I can’t change our genders or sexual orientations. I can’t change our skin colors. But I can change my children’s perceptions, give them gratitude for their privilege and anger for injustice, and teach them to use those feelings as tools.
I am a straight, white parent.
I sit in my position of privilege and peer out into the world my school-age daughters will enter. Their skin color affords them—and will continue to afford them—easy access to education, transportation every place on the planet, constructive attention from teachers and authority figures, and ease of movement through stores, restaurants, and other places of business.
Though they’re still young, they’ve both expressed gender identities that correspond to the body they were born into and interest in the opposite sex as romantic partners—a guarantee of marriage rights, right of entry into the bathroom in which they’ll feel the most comfortable, and visitation in the hospitals where their someday spouses may lie dying.
And yet, I just can’t sit in that comfort.
We are living in a state surrounded by inequality on both sides. To our east, Indiana has passed religious freedom laws that shut doors in the faces of the gay population. To our west, Missouri mocks racial equality all the way into the grave of Michael Brown. In the middle, where we sit on the outskirts of Chicago, I ponder how to raise sensitive, justice-minded children when they’ll seldom feel these injustices firsthand.
To our east, Indiana has issued an open invitation to exclusion based on religious preference that makes my heart sink whenever I hear it explained.
According to an article in The Atlantic:
“Of all the state ‘religious freedom’ laws…this new statute hints most strongly that it is there to be used as a means of excluding gays and same-sex couples from accessing employment, housing, and public accommodations on the same terms as other people. True, there is no actual language that says, ‘All businesses wishing to discriminate in employment, housing, and public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation, please check this “religious objection” box.’ But, as Henry David Thoreau once wrote, ‘Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.’”
I talk and talk and talk: You know your friend Laura and her moms? They couldn’t shop here. I remind them of the stories of Martin Luther King Jr. so pounded and pounded and pounded in their heads, the stories of lunch counters and marches and bus seats. And they’re doing it again, girls, they’re doing it to LGBTQ people now. What should we do about it?
They answer like robots: Fight!
I ask how?
They don’t know. I can remind them about the snacks we brought from home when they clamor for hot French fries, I can talk about standing up for the people in their midst. I can read articles aloud and bring it up at the dinner table. I can talk about why we joined a welcoming place of worship and point out how all the couples on their TV shows are straight. After that, I can keep talking.
To the west, the issues are muddier and rubbed deep into the fabric of our clothing. My daughters are the racial minority in their schools, yet their privilege is such that their white skin gathers tightly in positions of power even at tender ages—the student councils, costly extracurricular activities, community theatre. The school lunchroom looks deliberately segregated, with tables mostly full of white kids with homemade meals, and the lines for hot lunch—subsidized for more than 60% of the school—mostly full of African-American and Hispanic students.
They share a stage at the school Brotherhood Assembly with their classmates and sing “We shall overcome,” and I think, shall you? The world they inhabit in our diverse community is mostly siloed by skin color after early elementary school, and I don’t know a single parent who encourages that. I don’t encourage that. Do I encourage that?
I talk and talk and talk. The kids in school who get in more trouble are mostly African-American. Do you think that’s fair? I ask. I remind them that an unknown black kid who walks into the gas station between the middle school and the elementary school to buy a bag of chips will likely be watched more closely than an unknown white kid doing the same. Do you think that’s fair? I mention friends by name, friends who’ve made it through the stereotypes to good grades, and tell my 12-year-old he’ll have to fight twice as hard as you for the same job when you’re adults. Do you think that’s fair? I can talk about why we live where we do, why neighborhoods look how they look, why people are angry, why people fight and kill. After that, I can keep talking.
I can’t change our genders or sexual orientations. I can’t change our skin colors. I can change my children’s perceptions, give them gratitude for their privilege and anger for injustice, and teach them to use those feelings as tools.
I can choose not to move them to a totally racially segregated community or tell them that racism is something that was overcome when schools were integrated or when we elected a black president.
I can choose not to assume that they’ll grow up to marry men or that their spouses’ families will be dominated by heterosexual couples or that our genders always match our genitalia.
I can choose to tell them what Elie Wiesel said: “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”
And, too, what Benjamin Franklin said long before that: “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”
I’m a straight, white parent, and I choose this: I can raise allies. And I will.
Debi Lewis is a mother of two daughters and blogs at www.swallowmysunshine.com. Her short fiction has been published in Eureka Literary Magazine, The 21st Century Times, and The Dangling Participle.