I’ve been staring at photos of Jemel Roberson for almost two weeks now. Every violent death of innocent people—there have been so many lately—is a tragedy. Every time the police in the US kill a black person for no conceivable reason, other than prejudice and disregard for their lives, it’s an outrage.
But there is something about Roberson that has me by the throat. It grabbed me even before I saw the pictures of him with his nine-month-old baby. It’s the context. He saved people from a mass shooting, yet another one. He did what all those who oppose sensible gun regulations keep saying some good guy with a gun must do. And then they shot him dead.
And I watch black men and women speak about it—calmly, with dignity, with tightly controlled emotions. I don’t think I could talk about it in person without getting upset. Writing has always been easier for me that way.
But of course, I’m not black. I haven’t been forcibly taught to control my emotions or hide outrage to such an extreme. I respect that dignified control. I try to emulate it without much success. Today it makes me think of an incident that happened at my house, which was a lesson on self-control, manners and forgiveness.
My daughter bursts in the front door, breathless and wide-eyed. “They called her “black face!’” she gasps.
My husband just drove up with my daughter and her Nigerian friend from the city, age 8, in the car.
“Who?” I spin around. Our little town is very, very white, something my slightly brown children are all too aware of.
Still gasping out each word, my daughter points out to the road. She says both my son and a boy visiting us from across town ran up to my daughter’s friend when she got out of the car and started taunting her, calling her “black face” and a the local term for “African,” which isn’t supposed to be derogatory but lots of things depend on tone.
I run out the door and find the little girl on the front porch alone. I bring her inside and ask for her take on the story. She is mostly silent, answering with shrugs, nods and shakes of the head with her lips pressed together.
“Is it okay to call you that?” I asked.
“Do kids at school call you that?” I know she goes to school in a mostly white area as well.
“Do you like it when they do?”
The girl is only eight and we’re on the leading edge of Eastern Europe. We don’t exactly get consciousness raising here, so I can’t assume much. I explain that it isn’t okay for people to call her things she doesn’t like or to make fun of how she looks. As I explain, she slowly relaxes. This is only the second time she’s been away from home over night with white people and she barely got out of the car when this happened.
Justice will wait a moment in favor of therapy. I spend a good long time reassuring her that this is not okay and I won’t let anyone say those things in my house, no matter what. I reassure her that she is beautiful—and she is objectively stunning for an eight-year-old as it so happens. She nods but looks unconvinced.
I do get confirmation that it was my son as well as his friend calling names and I try not to show that this not only deeply embarrasses me but fills me with rage. She doesn’t need my emotions. but my kids are adopted from a racially marginalized group here in Eastern Europe and they have been called “black face” themselves, although they are many shades lighter than the Nigerian girl.
That my son would participate in this… There are no words.
I give her my own apology and send both girls upstairs to play and go out to slay demons.
When I corner the boys outside, they are initially unrepentant—silly, stumbling and giggling. This almost, but not quite, breaks my cool. I want nothing more than to rip them to shreds.
I ask for their side of the story. They attempt to say they were just playing, just kidding, but admit to using the words. The visiting boy admits fairly easily. He isn’t entirely sure these are bad words. My son knows better and it takes longer to get the truth out of him.
I need to cool off to keep from doing something illegal, so I put my son behind one door and the other boy alone on the porch for a time-out. After awhile, my son is more open to talking and he tells all.
The other little boy is frightened and crying. I know that his father just left definitively a couple of weeks ago and that his mother cleans houses. I note with quiet irony that the Nigerian girl’s mother cleans for a living too.
When children do really bad or dangerous things, things parents want to stop in their tracks, there is a conundrum. It isn’t garden-variety naughtiness and with rambunctious kids like mine, they have already seen every acceptable disciplinary strategy in more than a dozen parenting books. Giving them regular discipline (time-out, apologize, revoke video game privileges) seems woefully inadequate and I want to make this eminently memorable.
I talk to my son alone, keeping my fury in check.
“Why did you call her that?”
“It was funny.”
“Has anyone ever called you that?”
Negative head shake.
“Well, actually I happen to know that they did when you were in kindergarten. Lots. It was a big problem. That one teacher…”
I had to bite my tongue. Unlike the kids and some parents, the teacher had not called him “black” or “gypsy” but she had said “those people have trouble in school” and “it’s about the genes, you know.” In the spring she had insisted that he had a contagious skin disease and would be banned from kindergarten for the several weeks it would take to be completely screened by dermatologists. Fortunately, the pediatrician stood up to her. It was ant bites. But all Marik knew was that he had to go to the doctor and the teacher was upset and the doctor said it was silly. As a mother you protect six-year-olds from some of the world’s worst truths, but kids and parents had said those things to him.
“Do you like it when people call you something like that?” I pressed.
Sigh. “Do you think you can give her a really really good apology?”
I am far from satisfied, but I go out to talk to the other boy. He’s wiping his tears on his sleeve. This is even harder, though less personally humiliating, since he isn’t my son.
“Have you ever seen an African person before?” We essentially don’t have any local people of African origin here, so this is more or less how I phrase it.
Much as I thought. “Why did you call her those words and laugh at her?”
Shrug. “I don’t know.”
“Have you heard other people use those words about African people or other people with brown skin?”
“I understand that you heard older kids and grownups use those words. That still doesn’t mean they are okay. It is not okay to call people names and I will never allow those kinds of words at my house. Even outside my house, if you use them, you won’t be welcome at my house. Do you understand me?”
“Do you think you can say you’re sorry in a really nice way?”
“She’s black. It’s true.”
I’m momentarily at a loss for words. He’s only seven. I didn’t expect much resistance, though I didn’t have any great hopes of making a lasting impression on him either.
I again have to leave in order to avoid coming down like a ton of bricks on someone else’s kid.
I leave the boys in separate confinement for awhile yet. Then I bring them both out to the porch. I tell them that they need to apologize extremely well or my son’s friend will have to go home immediately. I know his single mother is looking forward to a day of rest with him here, but that’s just tough. He will go home if he is recalcitrant on this one.
Before I’m finished the two have started giggling again but I reiterate the consequences and they start to get serious, when they realize I mean it. I have my phone out, ready to make the call.
They start crying and we discuss more. My son’s friend unexpectedly states that kids at school do call my son those names. My son argues that it is mostly only one kid. Obviously he wasn’t telling the full truth before. I discuss with them the ridiculous nature of calling someone with slightly tan skin “black” and point out that the Nigerian girl is also not technically black in color, but more like dark brown. I reiterate that these differences don’t matter and it it is not okay to laugh at someone’s appearance anyway.
Slowly they both appear a bit more genuinely contrite. Finally, I leave them to plan their profuse apology and go upstairs to see the girls again.
I ask the Nigerian girl if she would come down, when she isn’t busy. Overly polite child that she is, she jumps up immediately to go downstairs. I ask her if she would be willing to listen to the boys’ apology. She agrees.
We join the boys outside, and I reiterate for everyone that it isn’t okay to call people names or laugh at anyone’s appearance or background. The boys actually do a pretty good job of apologizing and I almost ask, “Do you forgive them?” But I bite my tongue again.
She’s standing there with her head high, looking down on them from the top step of the porch, while they stand on the grass in the deepening dusk. I think on the fact that white people have probably never apologized to her for racism before. It will be a rarity in her future as well, if she ever gets another such apology, and the racism isn’t going to stop.
The handling of this moment is as crucial as any other step I’ve taken in resolving this deceptively childish conflict.
“You don’t have to forgive them,” I tell her. “They can handle it themselves. But you can forgive them if it makes you feel any better.”
She takes a moment more to look down on them and then says with the most impeccable manners I could wish my kids had, “I forgive you. Thank you for your apology.”
Then she turns and goes back to playing upstairs.
I let the boys come in the house and mostly things continue well, except that I discover that it is the Nigerian girl’s birthday. They don’t do birthday parties in her family, so no one mentioned it when we invited her. I decide this is a perfect opportunity to make the rest of the day all about her.
The boys have to work off a bit of their naughtiness by cleaning the floor. I whip together the world’s fastest chocolate cake and make the boys wrap a gift. The birthday girl is wide-eyed and stunned when she comes downstairs again to our impromptu decorations and party. She says she’s seen birthday parties on TV and she does everything just like in the movies, closing her eyes and putting on a dramatic show of making a wish and blowing out the candles.
In the middle of eating the cake, the seven-year-old who had never seen a black person up close before blurts, “At least you don’t have to worry about getting chocolate on your face, since…”:
I growl his name and fix him with a death-glare across the table. He gulps and wisely shuts up.
She doesn’t appear to notice.
By the time I tuck all four kids into bed, I am aching and exhausted. I feel like I have been literally fighting a war. I don’t know if I’ve won anything this day and I am sure that tomorrow and every single day we’ll still be fighting it.
How does this relate to the case of Jemel Roberson exactly? Well, it isn’t just that case of course. But I would say to all the black people who hurt inside or out because of this lethal and crushing racism we are living with, “Thank you for your calm and your manners and your endless attempts to live in peace with us. You do not have to forgive white people, even when we apologize. We can live with not being forgiven. What we need is to learn and remember and do better in the future.”