I should have known things were about to go downhill when I read the e-mail.
“I saw you on CNN. So, you want to see white kids killed? You should be locked up!”
What? Although I was confident they were safe upstairs, I quickly texted my own white daughters to make sure they were alright, seeing as how this total stranger was confident I had called for the death of such persons as they, and on national television no less.
They replied immediately. Not harmed. Good to know.
Soon there were more, all with similar takes on my CNN interview from the previous day, where I had been asked about when and how white parents should discuss racism with our kids — a question prompted by the uprising in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. It was asked in the context of what the white “talk” should be, parallel with the one black parents have to have with their kids about how to deal with police so as not to end up injured or worse.
My reply had been similar to what I say every time I’m asked this question. Basically, that we must discuss these things with our children — sadly, most white parents don’t — and that we can’t be deterred from this in the name of “protecting the innocence” of their childhoods. My exact quote was as follows:
“…if black children in this country are not allowed innocence and a childhood without fear of being killed by police or marginalized in some other way, then our children don’t deserve innocence. If Tamir Rice can be shot dead in a public park playing with a toy gun, something white children do all over this country every day without the same fear of being shot, then white children need to be told at least at the same age. If they can’t be innocent, we don’t get to be innocent.”
One would think it obvious what I am saying here and what I am not. If 12-year old black kids must be informed about how so many people, including many police officers, view them — because not knowing can get them killed — the least we can do is make sure our white kids are aware of these things. So too, one would think it obvious that when I use the term “innocence,” I do not mean it in the sense of criminal guilt or innocence, but in the sense of uncomplicated naiveté. I am saying that if some kids don’t get to be carefree in this regard, none should.
But given the hateful e-mails that began to pour in, it became apparent that plain English is too complicated for some. Reading may be fundamental, as the saying goes. But apparently, this is the one area in which conservatives are not fundamentalists.
So rather than a call for white parents to raise the awareness of their children to social injustice, some took my words to mean that I believed white children should no longer be seen as innocent, thus seen as guilty of something by police, and then killed by cops the way Tamir Rice was. Of course, because that makes all kinds of sense.
It turns out, Tucker Carlson had run a clip of my comments on his show, and Paul Joseph Watson — Alex Jones’s conspiracy-minded counterpart in England — had tweeted out the same, which is why I was getting such pushback. And although neither of these suggested I had advocated the physical death of white kids, the cultists who follow both of them managed to twist my words in absurd ways, which is why we can’t have nice things in this country.
Worse than the e-mails were the phone calls, made possible because Nazis had leaked my number two years ago, leading to dozens of death threats at the time, and law enforcement visits for several of the folks who issued them.
One guy called every few minutes to accuse me of being a pedophile. He also wanted to let me know that I was going to get cancer — liver cancer in particular. And if the cancer took too long, he promised he and others would kill me as a backup plan. He called me a coward several times, which was precious coming from him since he took pains to mask his number with *67 before calling. Well, except for that last time, when he forgot to do so. Now I have his number, his name, and his address in Monmouth, New Jersey. So if you happen to read this, tough guy (doubtful, see: reading), I’d recommend getting back to Pornhub and removing my name from your mouth.
But even the less unhinged spin put on the segment by Carlson and Watson speaks to a common dishonesty on the right where race issues are concerned. According to both, I want to make white children feel guilty about the color of their skin, by telling them about issues like disproportionate police violence against blacks, or other inequities in the justice system.
This is their default position whenever we speak of racism — the notion that doing so is about instilling guilt. And all because they confuse the quite distinct concepts of guilt and responsibility.
I am well aware that white children, and even most of their parents are not directly to blame for the systemic racism that plagues the nation. Those children and their families inherited that problem, as did I, and as did my own kids. But when you inherit a legacy, you have to be responsible for it, whether good or bad. This is true not only regarding racism but elsewhere too.
We often take responsibility for problems we didn’t personally create. For instance, we clean up the effects of past pollution, even though we personally didn’t dump poison into the water or belch it into the air with our own industrial smokestack. And why? Because taking responsibility for doing so is good for the nation and the world. There’s no guilt implied.
Of course, we have no problem taking advantage of the good things we inherit — whether property from a deceased love one or the wealth of the nation itself, from which we all benefit (albeit unequally). We only blanch at taking responsibility for the accumulated deficits on the other side of the ledger, of which racial inequality is one. But to take advantage of the assets without paying the debts is morally irresponsible.
Telling white kids about racism, whether in policing or elsewhere, is not about making them feel bad. It’s about getting them to consider how we can do better as a nation. It’s about trusting that even as kids, they might have good ideas worth considering when it comes to moving the country forward. It’s about trusting the insight of young people, and also their humanity. It’s about believing that young people have an innate sense of fairness, until and unless we wring it out of them. It’s only as they get older that they begin to internalize the rationalizations for inequality of which adults are so fond — adults like their parents and grandparents.
And perhaps this is why some parents were bothered enough to attack me — because I had pointed out their failings as Americans (to help make the country what it claims to be) and as parents, to teach their kids the truth.
By pointing out their inadequacies, we who insist white children should know what their black and brown counterparts experience have blown their cover. And they can’t handle it. Because deep down, they know that if their children understood the truth, they would be more likely to gravitate towards justice. They know that the earlier white folks wake up to the reality of racism in America, the more likely they’ll be to rebel against it.
Which is why they prefer to keep lying.
And why the rest of us must keep yelling.
They are so embedded in the carefully cultivated amnesia that is whiteness’s hallmark, that any light shone upon the parts it has tried to hide results in fits of apoplexy. To be told that their children should know what they, the parents, have ignored, is to threaten their authority. They believe their children are their property, to be treated as they see fit, to be taught as they see fit, and to be protected from what the larger society needs them to know.
But they are wrong. Children do not belong to us. They must make up their own minds. But they can never do this without full information. Our right to teach our children as we desire is not an exclusive one. To the extent those children will one day come out into the world and have to function in the larger society, that society has a right and obligation to insist they be exposed to some other things, whether or not their parents like it.
The old America, which these white parents represent, is on its death bed, gasping for air. It is time — past time really — to find a pillow and put it out of its misery.
Settle down white folks, and especially you, John from Jersey. It’s a metaphor.
’m an antiracism educator/author. Forthcoming: Dispatches from the Race War (City Lights, December 2020). I post audio at patreon.com/speakoutwithtimwise
Previously Published on Medium