One’s never too young to get woke about race

Jan 20, 2017

cepeda_photo-by-heather-westonRaquel Cepeda is a podcaster, filmmaker and author of Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina, currently writing her next book, East of Broadway, and lives in her native New York City with her husband, filmmaker Sacha Jenkins, and their two children. Follow her @raquelcepeda on Twitter.

Because talking to our children about race is inherently experiential, I’ll begin this conversation by locating myself in the mix.

I am a Dominiyorker, that is, a New Yorker born of Dominican parentage, and came of age in the 1980s. It was a time many people today, both in the gentrifying and gentrified classes, characterize as the “bad old days,” while also longing for its edginess to return.

It was at this time, despite negotiating a rather violent life at home with my father and Scandinavian stepmother, I found kinship in the crack-laden streets of my vibrant Inwood/Washington Heights ‘hood. Hip-hop culture was my generation’s lingua franca, a cultural movement that gained momentum as a counterpunch to the Reagan administration.

New York City in the 1980s was also, for many, a racially polarizing decade marked by more violence than I can list here. Take, for example, the 1984 shooting of four Black teens by Bernhard Goetz, a bookish white guy who was initially bigged up by the adults in our community, or the band of imps in red berets playing cops-and-robbers on the subway known as “The Guardian Angels.” Or take the infamous case of The Central Park Five: a group of Black and Latino teenagers who were railroaded into confessing to a crime – the rape of a white jogger – they didn’t commit. The summer of 1989 was capped with the murder of Yusuf Hawkins, shot by a mob of white teenagers in Brooklyn for the crime of being Black and venturing into Bensonhurst.

While the aforementioned incidents were reported because of their magnitude, much of the violence that was being exacted on the bodies of young Black and Latinx people was part of the zeitgeist of the time. Rampant police brutality before cell-phones and social media scrutiny, an unforgiving one-sided war-on-drugs, the physical and emotional violence against the LGBTQ community, against girls and women— all of this marked my coming-of-age.

At home, we never had a single productive conversation about race, about how to behave around the police, about housing discrimination, the criminal justice system, about history or politics, about why people felt so disenfranchised. When I became pregnant with my own daughter, now 20, and later, my son, now 4, I resolved to adopt an entirely different approach to how I would communicate with my children about the world around them. One’s never too young to get woke.

My husband Sacha, whose late father was Black and whose mother is Haitian, benefitted from the frequent conversations about race he had with his mother when growing up in Astoria, Queens during the 1980s. Those conversations kept him aware of his surroundings and served as a roadmap, teaching him to navigate safely through the Greek and Italian neighborhoods on his way home.

Although I’ve lived long enough to see race relations improve in our country, I’m probably less hopeful about arriving at a post-racial utopia than most, and that’s okay. As long as we’re having conversations, albeit too many in the Black-and-white binary, and working through our triggers, guilt, and resentment with the same goal of progress in mind, that’s what matters. Facing  the revival of a dormant strain of xenophobia and racism that seems to be spreading like a nasty STD across America is scary, but we can use this unfortunate environment as an opportunity to have conversations about race and tolerance with our children. If we are to survive, we are going to have to get real.

I began having conversations about race and privilege early and regularly with both my children. I taught my daughter Djali that although we have a multitude of issues to contend with as New World people still reeling from the vestiges of colonialism in the Americas, we must acknowledge our citizen privilege.

The subject came up again several months ago when, on the day after the presidential election, Djali was peacefully protesting Trump’s divisive platform. A white man walked up to her, raised his arm, and yelled “Heil Hitler!” before spitting on her. Despite continued cries of “go back home,” or “go build a wall and jump over it,” coming from different groups of white men, she kept marching. Her home is New York City. She was, like her parents, born here. While I sat with her in our kitchen discussing what happened, she said, “I can’t imagine what people who are undocumented must go through.”

She also told me that the most profound moment she experienced that night wasn’t one of the acts of hatred that, as a mother, left me shaken, but an act of kindness from an elderly white woman. After noticing something was wrong, she gave my daughter, in my absence, a hug and word of encouragement. My daughter received the woman’s literal embrace because when talking about race, even the repugnant parts of our history, we never framed the conversation as one group being inherently evil and the other good. Through examples all around us, we have learned that painting groups of people by numbers only serves to propagate stereotypes and reduce human beings to things we cram into checkboxes. It’s lazy.

I was thankful that my daughter made it home safely that night. Weeks later, my husband and I had a conversation about being thankful with our 4-year-old son, Marceau who was learning the familiar and heavily-edited tale of altruistic Pilgrims and primitive “Indians.” We explained that while it’s always positive to be thankful for our families, friends, and the special prizes Marceau won for behaving at home and school, the actual holiday itself was a farce. We took the opportunity that evening to talk over a dinner (sans turkey) about how Indigenous-Americans have, with the blessings of their ancestors, continued to have a symbiotic relationship with nature. Marceau asked me why he was learning one thing in school and another at home. I encouraged him to ask questions about anything that sounded wrong or confusing and to think with his heart.

Talking to our son about how to behave in front of policemen, the conversation will have to shift from one of self-determination and resistance to one of negotiation. When we started talking to our daughter in third or fourth grade, we discussed that while the uniform doesn’t make policemen inherently evil, the fact is that many are poorly trained and often work in areas with communities wholly different from their own, which leaves them ill-prepared to serve.

As long as innocent people continue to be murdered by policemen, teenagers are tackled at pool parties, and students are body-slammed at school, the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they are paid to protect and serve will remain fractured. Until then, the initial conversations with our son will be the same as they’ve been, I’m afraid, for generations: keep your hands up, say “sir” and “ma’m,” don’t resist or talk back, and remember the goal is always, always, to make it back home to us.