After George Zimmerman walked free, we finally showed our 10-year-old the Jackie Robinson biopic, 42. He had trouble sleeping. So did we.
We’re white. He’s African-American. In the past, when we’ve tried talking with him about what’s wrong with the N-word—a word so coolly slung in his favorite songs—he’s told us that “no one cares” about that race stuff any more. He can think that because he’s grown up in a Cambridge, Mass., bubble, where his family—two white women raising one brown boy—is boringly ordinary. He knows plenty of other brown and black kids—on our block, in his school, on his sports teams—with at least one white parent, whether by birth, remarriage, or adoption; often enough the parents are two women or two men. In his daily life, “all that race stuff” can easily seem like ancient history.
But he’s stopped saying that since he watched 42, and heard the N-word used in its native habitat, flecked with the spittle of hate and contempt. It was painful. But it gave us the opening we needed to talk seriously about race, including the gut-wrenching Zimmerman verdict. He hadn’t known about the trial—Whitey Bulger, Aaron Hernandez, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev have dominated the crime news up here in Boston recently—but we had to find a way to tell him. Because although he doesn’t know it yet, it was a trial about him.
So we put on the movie. Had I watched 42 before my little Bruins-loving man came into my life, I would’ve found it cheesy. I would’ve rolled my eyes at Robinson’s ideal and admiring bride; I would’ve yeah-yeah-yeahed as, one by one, his teammates stepped up to fight others’ prejudices. And I would’ve had no patience with the simplistic depiction of racism as meaningless ignorance easily overcome by real contact with black people, rather than as the structurally entrenched enforcement of a damaging caste system in which some humans profited from other humans’ debasement.
But with my boy sitting next to me, visibly miserable to learn what Jackie Robinson faced, and knowing that Trayvon Martin had been shot and killed in the same town—Sanford, Fla.—where the movie showed Robinson threatened by the Klan, 42 left me in tears. Our son told us that he didn’t like the movie, and asked if we could turn it off. But we can’t in good conscience launch him unprepared into a world where there are still George Zimmermans walking free. He needs to understand this sickening history, both the unreasoning white hatred and the white allies who stand up to it. The past isn’t over, as Faulkner wrote. It isn’t even the past. We watched it all the way through.
Afterward, our sweet-headed boy—a child who’s terrified of spiders and loves fart jokes—was especially upset by the fact that Robinson had gotten hate mail from strangers, that his life was threatened for playing baseball with white men. He kept asking us: Who wrote those letters? Did the police catch them and put them in jail? Why not? We’ve worked hard to undo his outsize fear of “bad guys” and burglars, to teach him that most people are good, to understand that the police and the law are there to protect us. So it was painful to say: Some of those letters were probably written by cops.
When he wanted to know why the jury let Zimmerman off, we didn’t have the words to explain reasonable doubt to a 10-year-old. He wouldn’t understand phrases like poor prosecution, indifferent investigation, or “stand your ground.” We couldn’t articulate the probability that by refusing to consider race, the mostly white jury was probably influenced by parts of their brains they don’t know are there, or to explain that hidden biases could have influenced both Zimmerman and the jury to perceive a young black man in a hoodie as a potential menace, whereas a young white man, similarly reedy and with a hood up to keep out the rain, might get the benefit of the doubt. How do you explain that sometimes these attitudes grow not out of overt hatred but because of the more subtle biases, nearly undetectable except by social scientists and neurologists, lodged in American neurons so deeply that most of us don’t even know that they’re there?
When he asked whether black people “do most crimes”—no, it breaks down more by poverty than by race, but African-Americans are convicted at a higher rate and sentenced more harshly—it broke our hearts. Where would he get such an idea? From the ether. From TV, movies, and video games. The subtler biases about race are poisons in the cultural water, even in the People’s Republic of Cambridge. When he angrily asked why President Obama didn’t just pass a law stopping things like what happened to Trayvon Martin, we did not have the heart to tell him that President Obama gets threatening hate letters, just as Jackie Robinson did.
Watching him suffer through the movie, and struggle afterwards to talk about the pain it caused him—no parent intentionally puts their child through this kind of misery. But at age 10, our boy is already more than 5 feet tall. His feet are a men’s size 10. He’s a full head taller than the other kids in his grade, and as sturdy as a linebacker. I have no doubt whatsoever that my little man is, at best, two years away from the day when some people start locking their car doors as he walks alone down the street, or from the moment when police will more quickly see him as a suspect than a victim—yes, even here in Cambridge. I feel sick about it, but my little man walks around in a skin that will attract fear and unreasoning contempt, and since we will not always be there to protect him, we have to prepare him.
He was upset when I mentioned that when my white uncle and African-American aunt first married in 1958—the same year Mildred Jeter married Richard Loving—their marriage was illegal in more than 20 states. So I told him that one of the things I love most about our country is that, again and again, we’ve realized that we were mistreating particular groups of people and have then worked hard to make it better. African-Americans, women, immigrants, Jews, now lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people, and soon, I hope, Muslims: My most passionate patriotism springs from that imperfect but steady effort to transform our social climate from hatred to welcome.
Still there’s something horrifyingly vulnerable about being unable to protect my child from a kind of hatred that I have never faced—and that he doesn’t yet really grasp is out there. As close as we may be to our African-American and biracial friends and family, my wife and I haven’t been followed around stores or had strange children curiously touch our hair. We may exchange exasperated glances with other black kids’ parents (of whatever races) when coaches mix up the names of the African-American kids on the team, but it’s not happening to us. And while we may work hard to ensure that he has black adults in his life, and black men close enough to lean on, it’s scary to know that he has to walk into this without a parent who can intimately identify.
When he asked, we told him that, yes, dangerous and threatening words had been flung at us—dyke, homo, goddamn lezzie, phrases that came out so fast I could feel again how deeply they’re seared into us. We explained how we had felt and responded when such words were said, and how long it had been since we’d heard them. He might be alone, in our family, in facing race prejudice, which will become so much keener and more dangerous in just two or three years. But I felt, for a moment, that we were able at least to give him a model of facing down mistrust and even hatred without letting it sink you.
He didn’t want to sleep alone that night, so we let him camp out on our bedroom floor. As he got ready for bed, my little guy started a chant of “USA! USA! Except 20 states!” No, I corrected him. “All the states are OK now. They fixed their laws. Black and white can be married anywhere in the country.” I knew I was telling a little (if you’ll excuse the phrase) white lie: Voter ID laws and the disenfranchisement of felons disproportionately affect black people; mini-DOMA laws ban recognition of his moms’ marriage in half the American states. But there are limits to what you can load onto a 10-year-old in a single day.