The other night, before we fell asleep under organic sheets, in our air-conditioned bedroom two floors up in a brownstone in Brooklyn, an apartment we can pay for because, I am realizing, we were born into a profusion of opportunity, Lance and I talked about Twitter. We talked about feeling hopeless about our ability to change our society, ourselves. We talked about Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book. Thanks to this book, I am realizing, mortifyingly late, that we have skirted so much of life’s horrors because of a system built by exploitation to advantage us at the expense of those who are not us. Thanks to this accident of birth, I can sit at a cafe pumping Van Morrison from overhead speakers and write a blog about being a mom; I can feel embarrassed by my good fortune; I can feel despair when I read what is happening to women of every race, in this country, in this world; but I can also find the time to get completely distracted by my son, who is of Jewish, English, Irish, Scottish, Dutch heritage, whose skin is pale and whose ancestors were never slaves, and thanks to him, I can shelve the tragedies and take an iPhone video as he shouts, “Hi Bull!” twenty times to the big multi-colored bull in front of PS 282. It never occurred to me before that I can do this because other mothers cannot do this.
Lance said, as we turned out our bedroom lamps, that it isn’t as though the hopeless realities around us haven’t been there all along, it’s just that the social media machine has leveled the bureaucracy of what gets seen and shared and what does not. Depending on who you follow, you can unearth deep wells of injustice in so many places and you will wonder if good actually exists anywhere, if the racism in all of us will ever be washed away, if it can only be managed? You can think of your sleeping child and wonder, for a moment, how you can show him how to be better than you? To acknowledge the injustices done to people of color for centuries in America? To give up unearned privilege? How can you lead by example if you are JUST NOW figuring out the urgency of all of this and are not sure what to do next?
So, aside from favoriting and retweeting, where do I begin? Aside from signing petitions, talking to our friends about how distraught we feel and then moving on to talk about something else, something easier.
I don’t know. I am not an activist (at least not yet). But I have a son and having him has, shamefully, allowed the profusion of humanity-destroying inequality to permeate me more deeply than it has in a while. Not everybody needs a child for this happen. I guess I did.
I have a human new to earth who, however formed his fate already was at birth, will still be spongy for many years to come. When I started writing this piece, I thought, all I want is for him not to fuck the world up. How do I stop him from doing that specifically? How do I raise a human whose demons don’t drive him to assert his authority over people he has no business asserting authority over? Do I have any control over that? Is it foolhardy for me to think I do?
But then I read this speech by Anand Giridharadas and I started reading Between the World and Me and I saw how easy on myself I was being. There is so much to look at, in ourselves and in the world we have built, so much to undo and redo and undo and redo.
Maybe big, societal change is almost impossible.
But maybe I can stop being so willfully blind.
Maybe I can start with this kid, this kid whose nature may be predetermined, but whose habits, whose biases might not be yet.
I know parenting is work and a sizable chunk of it is just me being a person, the kind of person I want my son to look up to, to be inspired by, to assume is just standard in the world.
There is so much more I can do.
When I was 19, I went to the Dominican Republic with Amigos de las Americas and spent 7 weeks in a rural village “helping” people. It was the worst summer of my life. I felt like the worst kind of condescending American, forcing myself into a place where I was neither helpful nor wanted. Also, I had to take baths either in the nearby river or using a cup and bucket of water in an outdoor stall at someone’s house. This could’ve been a beautiful thing for the right person but I was not that person.
Since then, I’ve been wary of group efforts to DO GOOD because there are so often flawed people steering the ship. But that was more than a decade ago. And we are all flawed people. When I was 19, I believed that anyone in charge knew what they were doing. Now that I am in charge in my own way, I see that people in charge do not know what they are doing, they just pretend they do. They take risks, sometimes, on new ideas about which they are unsure, but often, they keep doing things the way things have always been done because that seems like the lesser of two evils. Sometimes they can apologize when they make obvious mistakes, but sometimes they can’t because they don’t know how. Or sometimes apologizing doesn’t even cross their minds. I get it now, that nobody and no organization is pure.
With that in mind, I don’t know where all this leaves me. If I want to model for my son how to be a better contributor to our society, I have to start with myself, but I don’t know where exactly I start, where I fit into the world of helpers and re-thinkers. I do know that wondering infinitely is useless. I do know I have to start somewhere.
For the past week or so, Sly has been saying, “I’m sorry,” over and over at random times and it doesn’t always make sense, why he’s saying it, but sometimes it does, like when he is squeezing his body in between a person and a wall or a table, trying to get through a small space. He must’ve seen or heard us doing the same thing and now he says he’s sorry when he does that. But he says it other times and I can’t figure out why. At first, I hear him say it and I say, “It’s OK, you don’t have to be sorry,” but then he says it again and again and his intonation sounds so genuine, I feel totally moved and struck that something larger is happening outside of me. Somehow, without me teaching it, my son is learning how to to apologize. Whatever he did or didn’t do, whatever he is empathizing with or not empathizing with, the words are there.
This is not nothing. I don’t know what it is and I know it’s not enough, but it’s not nothing.
I’m sorry too. I’m sorry and I want to do better.
This blog post was hugely informed by -
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
“The Thriving World, The Wilting World, and You” by Anand Giridharadas at the Aspen Institute’s Action Forum