Commentary: Why white Austinites need to be talking about racism

If you’re black, you don’t need to learn about The Talk because you’ve probably already had it.

In February, the Statesman launched a series about the conversation that black families have with their children about how to interact with police officers to minimize the chance that they’ll end up in handcuffs — or worse.

Let’s face it: It’s too easy for white Americans to trivialize the troubling issues that people who are not white face because we haven’t experienced them firsthand. Not only do many of us not understand institutional racism, we can’t even see or acknowledge that it exists.

Understanding The Talk is one way to begin unpacking the white privilege that causes such blindness.

On Feb. 28, the newspaper hosted a forum in partnership with KLRU-TV, where I heard Austinites share stories about why black Americans fear police brutality — no matter which part of the country they live in, how much money they make, what kind of career they have or how perfectly they follow the rules of society.

Black parents know that they have to teach their kids to be even more polite and accommodating and slow to reach for the insurance in the glove compartment than their white counterparts in order to avoid provoking the authorities.

I have two young sons, and I didn’t start thinking about the difference between what it might be like to be a black parent versus a white parent until 2012, when 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was killed walking home from a convenience store in Florida.

By the time 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot in broad daylight in 2014, I had two little boys of my own who liked to play with toy guns in the front yard.

Why didn’t I have to worry about them wielding toy guns in public? Why didn’t I get anxious thinking about them interacting with police, either during our everyday lives in Austin or one day when they start driving? When was the last time I was in a room when I was the only person who looked like me?

When I was a kid, colorblindness was a virtue. I saw historical images of police using dogs and firehoses and nightsticks to quell black protesters during the 1960s, and that kind of blatant discrimination seemed like a piece of history. The only way to true equality, I thought, was simply to treat everyone the same.

As long as we all drank out of the same proverbial water fountain, where capitalism and anti-discrimination laws gave everybody a fair shake, everyone should be doing just fine as long as they worked hard and followed the rules, right?

I didn’t fully understand just how wrong I was about that until I moved to Austin and started to learn about the complex racial history of our city. When the East Austin urban farm controversy came to a head in 2013, it was really hard for me to understand why these bucolic green spaces could be seen as a bad thing, especially when they provided fresh, locally grown produce to anyone who wanted to buy it.

But then I started having really tough conversations with very patient anti-racism activists who helped me see why I couldn’t see the problem in the first place. I was nervous and embarrassed to ask some very basic, foundational questions about zoning and food access and property taxes, and then I had to keep my mouth shut — a hard task for this gregarious question-asker — and listen.

I learned about the 1928 city plan that forced African-Americans — through then-legal forms of discrimination — to move to the east side of Austin. I learned about lending practices that make it harder for minorities to get access to financial loans. I learned about the discomfort that comes when you’re the only person in the room with a different skin color and why isn’t enough to simply open your doors to say “All are welcome.” I learned about white spaces and modern forms of oppression and the healthy ways to turn white guilt into something more productive.

As my own understanding of white privilege expanded, I started bringing up race with my sons, who are among the few white students in their dual-language elementary school.

Unlike the families of color who can’t tiptoe around how race affects their day-to-day life, my conversations with my kids weren’t a matter of life and death. They weren’t based in a guttural fear or pain that I will never fully comprehend.

Our whiteness allows these difficult conversations about race to be a choice — a choice that their peers at school don’t have the luxury of having. I wanted them to know that that’s not fair, and that in our house, we are going to make the choice to talk about the long, complicated path that led to now. We aren’t going to talk about Martin Luther King Jr. Day in platitudes about peace. We aren’t going to gloss over the subtext of the news they hear or see on TV. I’m going to answer honestly when they ask how deportations might affect their friends at school, even though I feel my throat tighten when the words, “I don’t know, but it might,” come out of my mouth.

From the beginning of these conversations, I made it clear that I don’t have all the answers and that I want them to have opinions of their own. We all need to ask critical questions of our own assumptions and ask hard questions to better understand people who don’t look like us, think like us or live where we live.

When Donald Trump started talking about a wall during his campaign, we watched YouTube videos to learn about other walls that have been built around the world. We talked about isolationism and World War II. We watched videos about the Japanese internment camps and videos of the Honor Flights that take veterans to Washington D.C.

When they ran around the house playing what was once an accepted game of stereotypical cowboys and Indians, I stopped them so we could talk about cultural appropriation. Studies show that by age 3, children exhibit the same racial biases as their parents, but can a 6-year-old understand cultural appropriation? I wasn’t sure, but I wasn’t going to let that uncertainty stop me from trying to instill enough compassion in my son to ask himself how a friend with a Native American background would feel if he or she were at our house having a playdate and was asked to play a stereotype of his ancestry.

Because we’ve been having these conversations about race for several years now, it comes naturally to us. They aren’t afraid to ask me tough questions, and I’m not afraid to get uncomfortable. They overhear me talking with family members and friends about social issues and now feel confident enough to contribute to those conversations and ask questions that often surprise the adults in the room.

In countless ways, the conversations I’m having with my kids about race and white privilege are incomparable to the conversations that their friends who don’t look like them are having with their parents, but I want to make the case that more white parents need to be having them.

We aren’t going to undo racism by pretending it doesn’t exist.

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