About Trying to Stop Controlling the Hard Conversations

Only after we'd snuggled into bed to read it did I realize the book we chose was about Jackie Robinson. We picked it out in a hurry because our four-year-old was unshelving books at a remarkable rate and I wanted to get out of the library before we were banned for life.

The book was called A Big Day for Baseball. The first couple of chapters were fine. But eventually the story detailed how black fans and white fans sat in different sections of a baseball stadium. Soon the black fans were cheering for an unnamed player on the field, while white fans were yelling, "Get him out of here! Go back where you came from!" The book presented, as a matter of fact, that there was a time in our nation's history—not all that long ago—when black people were barred access to things white people were able to do.

This was not a matter of fact to the six-year-old to whom I was reading—my son, who is African-American. Now, without warning, it was up to me to explain it to him.

"Do you know what it means when the book says 'black fans' and 'white fans'?" I asked. "Do you know what 'black' and 'white' means?" We've had these discussions before, of course, but we've never encountered the language in a book in just this way.

He nodded. "Does it mean black skin and white skin?" 

"Yeah. Do you know anybody with white skin?"

"You," he said. "And Mama."

"That's right," I said. "Do you know anybody with black skin?"

He thought a minute and listed a couple of his friends from school and church: "Isaiah kind of has black skin," he said. "And Max, a little."  

"What about you?" I asked. Inside I was asking, Am I doing this right?

"No," he said. "My skin is brown." 

"That's true," I said. "Some people might say your skin is black, too, like Isaiah's and Max's." 

He nodded. 

"Do you know why the black fans and the white fans had to sit in different places in the stadium?"

He shook his head.

"Because there was a time in America when people who had skin like yours weren't allowed to do things and go places that people with skin like mine were allowed to do." 

"Really!" His eyes widened in surprise. "Like what?"

"Like play on a major league baseball team. Or even watch a baseball game from the same seats as white people." I didn't know what I would say if he asked,Why not? So I waited. I asked him if he had any questions about what I just told him. He said no and twirled his hair around his finger. He twirls his hair when he's nervous.

In that moment I grieved the Otherness between us. What a terrible thing for a father to have to tell his son—that people who look like me have treated (and continue to treat—a topic for another day) people who look like you in unthinkable ways. 

That moment also reminded me what every parent learns at some point: that we don't always get to choose when we have tough conversations. The hardest topics come up out of nowhere, without warning, without preparation.

But there’s another layer to the hard conversations that I’m recognizing more and more these days. I realize now that it is a sign of my white privilege that I assume I get to choose when to talk about the hard topic of race relations. Not just with my kids, either, but always. If I'm honest, I assume I should be able to choose the timing and the tone and the terms of the conversation. This is a sign of privilege because, for me—as invested as I am in the conversation—there may be at any time something more pressing on my mind. I'll deal with this issue when I want (later), how I want (calmly and dispassionately), where I want (probably over coffee).

What gives me the right to decide that right now is the wrong time and loudly and passionately is the wrong tone and here on the street in front of God and everyone is the wrong place?

My privilege gives me that right. Being a parent doesn’t. Being a good neighbor doesn’t.

To all who deserve an apology, I am sorry that I take advantage of that privilege. Let's talk—whenever and however you like.