown’s parents, I have the security of knowing that my children will see the friendly, smiling side of the local police.
A friend once told me that she doesn’t give the homeless money because she’s afraid of her children witnessing someone drunk or mentally ill. While she wants to help the homeless she sees asking for money on the streets, she believes that it’s simply too dangerous for her children to be involved. Although I understand her fear, I wonder how we expect to raise thoughtful, compassionate adults if we shield our kids from every unfortunate situation around us.
There are age-appropriate ways to discuss almost any topic with your kids, and we do our kids a disservice when we treat them as delicate hothouse flowers. Our kids are strong, and they can handle the sight of a man sleeping under a restaurant awning and can raise their hands in support of equality. It is those experiences that have led my children to organize neighborhood food drives and to declare their desire to be a police officer who helps instead of harms.
And, hopefully, it is those experiences that will lead my kids to a nuanced understanding of social issues instead of the simple comfort of a black and white worldview.
Ultimately, who knows how any of our kids will turn out. As parents, the best we can do is our best, and there’s no such thing as a perfect approach. But, today, let’s take a few minutes to talk to our kids about racism, privilege, and oppression, and to remind them that those in power aren’t always right, that the system isn’t always perfect, and that we have a voice to raise. And, then, let’s find a way to take action.
Because, in the end, it’s our actions, not our words, that truly teach our children.
Jody Allard is writer and mother living in Seattle.