When the world explodes around our children, we are told to protect them by telling them to be nice, do their homework, respect authority, remain kids and stay out of “trouble.” Keep them young. Keep them safe. Keep them home. Keep them quiet. Make them listen.
During the spring of 2015, when Baltimore protesters responded to the injustice of Freddie Gray’s death, images went viral of an African-American mother aggressively chastising her son for marching—and many viewers applauded. News cameras followed black teenagers into their living rooms, and many television audience members agreed that these young people were better off at home playing video games than taking part in demonstrations. Stay in. Keep silent. But many families of color understand what some of us white folks do not: Kids of color are often not safe, no matter where they are. For them, staying at home, staying in church, staying in the neighborhood, staying in school does not guarantee that violence will not follow.
On Monday, a 16-year-old girl was wrestled to the ground, choked, handcuffed and arrested by a school resource officer at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina, because she would not put away her cell phone. She was black; the school resource officer was white.
This June in Charleston, South Carolina, a 5-year-old girl was at church, surrounded by adults, praying on a summer evening when her world was rocked in a bloody slaughter. She survived only by playing dead. She was black; the perpetrator was white.
Also this June, a 15-year-old girl was threatened and thrown down by a police officer with her face smashed into the ground at a neighborhood pool party in McKinney, Texas. She was black; the police officer was white.
Today, I see message-board comments about the Spring Valley incident like these: “Just listen to the officer and this won’t happen.” “If our kids just learned respect for authority, they wouldn’t put an officer in this position.” “You poke the bull, you get the horns.” “Hard to feel sorry for her.”
What the commenters are really saying is that the Spring Valley student deserved it, that in fact the officer taught her some sort of "lesson” and that this is exactly the right way to handle any defiance of authority. In the face of imminent violence, we tell those most targeted to hunker down, stay quiet, listen to the boss. Do not cause trouble and you’ll be fine.
This simply does not work. It does not work for women who face abuse at home or harassment walking to their doors. It does not work for kids who become victims in their house of prayer or in their classrooms. It does not work for people of color frisked for simply walking down the street. It does not work because these victims and their actions are not the root problem. The system they live in is the problem. Telling them to stay home, keep covered and just listen is telling them not to question why they suffer, why they are targeted when others are not, why they experience oppression.
An incomplete understanding of oppression dominates our collective understanding in the United States. A prime example of this malformed idea is our functioning definition of racism. When we think about what racism looks like, our minds go to what racial justice leader and professor Reverend Bryan Massingale calls an incomplete “commonsense understanding.” We think that racism only looks like conscious, interpersonal blows (whether a slur or a shot) with an identifiable perpetrator who is the “bad guy.” We think racism is lynching, name-calling, lunch-table segregation and inappropriate Halloween costumes. We think that if all of us were just nice, if we were just respectful toward our neighbors and authority figures, then everything would be OK. We would live in harmony, we would be safe, and we would all do better in school.
What we miss in this definition of racism is that we can be friends or even family with someone who is racially different from us and still live in an unjust system where some get by and others get handcuffed or shot. A deeper understanding of racism reveals the unseen system that scaffolds unjust conditions affecting the most vulnerable: invisible, unearned privileges benefiting some and disadvantaging others. Unconscious biases about who belongs, who is dangerous, who deserves power, who deserves suspension and who is a criminal. Laws, customs and institutions have historically determined lasting access to school, work, housing, unions, aid and freedom. These unjust conditions cannot be changed simply by doing what authority figures say or by staying home or by being nice. These are conditions that require intentional drastic overhaul, including action and education of even our youngest and most vulnerable citizens.
It is this system that we all are part of, and it is this system that we are accountable to. We are all indicted.
So what now? Teach our kids to mouth off to the police or disrespect their teachers? Obviously not. But it is vital for young people to be taught to speak up—and supported when they do. On Monday, a student in the Spring Valley classroom where the assault took place was crying and protesting the officer’s treatment of her classmate. She was detained by the officer as well. We live in a nation that bemoans the lack of voting engagement by young citizens and worries about a disaffected, unengaged generation, and yet we punish kids for speaking up. So let’s give our kids the right tools, at home and in school.
March with them in a peaceful protest. Help them find age-appropriate resources about social justice issues. Join them in mourning for injustice and violence. Let them write a prayer or a vision for a better future in such instances. Show them examples of collaborative justice movements that have worked. Talk about why they succeeded. Introduce them to people in their communities who are politically and collectively active, on both sides of the political aisle. Volunteer with them for something they care about. Help them learn about the policies that affect their cause.
Whether it’s through youth activist organizations like the Radical Monarchs and SPARK Movement or after-school programs and class assignments incorporating activism, we want our kids to be aware and equipped. We cannot expect teenagers to automatically have the tools for productive, active civic engagement in the face of national injustice if they have not had practice from a young age, identifying what is wrong with the system and how they can address it. We need to understand a more comprehensive definition of racism if we’re going to keep our kids safe. And we need to offer them more than the false choice between “going along” or going to jail.
Czarnik-Neimeyer is the assistant director and chief of staff at St. Norbert College’s Cassandra Voss Center, which focuses on transformation through initiatives related to race, class, gender and identity.