“The basic instinct that black women have had since slavery — to help our kids survive — differentiates us. We have to be practical. When we read things about how our kids should be happy, I think that most black moms give that side-eye shade. ‘Happy? I’m not concerned about how happy he is, he better act right.’” –Ylonda Gault Caviness
I posted on Facebook about how I had to check my own emotions when my twelve-year-old shrugged off Alton Sterling’s public execution.
If I hadn’t taken the time to sit with her response, I would have mistaken it for apathy – when in reality, it was fear.
I know that because, the following day, she and I, along with her father and ten-year-old sister, had a long conversation about feelings and fears amidst continued attacks on black people, by racist white police.
She told us that one of the reasons she tries “not to pay too much attention to how America hates black people” is because she processes her feelings through writing. And that if she writes something, and shares it online, then the police might come to our door, and then she would be responsible for putting her whole family in danger.
My daughter is the same age (12) that Tamir Rice was when he was gunned down by Ohio police. Emmett Till was only two years older (14) than Tamir when he was lynched in Mississippi.
Both those boys got to live a little longer than Aiyana Stanley-Jones, the seven-year-old black child who was murdered by a police officer while she slept. Her life was not of value to Michigan’s legal system, as her murderer is not behind bars.
Aiyana’s “crime” was merely her existence, and Tamir’s “crime” was play. He was playing – that same carefree, happy-go-lucky play that most adults feel all children deserve to experience.
Some of us also believe – backed by both personal observation and scientific research – that play is not just a right of childhood, but a vital part of a child’s ability to creatively approach, think critically about, and solve problems, as well as their ability to govern themselves, and to communicate effectively.
But how can black folks even fathom the notion of a carefree childhood for the children they love, when we watch state-sanctioned murders and wait with baited breath to see or hear whether the next victim is someone whose eyes we’ve looked into in person?
When Education Keeps Black Children From Being Carefree
My partner and I live this conundrum daily, primarily because we are the parents of black children.
Another layer to our reality is that we chose not to surrender our children to the anti-black, cultural hegemony pushing that we know as traditional public schooling. Politics, not people, determine what children are forced to prioritize in schools.
We believe that children deserve much more than that, and we speak often with other parents who feel exactly the same way.
When we recognized the shortcomings of school, we set out to find a feasible solution. Our years of research, critical thinking, and intuitive exploration led us to recognize self-directed education (aka unschooling) as one tool that can help children of color to practice liberated living with less influence from the rigidity and racism that is rampant in so many of America’s public and private schools.
We want our children to be confident and culturally aware; our intersectional feminist parenting beliefs call for that.
But the truth is that none of that will save our children from the tyranny of police brutality intertwined with ubiquitous racism. And so some of us, as a matter of survival and protection, feel that it is safer to keep our children in line.
Get that education…
Find a mentor who will help fix your blackness
Dress how white people want you to dress…
Land that good job at that white man’s company…
Look less like you came from Africans…
Code switch so folks don’t think you’re “ghetto”…
…fit your black ass into this American system in ways that just might make white racists see you as closer to human.
That is what many children of color are being groomed to do in schools, and many black and brown parents are embracing alternative learning because we are sick and tired of whitewashed curricula disguised as education.
Here’s What Needs to Change
Am I saying education is futile? No. But I am saying that in order for education to actually work, it needs to be learner-centered and not curriculum-focused. And certainly more culturally competent.
I am saying that we need to re-think what we call education (approved ideas by politicians), and create environments where young people can learn far more than any books we create could ever teach them.
I am saying that we have to do more than hope and pray; we have to do more than cry and wait.
There is more than one way to stop being dependent on the American system, and people of color have to spend more time trying to become independent – instead of trying to appeal to the conscience of those who don’t value black lives, let alone black voices.
We have to figure out how to make the places that claim to educate children accountable to their actual communities, not to the politicians who decide what is taught in schools.
Teachers are not empowered to guide and nurture children. Some teachers themselves have dared to risk expression by letting us know that their opinions are not centered in the conversations about children’s learning.
Children and teachers are not schools’ priorities, and this affects all children – but for black and brown children, that reality brings a special set of marginalization, fears, and realities to the forefront.
532 people (maybe more, now) have been killed by police in the first half of 2016 alone. Reportedly, many of those people had no weapons, suffered from mental illness, and were people of color.
No black man, woman, or gender non-conforming person is safe from the terrorism of police brutality and racist white people’s actions against us, let alone our most vulnerable citizens, our children.
It’s no wonder black people try to shake good sense into me when they find out that our children are neither in schools or homeschooled. Many of us are understandably fearful that if our children are in the wrong place, they will become one of the many people of color who die violently at the hands of white racists.
We have not been successful in protecting ourselves from racism, so it is plausible that we might not be able to protect our children either.
How Fear Shapes Our Lives
During slavery, and later during the Jim Crow era, black parents protected our children by keeping them out of sight. While white children played freely, sang out loud, and climbed trees, our people told our children to stay low, don’t speak unless spoken to.
We were like Cecil Gaines, Forest Whitaker’s character in the 2013 film, The Butler. Be seen when you can help white folks. Otherwise, stay in the fray where it’s safest.
That hasn’t left many of us, and I get why. How can anything be more important than our children’s safety and survival?
I remember going into banks and other places where we knew we’d be the minority, and being expected to perform poise so that we can be viewed as good black folks.
I know that this was specific to me, as a black child, because white children could sing out loud, or ask for something while their mama was talking, without an evil-eye non-verbal threat from their mamas. It was not safe for anyone if black children preferred not to hide.
Silencing their voices and their self-expression wasn’t meant to be a form of oppression; it was meant to ensure their survival.
Today, those sentiments still echo, though they sometimes take different forms.
Sometimes, it looks exactly the same – police routinely target and murder our children. Other times, it looks like making sure our children know how to mimic whiteness through respectability politics that tell them to dress, speak, and socialize in ways that won’t feel threatening to white people.
Because our children are less likely to be hurt or killed if they are not perceived as threatening to white people.
And by white people, I don’t just mean racist white people. I mean an entire systemic mentality, backed by policies, policing, economic structure and socialization tactics that center whiteness and vilify and dehumanize blackness.
Read about the fears around our jobs, our safety, and the perceptions of us. And read the accounts of what people tell their black sons. Then read about the number of ways racism affects the lives of black children in particular. And then watch this video about the negative public perceptions of black children, including assumptions about our home lives.
So yes, black children deserve to be free. And there’s nothing we can make our children do that will make racism less racist.
Our children are fine; it’s racism that needs to shift.
And so as that happens, we can slowly disentangle ourselves from legitimate fears induced by pervasive violence against and oppression of black people, adults, and children.
One solution is to see our fears for what they are, accept the reality that we cannot make the world safer for them, and then see what we can do to remove them even further from oppression, domination, and disregard.
And one way to do that is by making sure we are not limiting our children, molding them into ideas of safety, forcing them to conform to racist ideals disguised as education and opportunities.
My family accesses those options through self-directed education. By no means everyone’s solution, but in some instances, a starting point.
Moving from Frustration to Collaborative Action
Of course I want my children to be safe; I want all children to be safe. But for my black children, I believe that they have to do more than fit in and do well in school to survive the system.
They have to own themselves fully, and the system cannot teach them how to do that. Neither can I, nor their father, teach them how to do that – we can only make space for them to think critically, and to discover what liberation might look and feel like for them.
The history of violence, oppression, marginalization, validates the fear.
Respectability politics perpetuate the fears, too.
But our fears cannot keep being our excuses; instead, our fears can give us the permission we need to create a new normal. We cannot use the container of fear to build a boundless space of freedom.
We have to start supporting our children, first by examining our rationale for oppressing our children when we’re acting on fear.
Had I not paused when my daughter seemingly shrugged off Alton Sterling’s murder, I could’ve missed an opportunity. I could’ve missed the chance to give my daughter space to feel through a touch topic in her mind, and to demonstrate trust that she can come to me and her father without us bashing her for having perspectives that vary from ours.
And we have to support parents who are exploring ways to live the notion of liberation, in action, starting in their own homes, too. There is no one clear path to liberation; it must be explored and applied, then refined and reinforced.
It will take all of us, including and especially our children, in order to live free. We must decide to empower, not mold and coerce our children, if we look to them to build upon whatever liberation and justice-rooted strategies we employ during our lifetime.
At some point, fear-based action has to be overthrown by radical, simple, mindful steps toward owning our freedom.
This is how we figure out what to do to create new norms based on the type of people we want to see in the world, instead of just focusing on surviving. We have to know that the world isn’t safe for us, and that we can’t make it safe.
Somehow still, we have to figure out how to thrive. And for me, making space for our for our children to center themselves in their learning is exactly where we can start.
Akilah S. Richards is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She is a six-time author, digital content writer, and lifestyle coach who writes passionately about self-expression, womanhood, modern feminism, location independence and the unschooling lifestyle. Connect with Akilah on Instagram, Tumblr, or her #radicalselfie e-home, radicalselfie.com. Read her articles.