- 1. I promised not to say anything.
My kid made me promise I wouldn’t contact parents or teachers about the fact that other kids freely use the n-word several times per day, in front of my child, who is black. Why would I promise such a thing?
- 2. It would be mishandled.
The adults in charge have a proven track record of mishandling racially sensitive situations at school, leaving my child more uncomfortable and making us wish we hadn’t brought it up in the first place.
- 3. A dangerously large number of parents are racially illiterate.
My direct experience with other parents tells me it’s not something they’re equipped to effectively handle without making things worse for my kid.
- 4. The shock and awe will cause us pain.
When people who care about us express surprise about racism, it’s maddening. Open access to widespread news, research, and personal narratives about racism make people’s continued surprise feel like willful ignorance.
- 5. Disappointment snuffs my fire. The lack of effective and appropriate reactions to such disclosures make the amount of antiracist work ahead of us feel insurmountable, leaving me feeling hopeless.
- 6. Sharing invites violations of boundaries. Well-intentioned friends will want to engage about this at times when I am emotionally unprepared or unwilling, like at the grocery store.
- 7. My kid’s relationships would suffer. Parents would directly confront their child about it in ways that don’t encourage honesty, and my kid would be left dealing with shame, embarrassment, and disrupted relationships.
- 8. The point would get lost. Parents would lose sight of the fact that tolerance of the word is almost as damaging as saying the word, so they would focus on whether or not their child was actually the one who said it, and minimize the importance of their child’s role as a bystander/enabler.
- 9. No one would take responsibility. Parents would struggle to own the fact that their child plays a role in perpetuating racism because he was not taught how to disrupt hate speech and oppressive behavior. They would be tempted to blame the school district, the teachers, the lunch aids, the President, or any factor other than a parental shortcoming.
- 10. Excuses are easier than empathy. Explanations related to context, intentions, or the frontal lobe would distract from focusing on the impact the n-word has on my child.
- 11. It wouldn’t be enough.
Friends would tell me they are devastated to learn about how, on weeks when the incidents are particularly rampant, my kid uncharacteristically fails a test or gets sick, or both. They’ve heard about how micro-aggressions negatively affect performance and health outcomes for people of color, and still nothing meaningful would be done.
- 12. Problematic perceptions would be revealed. Friends with racial privilege would try and share my anger, telling me, “If I were you, I would march right in there and raise hell about this!”… but they don’t, which tells me they perceive this as my problem, not our collective problem. Why are they not outraged that their own kid hears the n-word all day long at school, regardless of their race?
- 13. It’s hard to ask for help.
Few people would ask for guidance from me or trusted others on how to immediately begin empowering their kid to be an anti-racist instead of a perpetrator, enabler, or bystander. And yet, they would still expect that things will get better with each passing generation…
In my former life as a relationship researcher I spent a great deal of time listening to couples describe the root of their conflicts. When couples were probed about what typically started a fight, the wife would often say that her husband makes empty promises about things he’ll do and then pretends to forget. The husband, on the other hand, would blame her incessant nagging on his lack of motivation and the ensuing fights.
This difference in perspective is referred to in the interpersonal communication literature as punctuation, and it helps explain why two people in the same relationship view the start of their conflicts so differently. Not unlike the chicken and the egg scenario, it’s unclear which came first: the nagging or the noncompliance. Ultimately, it depends on who is punctuating the story.
The concept of punctuation can be a useful tool for understanding any number of human disputes, from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to atrocities like the Holocaust and the Rwandan Genocide. Examining how perpetrators explained the events leading to their despicable behavior doesn’t excuse it, but it helps us grasp the powerful drive provided by the self-serving punctuation of events. In his book Mass Hate, Neil Kressel summarizes this drive explaining,
“Virtually all perpetrators of great evil in the world — including Nazis, Serb rapists, Hutu extremist murderers, and those behind the Khmer Rouge atrocities — believed that they were victims of some long standing prior outrage that justified their militancy.”
Learning more about the role of punctuation gives some insight into why white folks often struggle to see issues from a racial justice lens. White people like me frequently find ourselves listening to discussions on topics like welfare, affirmative action, quota systems, and other programs meant to address racial inequity. In these discussions it’s not uncommon to hear comments from white peers about how members of another race just can’t get it together, don’t work hard enough, abuse what’s given to them, etc.
One philosophy I often hear goes like this:
“If you don’t want to get killed by the police, then just don’t _______ .”
You can fill in the blank with a variety of behaviors, such as “commit a crime,” “run,” “hang around with bad people,” or “sell drugs.” Folks who express these beliefs seem to be of the opinion that the murder of people of color by police simply wouldn’t occur if folks would just stay out of trouble in the first place. In actuality, this perspective is just a classic case of self-serving punctuation that comes from viewing the world through a racially privileged lens.