My son and I are sitting at the kitchen island, working together. His 7th grade teachers are very big on projects and presentations, so he spends a lot of time creating slideshows – exactly what he’s doing right now. As it turns out, hybrid teaching also requires quite a few slideshows, so I’m doing the same thing.
He loves it when we work together, laptops side by side. Mid-afternoon on Sunday, and he’s still shirtless, wrapped in a blanket. Right now he’s looking up information about Selma and the March to Montgomery for a presentation on John Legend and Common’s song “Glory”. He’s already confused and unhappy, and he has not yet gotten to the worst of it: he’s just about to learn about Bloody Sunday, 56 years ago today. And… here it is.
“Um, Mom, there’s something I don’t understand,” he begins.
Me neither, my love
“Didn’t the law say they could vote?”
“Yes. Yes, it did.”
“So why did people elect a racist governor? Didn’t they know he was bad?”
The pandemic means that I have had the privilege of watching my son’s racial awakening this year, and also the burden. Since my children were small, we’ve read books with protagonists who do not look like them – who are not white boys – and my son’s friends own many identities. Still. There’s knowing and then there’s knowing, and right now he’s starting to grapple with whiteness.
“Why were white people so mean? Why couldn’t they just understand that everyone is a person?”
I badly want to tell him that there were good white people. I want to reassure him, to make him feel better. I want him to learn about James Reeb in the same moments that he is learning about John Lewis, but that’s not the truth. “Not all white people” isn’t what he needs to know.
So we talk about the violent history of whiteness. Briefly, he says, “but not in Canada” and I explain that Canada, too, has systemic racism. This talk is not easy. He does not want this to be true. But it is true, and he needs to know. Eventually, he goes back to his presentation. “What is Ferguson?”
I explain. He feels like Ferguson is long in the past; after all, seven years is over half his lifetime. Isn’t it better now? I remind him of George Floyd’s murder. “Right,” he says, “right.”
This child, this white boy of mine, will need to be part of the solution as our society changes. He needs to know about history – and not just what shows up in his textbooks.
Later, he’s working on a different slideshow, this time about Canadian politician Lincoln Alexander. He asks me to check his work, and I see that he’s written that Alexander “had to work very hard to excel, even harder the I would have to work because of the color of my skin.”
Yes, my love. Exactly. The struggle is with the colour of our skin, not with his.