What do you say to your almost teenager when an author you both love experiences something neither you nor she will ever experience? That’s the time you open the box called “white privilege.” Today was that day.
To understand just why we had to have this discussion, reader, you need some context.
She wants her mostly white suburban middle school friends to read Children of Blood and Bone, by Tomi Adeyemi. She’s just as excited as I am that Jimmy Fallon chose it as his #TonightShowSummerReads. She declares that even though the book is YA and will be a part of our #ProjectLitBookClub at the high school, her middle school book club she started just this summer will read it too.
Yes, reader, she started a #ProjectLitBookClub. You see, I took her with me to #ProjectLitSUmmit18 in Nashville this June. At this event, we heard Kwame Alexander talk about the importance of great books for kids. We heard Nic Stone give tips on writing. In fact, we even had Mr. Alexander and Ms. Stone autograph books for us. Mr. Alexander spelled her name right on her autograph, asked her what grade she’ll be in next year, and told her “Eighth grade is cool.” Needless to say, we bought a huge pile of books to take home.
She was so excited about the event, she decided then and there that she was going to start her own #ProjectLitBookClub this summer. She wasn’t going to wait till school started like I was. So we came home and settled in, and starting reading the books.
One book we bought was called I am Alfonso Jones, by Tony Medina. It’s a graphic novel that I picked up because it’s one of the @projectlitcommunity midlde grade books and because I thought her brother would like it. She read it first. We talked a little about it, mostly her telling me she thought her 9 year old brother might be a little too young to read it and that it was sad. After I read the book and realized that it dealt with police brutality and after I cried, I let her brother read it, too. It’s our world now. We have to learn to live in it.
She shared her experiences with her friends. The book club grew by one, and they got together to decide which to read first: Wishtree by Katherine Applegate or Rebound, by Kwame Alexander. Here they are, deciding.
They decided on Wishtree. She made a blog. After a few weeks of futile texting, where no one showed up, she added one to her club.
They were having a blast. Until today. When Ms. Adeyemi shared her story, and my kiddo overheard me talking about it with her dad. She wandered into our bedroom, where I sitting there rage crying, and asked me what happened. I read the tweet thread Adeyemi had shared. She started crying, too, and said, “But the police are supposed to be people who protect us. Why were they so mean? And what does colorblindness mean, anyway?”
So we started talking. I explained that, when people say they “don’t see color,” they are speaking from a point of privilege. That although on the surface it seems they are being fair, what they are really saying is, “Your story is not important. I don’t believe you.” I explained that although neither she nor anyone else in her family is ever likely to have police threaten us in our home, for people of color, every encounter with the police is one where they have to be afraid. And reader, I brought up Philando Castile.
She had never heard Mr. Castile’s story. She didn’t know that even when you do everything you’re supposed to, you can still die after an encounter with the police. And she got mad. She asked, “What can we do about this?” And we talked about the difference between empathy and sympathy. That sympathy shuts doors between people, and empathy is making a connection, reaching out and saying, “Me, too.” That the only way we can feel empathy for others is by hearing their stories.
Reader, I explained that as white people, we are like goldfish in a fishbowl. Ask goldfish how water feels, and they’ll never say wet, because they don’t know what water is. It’s just there, all around them, protecting them. Just like white privilege.
Reader, our family talks like this all the time. Behind closed doors, and, let’s be honest, behind the closed door of my classroom, I have these conversations with young people. But we are deep in Trump country. To have any chance of understanding the world outside our tiny town, our kiddos must know the stories of others.
So she says, “We are going to have to read I am Alfonso Jones next year. We need to have these conversations.” And I agree.
If you made it to the end of this post, and you want to help the high school students I’ll teach next year to have these hard conversations, consider donating a little to my donor’s choose project.
If you’re super poor like me and want some resources I’ve used with my students,
- A description of how I convinced my principal to let me start our HS book club