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Acting Outside the Box

Acting Outside the Box

Race is at the forefront of almost every conversation these days. At times I want race to remain as hot a topic as it is, and other times I’m exhausted by any mention of it. But, race — and race relations — as it pertains to our children, is a necessary conversation I think we too often brush under the rug.

We see the innocence in children, their inherent lack of prejudice, and acknowledge that bigotry and the power of racism is most certainly a learned behavior. But, as parents, we are responsible for the adults we put into the world. So, as I listen to very well-meaning white people discuss white supremacy, their problematic hiring practices, flawed interactions with Black co-workers and neighbors, and the reckoning they are having with their own bias, they often forget to mention the work they’re doing with their children. The assumption is that these innocent white children will hear their parents’ well-meaning intentions and conversations and just get it. Nah. It’s wonderful to think outside the box in such an idealistic way, but white parents need to start acting outside the box.

So, let me first describe the box. I live in Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital for a long time known as “chocolate city” because of the abundant Black population. But, a tremendous wave of gentrification has dwindled that Black population to the point where one of my friends calls D.C. “latte land.” The nation’s capital is very segregated. Period. East of the river and west of Rock Creek Park look very, very different, demographically. And our neighboring suburbs in southern Maryland and northern Virginia are just an extension of this segregation.

Most white people in the DMV live in communities that are mostly, if not all, white. So, their white children play with other white children, with only occasional interaction with the sole Black or Brown family who has moved in. These white people typically only engage with Black people when they go to work — times when they have to engage with Black people. And that interaction is often from their role as a supervisor, giving instructions to their Black subordinate. These interactions are not often friendly and light, with the intention of becoming friends, because these white people are satisfied existing in their box.

Every Black person knows a white person they consider “cool.” This is someone we can easily shoot the shit with, go to events with, and sometimes become romantically involved. But, this relationship is typically built off of some initiation from the white person. The cool white person approaches conversations and interactions in a manner that feels welcoming and regular to Black people, as if we are simply human.

My thought when I have this out-of-the-box interaction with a white person is that their parents did the work of acting outside the box. This cool white person maybe went to schools where they were in the minority. They had Black and white dolls to play with. They read storybooks with Black characters. Their parents’ dinner parties were colorful, and the engaging conversations touched on sociopolitical issues affecting Black and Brown culture. Movie and television selections in the cool white person’s home included classic Black comedies. They saw their parents reading Baldwin and Morrison and grew up with an understanding that existing in an all-white box would cut them off from the beauty of the world as it should be.

I used to work in this very conservative corporate environment. Over eight years, not being addressed with a “hello” or “good morning” by my white co-workers became normal. A group of women in my department would walk by my cubicle, plan their daily Starbucks walk, and never invite me. When I asked to go the next time they went, they were surprised, stating they had no idea I even liked Starbucks. But they also never asked. This surprise would also light up their faces when we’d be celebrating someone at a department lunch. They’d realize our shared love of Downton Abbey or classic rock, and I’d hope that deep down, they felt a shameful regret that they’d spent so many years not really getting to know me.

Sometimes I’d see a C-suite executive outside the office and attempt to wave or give a friendly nod, that in my naiveté would be followed up with a hello once we were in earshot. But that would never happen. I’d often be ignored, glossed over like my presence was even more insignificant outside the office. It felt like even acknowledging they knew me would somehow hurt their status inside the box, like the other white executives would no longer invite them to the country club if they saw them being friendly with a Black person.

These C-suite types are leading their organizations in conversations around race and bias and making sweeping changes. On the surface, I applaud their efforts to make the necessary changes to make the work environment more fair and equitable, but deep down, I know that until they work on themselves — face their own white supremacy — nothing will change in the places they lead.

Towards the end of my time in this corporate space, a new white guy arrived. He was very accomplished, with a high-level position, but he spoke to me. Every day he said hello and asked me how I was. He asked about my weekend, and I asked about his. In his office, he put up a funny collage about his life. A very large cut out of Toni Braxton was on the collage. He explained that he had a huge crush on her in high school; a school I assumed was out of the box, a mix of Black and white students, sharing their fondness for music, movies, and television shows, not from a racial perspective, but simply based on what was good.

In our talks, we realized how much we loved the show The Americans and spent a long time picking apart the series finale. This cool white guy reminded me of the white friends I grew up with. White friends who went to public school with me, sprinkled among a sea of Black students. White friends who had me over to their homes; their white parents embracing me and treating me like their own. This cool white guy reminded me of my white friends who grew up reciting the same Langston Hughes poems I had. One of my white friends even went to an HBCU, studying jazz, learning, and playing alongside Black musicians. These white friends and the cool white guy in my office are the product of well-meaning white parents who made the concerted effort to act outside the box.

So, my plea to white parents with very well-meaning feelings about the madness in our world is to shift those thoughts to actions you impress upon your kids. Choose a Black movie for your family movie night. Buy Doc McStuffins and Tiana dolls. Gift your poetry-loving teen Nikki Giovanni books. Ensure your children understand that Black history extends beyond February and should be interwoven into the fabric of global consciousness. By acting outside the box, you are not only molding people who will show up better in the world, but you are ensuring a future society where discussions about race relations carry the tone of progress.

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