“Mommy. I have a question. I’m not sure if you can answer it. Why are people being killed?” This is from my beloved Kiddo (not her real name).
This is the question set before me in the car, by a kid not long out of a booster seat. Kiddo is being raised in Oakland, Calif., by Catholic parents working to keep her in a Catholic school that she loves. St. Leo the Great has a student population (pre-K to 8th grade) that is predominantly black/African-American, with many biracial and multiracial students. At 8 years old, Kiddo doesn’t think to qualify the word “people” with racial language. But I know that after seeing the news, hearing her parents talk about the events of the past few weeks and being present at an open discussion at Mass about black experiences in the United States, she is asking about black people.
“Well, Kiddo,” I respond with a long sigh, “Do you remember when you learned to chant ‘Eric Garner, Michael Brown/Shut it Down, Shut it Down’?” I ask her about the chant because I needed to know how far back her memory goes. Two years ago can be a long time when it is one-fourth of your lifespan. I need to figure out if I am building on previous conversations or creating rhetorical architecture from scratch.
“Yes,” she replies. So this morning—July 12, 2016 at 8 a.m.—is a building day.
“It’s not everyone being killed,” I say. “For the most part it’s black people. Men and women, kids and grown-ups.”
She is horrified. “People” is a generic term, but “kids” and “women” are specific. It’s her body. Could it be her? Could it be me? She still doesn’t understand race beyond the fact that she is of Mexican heritage on my side and Irish-German-Czech on her father’s side. She is 8, but her racial ignorance is a privilege her classmates do not have. It is a privilege that I must take from her because the world sees her as white. A discussion of her whiteness is necessary for her to have a seat at the table of Americans who have had to explain and educate others on their reality. She must learn to see her own racialized body with respect to the racialized bodies of others.
“Mom. This makes me scared,” she tells me.
“Kiddo, you are less likely to be killed by a police officer because of your skin color. I am less likely to be killed. Your dad is less likely to be killed because our complexion is light, even though it is summer and you and I get darker. This is not the case for your classmates or other members of the family.” As Hispanics and Latinos, we are pan-racial. We have peach-toned skin, blond straight hair and blue eyes as well as mahogany-toned skin, raven kinky hair and chestnut eyes. Understanding how we people fit into conversations about black lives will take more than what is left in this car trip to school. The conversation on colorism will have to wait, but I know it is coming.
“It isn’t all police. There are bad ones mixed in with the good ones. It’s just that when black people get pulled over or stopped, there is no way to know if the officer pulling them over or stopping them in the street is a good one or a bad one.” I try to educate Kiddo about the current state of citizen-officer relations in the United States, while acknowledging the fact that every male student in her classroom has already or is about to have “the talk”—meaning, how to act when encountering an officer as a black boy or man. Kiddo needs to grow up knowledgeable and justice-leaning regarding the experiences of her classmates. One day, she may date one of her classmates and be in that car or walking down that street with him.
“Men who were supposed to get a ticket for a broken tail light instead got shot. Women were arrested and died in the jail cell after officer brutality. It makes people scared and angry. This has been going on for years, decades, centuries, black bodies are being acted upon more aggressively than lighter skinned bodies, and people are rising up saying enough is enough. We don’t want this to happen to one more person. We wouldn’t want this to happen to one of your classmates.”
“NO!!!” she trembles.
“So that is the protest part. That is why people are protesting in the streets and freeways, like Miss Jean, Miss Valerie and Miss Cherri. It has to stop.” Her bewilderment seems appropriate for a child hearing that justice is not universally applied. Figures of safety are not safe for all. Something terrible could happen to someone she knows. It probably already has, but she just doesn’t know.
I mention the friends and colleagues who are protesting because she needs to have her own connection to the action taking place. Eight years old is old enough to feel powerless.
As with most significant conversations, I tie what we are talking about with who we are as Catholics and what we are as the body of Christ.
“This is also why I kept discouraging you from making your first Communion. It had to be your choice.” I am a big believer that children must choose Catholicism. As a lecturer at a Jesuit university, I regularly hear students describe how their parents gave them no option about sacraments. They were forced to make their first Communion and forced to make confirmation. Consequently, they enter university wanting nothing to do with religious practice. I strive every quarter to let them juxtapose their dissatisfaction with religion and their burgeoning adult curiosity about religion. Students were surprised this past year when they found out that I had discouraged Kiddo from partaking in first Communion preparation classes, telling her, “You don’t have to do this. We can do something else with our time.” They wonder what might have been if they had been allowed choice about their religious upbringing.
“When you chose to become an active part of the church and the body of Christ, it means something very real,” I tell her. “You agreed to love and act on behalf of others as if they were your own arm, your own foot, your own chest, your very own heart. You would protect your arm if someone tried to cut it off. Yes? You would protect your heart if someone tried to stop it from beating. Yes? Our black brothers and sisters are our very own arms, legs, and hearts.”
Kiddo doesn’t need me to tell her that #BlackLivesMatter. She already knows that. Our home has taught her that. Her school has taught her that. Oakland has taught her that. But sometimes the theology of the church in weekly homilies can fall short of drawing the threads together, even with the kindest of priests and deacons, because there are so few African-Americans in the Catholic Church. Allies bear the responsibility of education and action outside Oakland, New Orleans, Detroit, Baltimore and other pockets of black Catholicism in the United States. We must be overt and vocal in our commitments and teaching.
“This is why I discouraged you from making your first Communion. It had to be your choice. It is a big choice that you reaffirm every time you receive Eucharist to love your black brothers and sisters as your very body. This is a big love. Our commitment to be the body of Christ isn’t who we are, it is what we are.” We sit quiet for a while as I drive.
We are getting closer to her school. “I just said a lot. What do you think? How do you feel?” She says, “I feel better. Will you take me to a protest? I want to help.”
“We’ll talk about it when you get out of school.” I have a reprieve. I was not ready for this conversation when we got into the car. Like every other major conversation we have had, she was ready before I was.
Corinna Guerrero is a lecturer in religious studies at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, Calif., and visiting professor of biblical studies at American Baptist Seminary of the West in Berkeley, Calif.