Reflections on a Fall Morning

Talking Elections, Race and Policing with My Kids

Pooh and Tipi, Junior Police Officers

This morning started beautifully. The public schools were operating on a two-hour delay, so we all slept a bit later than usual and got to wake up gently with the sun instead of our usual method of alarm clocks in the dark. I was feeling upbeat on the heels of last night’s presidential debate, and I was excited about using our extra time in the morning to teach my children, ages 5 and 8, about the democratic process. Polls in North Carolina were opening for early voting at 9:00, and we had plans to cast my vote and go to breakfast at a nearby coffee shop before school.

When we arrived at the town hall ten minutes before the polls opened, there was already a long line of folks waiting to vote. Prioritizing my children’s need to be nourished before school, we decided to come back at a later time and headed to breakfast. With hot chocolates and blueberry muffins in tow, we found an empty table out front by the sidewalk and settled in to enjoy our snacks.

It was a clear, slightly crisp fall day, with sunny blue skies and changing leaves. My kids were eager to talk about the election, so I shared with them the highlights of the previous night’s debate. I explained the problem with Trump calling Clinton a “nasty woman” and why we should all be proud of the work of thinking, independent “nasty women.” I shared Trump’s offensive comment about “bad hombres” and tried my best to explain why his use of Mock Spanish in this context was racist and unacceptable, casting all immigrants, Mexicans, and Spanish-speakers as dangerous. Lightening the mood, I showed them a picture I had posted on social media of their daddy making a funny face — during a conversation at the dinner table from earlier in the week that had had us all rolling with laughter — which I had titled #badhombres4hillary. I tried to help them grasp the humor in the post and think through why we might want to take up the monikers of “Nasty Woman” and “Bad Hombres” ourselves.

We also spent some time talking about the process of casting a secret ballot in the United States and the importance of the right to an independent vote in the democratic process. I explained that, when we go, we will stand at a table with tall sides that will allow us privacy in casting our vote. If we have a paper ballot, we will deposit it in a locked box on our way out. Independent poll watchers are likely to be on hand to ensure a fair election. And we’ll each get stickers on the way out!

“He has a gun,” she exclaimed, visibly nervous. I turned my head to see. So did my son. My eyes made contact with one officer.

To emphasize the point, I guided my children through a consideration of how our experience is sure to be different from that of our family members in Equatorial Guinea, their father’s homeland. There, citizens are compelled to vote for President Obiang — the longest-ruling non-monarchal head of state in the world — through practices of armed intimidation, and elections are “won” by over 95% of the vote with the help of rampant electoral fraud. My daughter was shocked at the thought of a soldier standing over one’s shoulder with a weapon as they cast their vote, and we spent some time talking this through.

At about this point in the conversation, she noticed three local police walking in our direction on the sidewalk. “He has a gun,” she exclaimed, visibly nervous. I turned my head to see. So did my son. My eyes made contact with one officer. He smiled. I don’t think I was able to muster one in return. My mind raced, grasping at the best response in this situation, and I realized we were staring. I reassured my children they were safe. Then, as the officers passed, the mood lightened and my daughter went on to comment about the other many implements on his belt, making note of his walkie-talkie, large rings of keys, and handcuffs. They entered the coffee shop.

Our conversation about democracy and elections continued where it had left off. We enjoyed our breakfast, joked around, talked about what time I’d be leaving for the airport this afternoon, what I’d be doing, and when I’d be returning from my work trip. Maybe ten minutes had passed when the police officers returned. I didn’t notice them approaching, but the man with whom I had earlier locked eyes stopped at our table as they passed. “Would you like some stickers?” he asked the children enthusiastically. I reiterated his question, imagining that he had noticed our discomfort and feeling thankful he was taking the time to connect and put the kids at ease. “Yes, please,” said my daughter, quietly. “Sure!” piped up her brother. The officer pulled out a roll of stickers and gave them four — one for each child, one for Pooh Bear, and one for doll Tipi. They eagerly peeled the sticky badges from their backing and placed them on their chests. We thanked the officer and he left.

“But what if the police shoots me?” I fumbled at my son’s response. I asked him to repeat his question, hoping that the additional time would enable me to prepare the reply he needed.

My son, who at five is quickly becoming an avid reader, studied Pooh’s new badge. I helped him decipher the words: Junior Officer, Carrboro Police. 911. “What is 911?,” I asked him. Do you know what 911 means? “It’s his address,” he replied. “No,” piped up his big sister. “911 is what you call when there’s a fire.” I expanded: “911 is a phone number you can call in emergencies. If there’s a fire, a car accident, if someone is badly injured and needs to get to the hospital quickly. You can call that number on any phone, from anywhere in the country, and someone at the police station will answer. But it’s only for emergencies, and never for play. You can call if there’s not an adult nearby to help you. You tell them what happened, and they will send help — an ambulance, a fire truck, a police officer.”

“But what if the police shoots me?” I fumbled at my son’s response. I asked him to repeat his question, hoping that the additional time would enable me to prepare the reply he needed. A million thoughts seemed to flash through my head in that moment.

Race and racism are not foreign topics for my children. We have talked cautiously with them about Black deaths at the hands of the police and about the #BlackLivesMatter movement. We’ve discovered a large section of books featuring non-white protagonists in the children’s section of our public library, many affirming and uplifting, and have been reading them avidly. My daughter’s class just wrapped up a unit on race and racism, and we celebrated that they were getting a head start on learning to value difference, recognize structural inequalities, and have difficult conversations about racialized power at a young age. But in this moment, on this lovely fall morning, it hit me hard that my sweet babies — beautiful, smart, confident, empathetic children of a white U.S.-born mother and a Black immigrant father — are afraid of the police.

I needed more information to be sure. “Are you reflecting on the stories you’ve been hearing recently about boys and men of color being killed by police?” He nodded. “Well…” I paused. “You are right to be cautious. It’s important that we always be respectful toward police, and our hands should always be visible, so they can see we are cooperating and don’t have a weapon.”

“But sometimes that doesn’t even matter,” my daughter chimed in, stopping me in my tracks.

How do we ensure they remain confident, proud, happy, and fearless young leaders at the same time we take care to equip them with critical tools to recognize — and survive — the workings of power and oppression?

Damn, parenting is a big responsibility. Were they responding to the realities of life in the dictatorship of Equatorial Guinea, a place alive in their imaginations but which they have not visited? Were they thinking about racialized police violence in nearby Charlotte and across their own country? Some combination of the two? Did it matter?

I decided to share this morning’s events because, in them, I feel a crystallization of what I have found to be the single-most difficult aspect of parenting my “of color” young children:

How do we talk honestly with them in ways that prepare them for the obstacles they will face — are already clearly facing — walking through the world as brown-hued (or “light gingerbread,” as my daughter recently described herself) people, without breaking their spirits? How do we ensure they remain confident, proud, happy, and fearless young leaders at the same time we take care to equip them with critical tools to recognize — and survive — the workings of power and oppression?

As an anthropologist and college professor who studies and teaches about race as part of my daily life, I have mulled over these questions for years. The first time I remember struggling with them in relation to my own children’s well-being was when my daughter came home from kindergarten during Black History Month distraught about the story of Ruby Bridges, a Black child of the Civil Rights era who desegregated her Louisiana elementary school. Why weren’t Black and white children allowed to be friends? And, importantly — pressingly, for her — into which group would she have been classified had she been there?

We’ve grappled with other questions since then, but in each this core tension remains — I want them to learn to recognize racism in the past and present, build a critical analysis of its workings, and navigate the world safely while also knowing no limits to their abilities, hopes, and dreams.

The truth is, I feel much better equipped to have these conversations with white children, who, cloaked in the white privilege that we share …
The author’s daughter’s “light gingerbread” portrait

The truth is, I feel much better equipped to have these conversations with white children, who, cloaked in the white privilege that we share, I might guide to appreciate why it is important for them to see race and use their privilege to become anti-racist actors in the world. I find it significantly harder to have these conversations with my own children, conscious of the reality that there are many contexts in which they may find themselves on the losing end of racist structures of oppression.

This morning as we continued to talk I ended up validating my daughter’s point. I reiterated ways to try to be safe around police. But, not wanting my children to walk through the world in fear or mistrust, I pressed the point that most officers, as most people, are well-meaning and want to help us. With the #BLM’s “alternatives to policing” messaging in mind, however, I also encouraged them to reach out to other trusted adults when they need help. The conversation was incomplete. They always are.

How else could I have responded to this morning’s events so as to both acknowledge the realities of white supremacy and ensure my children feel confident and secure? What tools do you have for these vital moments parenting young people of color? I am grateful to have the EmbraceRace community and welcome constructive dialogue.

It’s hard to know how today’s events were interpreted by these precocious young people that I love so fiercely. As we bussed our table and took our dishes inside, both kids pointed out that we were now at the counter in the exact spot where the police had been standing. Unbeknownst to me, we had been keeping an eye on them through the glass during our meal. More food for thought. On the way to school, conversation was lighthearted and turned to Halloween costumes and library books. My growing babies gave me their usual kisses as they hopped out in the car line, and we all went about our day.

The conversation will continue. It always does. I’m grateful for this morning’s break in our routine and for the opportunities for thoughtful reflection and dialogue that it generated, for me, for my family, and for all of us.