Our Kids, Their Fears, Our President?
Mira Jacob and Emily Raboteau on Raising Children of Color in Trump's America
Writers Mira Jacob and Emily Raboteau conducted this conversation via email during the week before the election, at night after getting their kids to bed.
Emily Raboteau: Mira, Lit Hub has invited us to converse about the election and this historical moment as mothers, so I think jumping off from something about how our kids are handling the election (their fears, our fears, the way their fears mirror ours) and how we answer their tough questions might be a good entry point. I am a mother of two—G is five, and D is three. He will be a ninja for Halloween (a bad one, he insists, not a good one) and D will be a skeleton. G is interested in and seduced by bad guys, horror, the nature of evil, the power of evil embodied by Darth Vader, wolves in fairy tales, dark gods in myths, the power of natural disasters, tornadoes, hurricanes, gods attached to natural disasters, superhero villains, and the like, and so has an understanding of Trump as a real-life bad guy—a force to battle. He intuits that we are frightened of him, and so, is frightened of him. I think he considers the election a battle between good and evil. He asked me the other day whether it would be ok/appropriate for us to kill Trump if/when he shows up at our apartment door. I wonder if your son has asked you questions about Trump, Clinton, the election. And how you have fielded those questions? How old is he now?
Mira Jacob: Wow. I read this and thought, ok, so we’re all just in it now. I hate to be relieved by that, but I am. Your son is that scared of a potential presidential candidate. Last month, my son Z, who just turned eight, said, “But Trump doesn’t like brown boys like me. If he’s president, does that mean the government won’t like me? The army? What about the police?” This, as he is falling asleep.
I find myself giving answers that feel much too complex for an eight-year-old, but how else can I modulate what he hears about—pussy grabbing, nasty women, Mexican rapists, Muslim terrorists, and whatever this week will hold? How do I explain, after he has just seen a TV clip of people of color being beaten and pushed out of Trump rallies—that even though his grandparents from his father’s side support Trump, they still love him dearly? I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel sad about that. I have no idea what to do with that sadness in myself. It feels like a broken bone. But they love my son, they love my husband, and they are wonderful parents and grandparents to both of them. I don’t want my family falling apart over this nightmare.
What’s the racial/ethnic background of your family? We’re a combo of Indian (Syrian Christian) and Jewish American. I grew up with my husband in New Mexico. That’s not as Deliverance as that sounds, I swear—we barely knew each other. But I do remember the kids in school who would regularly tell my husband he was going to hell. They weren’t some fringe group, they were the popular kids. One of them, when I said I believed in evolution, said, “Well, Mira, maybe your people are related to monkeys, but ours are not.”
I bring this up because there’s such a sense right now from Trump and his supporters that marginalized groups of people have been running rampant with their unfettered rights for so long, when the reality is, these last eight years with Obama have been the closest thing to comfortable in my skin I have ever been. And they weren’t even that comfortable! But they were closer, somehow, to the America I believed in when I entered into a mixed-race marriage. The night Obama was elected our son was three weeks old and I just remember waking up with this swell of hope for Z. This idea that he would move into a world that was kinder and smarter. Now all of that feels up for grabs. Are you feeling that, too?
And last question: have you started preparing G and D for a Trump win, just in case?
ER: The baby picture of Z makes me smile because I can guess what was behind you taking it—the hopefulness, the way his birth coincided with a historical moment that felt full of optimism, and also the difference between his childhood and ours in that the person in highest office of governance looks something like him/us. But how sad, and how fascinating, that even a brown child who has grown up commensurate with the years of our first brown president, allowing him (one hopes) a different perspective about his own potential, and his own rights, must now ask whether he would be disliked (endangered even) by the next president, should Trump be elected. How is it, do you think, that Z has come to believe that Trump doesn’t like brown boys like him? My son hasn’t made that leap, but asked me just today 1) If Trump is rich 2) If Obama is rich 3) If Hillary Clinton is rich and 4) If we are rich. (My answers were yes, yes, yes, we have plenty, and, I added, being rich is not the most important thing. The most important thing is to be kind. To which he said, Donald Trump isn’t kind. No, he’s not, I said.)
You’ve written honestly about your son’s difficult questions about race and identity in the graphic essay “37 Questions From My Mixed-Race Son,” particularly related to his obsession with Michael Jackson, and this (to my understanding) was the genesis for your next book, Good Talk: Conversations I’m Still Confused About, (Dial Press, 2018), which you just turned in one week before election day, and which I look forward to reading. Acknowledging that conversations about the election with children can be confusing for parents, may I ask how you answered Z’s worrisome questions, in this scenario? And why is it that these deep, difficult questions come at bedtime?
We have not started prepping the kids for a Trump win, in part because we have not prepared ourselves for that eventuality, except to joke that 1) The silver lining would be the improvement of our nation’s art and 2) We couldn’t abandon the ship to immigrate to Canada since we’d have to stay put and hide people. When G asked us over dinner what we’d do if Trump were to win the presidency and show up at our apartment, that is, whether we ought to kill him if he came for us, we reassured him (I pray not smugly) that Trump would not win, and that in any case he was not welcome in our home. Also, that it’s wrong to kill anybody.
But our kids are significantly younger than yours. The differences in consciousness between an eight-year-old, a five-year-old and a three-year-old are immense. Politics are an abstraction for our two and the most concrete we’ve gotten thus far about civics is to do our best inculcating in them the democratic (some would say “Christian,” others would say “humanist”) traits of kindness and fairness—to do unto others as they would have done unto themselves, to want for our neighbors to enjoy the exact privileges and rights we want for our own family. That somewhat divisive meme that circulated on social media earlier this fall resonated with me as a middle-class mom in a city with one of the most segregated school systems in the country: “We need to care less about whether or not our kids are academically gifted & more about whether they sit with the lonely kid in the cafeteria.” Eventually, I hope they’ll vote, as well as behave, from that moral standpoint. For now, I just want them not to snatch each other’s toys, tease, taunt, spit at, or smack each other. That said, yeah, I’m scared for my kids, who will be in most US contexts read as black. My husband and I (we are both mixed race, each with a white parent and a black parent—in answer to your question about our family’s racial background) have already had some painful conversations about when and how to prepare our children to protect themselves from the police, but this has been under Obama. This summer I traveled to Palestine for a research trip and connected on a deep and troubled emotional level with a woman in Ramallah who fears for the life of her 13-year-old son, that he may be shot by the IDF for doing or saying the wrong thing. I understood her fear.
Maybe you could say more about the America you believed in when you entered into a mixed-race marriage. Also, what books, if any, you’ve found useful to read to Z that might explain some of this heavy stuff at a level he can understand. Although I’ve not read it, a girlfriend gave me the takeaway from the parenting book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, and I try to keep it in mind when my son, in particular, asks tough questions of the variety you’ve described. That is, I may think I know why he’s asking a question (whether it’s about God, death, slavery, sex, or what have you) but I’m probably making presumptions based on my own baggage and need first, before attempting an answer that may satisfy, to question why he’s asking it.
MJ: To answer your question about Good Talk—I had been working in that graphic format for a few months when Z started asking a lot of questions about skin color. It occurred to me that rather than explain those conversations in an essay I wanted to present them as they happened. A lot of parenting is being an “authority” on a world you at times barely understand yourself. I wanted to be clear about how out of my element I was in certain moments. It was a dissonant time in general. My white friends with kids Z’s age were talking about not knowing how to talk to their kids about Ferguson, or if they even should, and my black and brown friends were saying without hesitation, “if a police officer approaches you, do whatever he says until I am there to help. Lay low, stay quiet, stay safe.” It was a lot to navigate very quickly. I don’t want to paint our picture as overly bleak to him, so we spend a lot of time talking about the privileges he has, too, which are plenty. But it’s a strange time to raise a brown boy, one who could easily scan as “terrorist” for the paranoid as he grows older. It makes me think of the world immediately post 9/11, when my father, brother, and I were constantly “randomly” checked before we boarded planes. Is it the worst thing in the world? No. There is much worse. But it is sad. Painful, occasionally.
I guess that’s what I didn’t anticipate when I fell in love with my husband. At that point I was optimistic, believing America was getting better and more progressive, but that was before 9/11. The fear of people that look like me has since gone up tremendously. The Muslim friends and families I grew up with live very constrained, apologetic lives right now. It’s hard to see. And being in a mixed marriage is tough in that there is no relief from the day’s events. There is no “we are all the same here behind these closed doors.” We are not. We are thinking and loving our way through it anyway.
In terms of texts to read—I actually used to be the deputy editor of a parenting website and most of what I’ve digested is online. One tip I picked up from a child psychologist friend was to simply ask more questions when Z asks me something loaded—not to play therapist, but to really nail down what he’s asking about before my assumptions lead us into heavier territory than we need to be in.
Here’s what I keep thinking about now: what do you think is going to linger on after this election season? (I am assuming it’s not President Trump for sanity’s sake.) What do you anticipate being the biggest fallout of this? What do you think we’ll have to explain to our kids next?
ER: Mira, your description of the optimism you attached to your (mixed race) marriage when entering into it reminds me a lot of how my parents talked about their union in the late 60s, during the Civil Rights era when they saw the US at its most optimistic moment. The feeling I got, as their kid, was that I was supposed to be a product and embodiment of that moment, a condition I grew to think of as both burden and blessing, but mainly (given the persistence of segregation, mass black incarceration, police brutality in communities of color, etc…) bogus. Obama certainly marketed the magic about his mixed-race bloodline during his first presidential campaign—that he couldn’t have resulted anywhere else and was a living metaphor for racial unity, progress, the face of national change. Obviously, the story sold and in so doing proved itself to be more than a metaphor—it put an African-American man in the highest seat of power on the planet—but it has also scared the shit out of a lot of people by unsettling their safe worldview.
I feel what we’re what we’re experiencing with Trump and his constituents is a lot of backlash anxiety about the loss of white supremacy, but this too is part of progress. Do you know the comedian Hari Kondabolu? I bet Z will like his stuff in a couple more years. Here he is on the year 2042 when Census figures indicate that whites will be the minority: “In 2042 apparently white people will be 49 percent. First of all, why do we give a fuck? Why do we keep mentioning this? Why is this even an issue? Are there white people here that are concerned that they’ll be the minority in 2042? Don’t worry white people, you were a minority when you came to this country. Things seemed to have worked out for you.” And have you heard about Lori Tharps’ important new book, Same Family, Different Colors: Confronting Colorism in America’s Diverse Families. The author, who is in a mixed-race marriage and mother to mixed kids, shares the concerns that have driven your work. Of course, Z’s experience is a lot different than mine when I was growing up. I was a unicorn. He’s of another, more diverse, generation, a different ethnic background, and lives in a cosmopolitan neighborhood. As you’ve pointed out, you can’t throw a rock in your corner of Brooklyn without hitting a mixed kid. Not that anyone should be throwing stones.
As for what fallout to anticipate after this election season is over, I can’t really predict the future except to know that the same struggles will continue, even as they have under Obama. I have to believe in our better angels, though; as MLK said, that though the arc of the moral universe is long, it bends toward justice. I can’t really say I wish I lived in less interesting times.
MJ: Hari Kondabalu!! I love him. My religion is comedy, so I’m always thankful when the prophets appear. I appreciate the thought he is putting into how to poke fun of an identity that is largely uncharted, and lately maligned.
Your description of needing to embody the hope of a time really hit home. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, partly to try to avoid making Z feel that way, partly to avoid feeling that way myself. I know holding up everyone else’s hope can too often mean swallowing your own fears and qualms. I feel quite done with that on a macro level (aren’t we all?), but on a micro level, like everyone else, I struggle. I was just talking to a friend about how we still try so many things before cutting off ties. I’ve wished more than once that letting go of a toxic “friend” felt as righteous as it’s supposed to. I suppose that’s why I enjoyed this piece I’m Losing Tons of Friends Fighting Racism. And I’m Okay with That by Johnny Silvercloud. I loved the idea of fusing into a single self.
I am so glad to hear about Lori’s book. I have just ordered it. Thank you.
You bring up a good point about kids being in very different places due to age. Because Z is eight, we really need to game out various emotional trajectories around the election. Most of what I have told him is that no matter what, we, as a family, are quite safe. We are in Brooklyn, for the love of God. We are educated and financially stable. Our basic plans for the future seem attainable. These things are not small. These things, in fact, are huge.
I’m also acutely aware of how much Z emulates me still. So while I haven’t taken a lot of time to imagine a Trump presidency, I’ve thought about how if he loses, there are going to be parents out there who feel just as scared for their kids as I would have for Z with a Trump win. I find myself making weird pledges for my son’s future. Try harder. Look past the fear, the anger. There has to be some common ground. Did you see the “Black Jeopardy” SNL skit with Tom Hanks? It made me feel more real compassion for the other side than I have in months. That’s the thing I am trying to focus on now—that after the fight, the wounds will still be real, and if I really want a better country for my son, I’m going to have to do the hard work of helping us heal from them.
Mira Jacob is the author of the critically acclaimed novel, The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, which was a Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers pick, shortlisted for India’s Tata First Literature Award, and longlisted for the Brooklyn Literary Eagles Prize. It also received an honor from the Asian Pacific American Librarians Association, and was named one of the best books of 2014 by Kirkus Reviews, the Boston Globe, Goodreads, and Bustle. Her recent writing and short stories have appeared in The New York Times, Guernica, Vogue, the Telegraph, Buzzfeed, and Bookanista. She currently teaches fiction at NYU. She is currently drawing and writing her graphic memoir, Good Talk: Conversations I’m Still Confused About (Dial Press, 2018). She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and son.
Emily Raboteau is the author of a novel, The Professor’s Daughter (Henry Holt) and a work of creative nonfiction, Searching for Zion (Grove/Atlantic), named a best book of 2013 by The Huffington Post and The San Francisco Chronicle, grand prize winner of the New York Book Festival, and winner of a 2014 American Book Award. Her fiction and essays have been widely published and anthologized in Best American Short Stories, Best American Non-required Reading, The New York Times, Tin House, McSweeney’s, The Guardian, Guernica, VQR, The Believer and elsewhere. Raboteau resides in New York City and teaches creative writing in Harlem at City College, once known as “the poor man’s Harvard.”