Vegas, Charlottesville, and Remembering Hope
Watching the news about Las Vegas over the last week or so, I remembered spending the final week of summer vacation with family in Maine, watching the news every evening about the terrorism of White supremacists in Charlottesville. In the aftermath of Charlottesville, I struggled with my own feelings of anger and sadness, and I observed my seven-year-old niece, Avery, as she processed what happened, as well as the distress of the adult cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents around her.
Avery was very quiet and watchful during our nightly news viewing on television. Every now and then she asked questions for clarification of her cousin, my 19-year-old daughter, Georgia:
Avery: Why is that woman crying?
Georgia: Because that woman’s daughter was killed trying to stand up against a group of White people who don’t like people with skin colors that are different from theirs. She is saying that hatred is wrong and that her daughter’s death will be a message to everyone that this group of White people, and their feelings about people of color, is also wrong.”
There were a few things that were very clear to me as the week unfolded. The first was that our daughters, now 15, 19 and 22, are thoughtful and aware, are able to call out racism, and are clear about their power as voters in our democracy. This felt good after so many years of worrying whether our parenting decisions about race talk were right or wrong.
I remember a conversation we had when our oldest daughter, Kaila, was in middle school. We were talking about racial profiling and Kaila wondered if it was wrong to find characteristics that the bad guys had in common and watch people with these same characteristics more carefully.
“Think about how dangerous this is…stereotypes make people believe that Black people are more ‘criminal’ than White people. And what about situations that don’t fit this stereotype? Like the majority of White boys who have killed innocent people in school shootings…and yet police officers have not racially profiled White boys who shared the characteristics of the shooters, and there was no outcry across the country about the troubles with White boys no matter how many school shootings there were and how many people were killed. If there had been a majority of Black boys killing people in school shootings, I think we would have seen a very different response and outcry.”
I remember feeling frustrated about this conversation because the issues were so layered and complicated. I wasn’t sure that I did a good job of explaining how racism plays into who gets labeled a criminal or terrorist.
Another thing that became clear for me is that young children need lots of help making sense of our world, especially when major events hit the news. They don’t need the gory details and should not see the repeated and horrifying images that can be too easily found in the media.
They do, however, need to understand that real people are hurt and killed by racism. They do need to understand our laws, and that hurting and killing is wrong and punishable. They need to understand the difference between bias and a hate crime, and between hate crimes and terrorism. They do need to understand what it means to speak up and use their voices against hatred and in support of love, equity, and justice. They do need to know that their questions are welcomed and that the adults around them will help with finding answers.
Avery wanted to know what Trump said about the White people marching in Charlottesville. We took turns explaining bits and pieces of the story…that Trump spoke out against everyone at the march, the White people who marched as a show of their hatred toward people of color and the people who went to speak out against this march, as if both groups were equally wrong. He did not speak out clearly against the hatred shown by this group of White people who used symbols of White power from the days one would wish were a part of history, when Black people were terrorized by White people wearing masks and hoods, carrying torches which were used to set fire to Black people’s homes and neighborhoods and churches.
My niece barely breathed while watching the people in Charlottesville who gathered by candlelight to sing together about freedom and love in the days after White supremacists filled the streets with their hatred. Her eyes were big and she smiled when she recognized one of the songs. The candles seemed to go on for miles behind the cameras, reminding her that there were more people in the world who want what she wants…who want love and understanding across differences to be the rule of thumb, the forces that guide us.
My niece made it hard for me to sink into utter despair. She made it possible for me to see that there is always hope. For her, I continue to lead the work of educating children to be anti-racist, to care about others, to point out inequity, and to stand up for love and respect.
Martha Haakmat is a Black woman, who is celebrating 29 years of teaching and leading in New York City independent schools. Currently the Head of School at the Brooklyn Heights Montessori School serving children from twos through 8th grade, Martha has been a lower, middle, and upper school educator and has held administrative positions such as Diversity Director and Middle School Head. Martha has served as an independent school trustee and has been a member of various committees for the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) and the New York State Association of Independent Schools (NYSAIS). She was also the founder and director of Educators for Growth and Empowerment (EDGE), a diversity consulting team that presented in schools and conferences nationwide. Martha is married to Steve, a White man and has three, bi-racial daughters who are now 22, 19, and 15 years old.