“Wait, what are you talking about?” This is my 13-year-old son, Ben. “I thought you were talking about a long time ago.” I picture what he’s picturing: grainy black-and-white Brown v. Board of Education photographs of black school kids escorted through frowning alleys of white faces.
“No,” I say. “That’s what’s so crazy. This is what’s happening now. Literally today.” I am explaining to him about the first integrated prom in Wilcox County, Georgia. “But that’s illegal, right?” he wonders sensibly enough, and I have to describe the parents’ work-around of making the prom, technically, a private party. “That is really not the spirit of the law,” Ben says, and gets a kiss on the head he is shaking in disbelief.
The next day, along with his 10-year-old sister Birdy, we “like” the prom on Facebook and are treated to dozens of photographs of beautiful, beaming, radiant kids, everybody so sleek and newly hatched that you can hardly believe that, already, they’ve experienced so much of the ragged, crumpled world. And yet you know they have. “We’re so proud of you guys!” we write, and I have tears in my eyes. “Can you imagine,” I say to my husband Michael later, “being black and having to send your kids to school with the kids of the kind of people who would figure out a way to keep your kids out of their kids’ prom?” It’s an inelegant question, but he knows what I mean and says simply, “I can’t.”
By the end of the very next day, I’ll have told our children, also, about Jason Collins. My bubbling excitement about his coming out is actually flattened a little bit by the children’s appalledness. The children’s appropriate appalledness. “Wait, wait.” This is Ben again. “I don’t understand. There’s never been another male athlete who’s been openly gay?” I explain that we’re talking about team sports (e.g. not figure skating) but that, yes, that’s right. “But that’s crazy!” It is.
Part of their horror comes—how best to put this?—from the fact that we intentionally raised them to be horrified. We did not want the kids to learn bigotry as a fact of life, alongside the germination of a lima bean in a mayonnaise jar, the mixing of red and yellow to make orange, the cycle of egg, caterpillar, pupa, and stunned, emerging butterfly. I understand that it was a luxury, this waiting—waiting until the natural rightness of difference was so fully, deeply settled in the children’s hearts that the idea of prejudice would properly horrify them. And it was a luxury afforded us, paradoxically perhaps, by our very privilege: white privilege, straight privilege, able-bodied privilege, middle-class privilege, the privilege of living in a groovy, liberal town. We were not exposed to discrimination ourselves, not really, and so I did not have to explain it until I thought the kids were ready.
And I stand by this, even though I then bungled it so badly. When Ben was eight, I finally told him, on a wintery walk in the woods, about the significance of Martin Luther King Day. He took in the information with level gravity and sober, engaged questions about courage, about violence. Birdy, however, was four and not as fully distracted by the gathering and eating of giant fistfuls of snow as I had assumed. “We’re white, right?” she said suddenly. “Phew, Mama, right?” And I was stunned by the magnitude of my screwing this up. “No,” I said, panicking, my mind a blank of shame. “Yes,” I said. “But we’re Jewish, and that’s always been super-dangerous too.” That is really what I actually said.
Later, I tried to explain better: the idea, for instance, that none of us is free until all of us are, and so we are all in this together. This made sense to Birdy. (NB: Three is too little to understand that race is a cultural construction with no actual taxonomic significance. Trust me: I speak from experience.)
I will never wish for silence over truth, even if that truth expresses itself through a grotesque collage of my own awkwardness, ignorance, and mistakes. Well, maybe very occasionally I will wish for silence. At least that’s what I’m thinking right now. Because we’re still looking at the prom photos on Facebook—white kids in black tuxedos, black kids in white tuxedos, gorgeous girls in colorful dresses with smiles as dazzling as optimism itself—and I realize, finally, that the children understand what they’re seeing. I can stop talking now. And so, for once, I do.
Catherine Newman is the author of the award-winning memoir Waiting for Birdy, and writes regularly for many different magazines , including Family Fun, where she is a contributing editor, Real Simple, and the nonprofit kids’ cooking magazine, ChopChop. Read more at benandbirdy.blogspot.com.