By the time I was 8 years old, I was aware of the many dangers that could happen because I was a black girl living in a predominantly non-black neighborhood in northern California. Despite my parents’ best efforts to keep us safe and innocent, we still experienced racism, ignorance, bigotry and fear.
My first memory of such experiences happened when I was four years old. Upon returning from a family outing, we found our home burning down. Our family dog, all our worldly possessions, and our innocence burned in the fire. My parents quickly removed us from the scene but it was already too late. We heard the laughter of some neighbors and a group of men in a pickup truck. They yelled, “Go back to Africa niggers!”
It was obvious that our home was burned intentionally by someone in our unwelcoming neighborhood. My parents could no longer protect our innocence, they were forced to protect our lives instead.
We moved. We spent more time with families that looked like ours. The adults kept a watchful eye over us. We played, had birthday parties, and were mischievous at times like all children. When our parents would scold us for our wrongdoings, there was an edge in their voices and fear in their eyes. We didn’t exactly know why, but knew that the stakes were high. We mustn’t do anything wrong…or else.
As a parent I now fully understand what the “or else” means. I don’t have the luxury to allow my black children to maintain the innocence that is rightfully theirs. Sure, I could shelter them and try to keep them from knowing too many details of the tragedies that often face our people. The problem is, with that sheltering comes a lack of preparation.
If I don’t tell them that they may be treated differently, targeted, and even killed because of their skin color, how can I possibly explain the importance of carefully following my instructions if they are approached by police, a stranger, or an armed peer? Because of this, I shamefully admit taking part in this racially charged society everyday. I cannot control the thoughts and behavior of others and that terrifies me when thinking about the safety of my loved ones.
Even as a small child I wanted to understand the thinking of those people who burned our house down. I remember asking my daddy if they did that because they thought we were different. He wisely replied,
“No sweetie. They did it because they are too ignorant to understand that we are the same”.
Yes, I teach my children the harsh realities of our world. But I also teach them that they have the power to control how they choose to move through this flawed world. Today, I choose to walk with love and dignity. I choose to forgive those who have harmed me or my brothers and sisters. I choose to acknowledge our differences. But most importantly, I choose to recognize our sameness.