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My oldest son has always been overly sensitive, something I must breathe deep and remember when he comes home and tells me that no one likes him at his mostly white school because he’s black, or when he balls his fists with tears in his eyes and tries to act like he doesn’t care that a Catholic boy told everyone to raise a hand if they went to church, and when he didn’t, the boy told him that he didn’t love God. I never thought that at thirty I’d feel the (fleeting) desire to beat-up a nine-year-old so bad, but when my son told me that a white friend told him that the reason he can walk around so freely in his neighborhood is that they don’t have black people living near-by or any bad things like that, I was so glad that he waited until we’d put miles and a few days between us to tell me. I’m grateful that my nine-year-old sometimes reminds me how to be forgiving and understanding. About his friend he said, “At first it made me super mad! But then I was like…I don’t think he meant it in a mean way, he just doesn’t know, he was probably taught that.”
He feels the difference between himself and his classmates more acutely than I did at his age in the same school, and like him one of the only dark faces. In reality, he’s a great performer, athletic, out-going, he’s adored. Still, sometimes when he’s really feeling a perceived distance from his class of white peers, he asks about home school. I tell him the same quote my mom hit me with when I wanted to run away to another country and world. I tell him a story about his dad, who worked with an open racist when he was in his early twenties, who told him he’d learned from his father that black people were inherently stupid. Fortunately for this young man, my husband happened to be black and ridiculously intelligent. Also, he has a love for showing off. So it didn’t take him long to blow this guy’s mind, make him question what he’d been taught, apologize repeatedly, and become his friend.
My son lights up at this story. Like his father (and mother) he has a temper that, unchecked, would love to physically force racists of all ranks and ages into enlightenment. I used this story to calm him down recently when he saw some disgusting racist comments on the internet and went into a rage, growling that he hates white people sometimes, wants to use his MMA skills on them. I wanted to swallow him again. I wanted to agree with him, if it would make him feel less alone even for a second. I wanted to tell him he could no longer be friends with the boy who said his neighborhood was safe because of an absence of black people. But I had to remind him of what we know but forget in anger; that his grandmother is white, his great-grandparents and ancestors were white, even racist. That we’re all the descendants of a woman in Africa, that before that we all came from God anyway, and will all go back. I told him that as hard as it is to be different, the world is bigger than he knows at nine, and it won’t always be that he’s the only black kid or Baha’i in a room. And that it’s his job and also his privilege to prove the people who think they hate him wrong. If they think black people are stupid and violent and rude, the worst thing he can do is hate and hurt them back. The best thing he can do is demonstrate how loving and intelligent, how cool, calm and collected he is. He loved the logic of that. He was still breathing heavy, but he relaxed his fists, and had a slight smile when he walked away. A few minutes later I caught him reading a book in his room, something he doesn’t voluntarily do when there’s daylight left and balls to be thrown and flips to be done.
‘Abdua’l-Baha, son of the Baha’u’llah, said about our children, “Bring them up to work and strive, and accustom them to hardship.”
It can be a struggle to go against our instinct to make things easy and all-better. And it’s difficult to determine how much is enough, or too much. Should we tell them to be grateful for food because somewhere people are starving, or show them, or let them feel what it’s like? Stand back and shut up when we see them left out, shot down, setting up for heartbreak?
After my son walked away, I had to sit down for a minute, to take slow breaths. What I couldn’t foresee when he was a fetus was how they start to get away from you, and their pains, more and more, are beyond you, can’t be patched up with kisses or prevented with padding. How helpless you can feel standing as close as they allow, thinking, it will be okay, I’m right here, this is helping you.