The other week, I was asking Second Offspring about whether she remembered any children from her old school. She had only just turned five when we left, so I’m always interested to hear about what memories they have, and how they fade, what they hold onto.
“I remember Shannon,” she said. “Remember Shannon?”
“She wasn’t very nice,” Second Offspring added. “She was mean to me. She was kind of a bully.”
“I do remember that,” I said. “Well, Shannon had older sisters who were a bit mean to her, so perhaps that was a reason why she was a bit of a bully to you.”
“Yeah,” piped up First Offspring, “and those kinds of girls, they can be a bit mean. You know, the brown-skinned ones. They can be mean.”
“Oh, First Offspring,” I said, “girls and boys can be mean, whatever skin colour they have. It really doesn’t matter what they look like.”
That’s how it begins. That way that casual racism just weaves into their conversations, and how it’s reinforced by others – their friends, their friends’ parents, the media – and so by eight-and-a-half, First Offspring has decided that black girls are more likely to be bullies to his younger sister.
I haven’t mentioned anything about the Charleston shootings to our Offspring. They don’t watch the news – neither do we, actually; we tend to read it or watch updates online when they’re not around – and I don’t think it would have any benefit to them to hear about how a young man sat in a church for an hour before shooting dead several of the parishioners. I don’t think I can give them any conceivable explanation, because I don’t have one, and I don’t know how I can explain how some people are so caught up in hatred and anger that they would do something like that. I don’t know what I can do, to change this terrible merry-go-round of killing which happens with such agonising regularity. I don’t know how to untangle the multifaceted issues of disillusionment and racism and extremism.
All I can do, is work on what we have, to keep things close to home. I can ensure that when our Offspring are talking to each other, they’re not making racist statements. They don’t yet, but there is a strong undercurrent of racism in Australia, and I know it’s here in our town, too. It’s in conversations and infrastructure and institutions. Our Offspring will hear racial slurs and they’ll be exposed to assumptions based on race and culture. At some point, I imagine they’ll bring those words home, and at that point, I can discuss why such language is cruel, and dangerous, and fallacious.
I can try to weave into our conversations, a respect for the people who lived here before we came here: talk about how amazing is our natural world, and how the Indigenous Australians didn’t just survive, but thrived here. How there was a relationship between European people and Indigenous Australians, and how we need to respect each other’s shared and separate histories, to continue that respect for our shared future. I can suggest that the children in their class who speak little English might feel excluded, and that their accents only come from the fact that they learnt another language as babies.
All I can do, is ensure that our Offspring… our wonderful girls, our beautiful boys… have a safe space here with us, where they are cuddled and kissed and tucked into bed at night. The Handsome Sidekick and I can insist that we don’t solve our problems with violence, that we talk about our feelings and that they should walk away when they feel too upset to communicate calmly and rationally, and come back when they can do so.
Because our girls. Who know they can do whatever they want to, but also need to understand that in our culture, the boys and men aren’t always emotionally equipped to be able to really say how they feel. What I want for Second and Third Offspring is that they have the confidence to stand up for themselves, but also the kindness and patience to reach out to those who struggle, and that they can do that, without being doormats.
And our boys. Oh, our boys. What I want for First and Fourth Offspring is to live in a world where they can be the sensitive, caring, emotional creatures they are, without being told that they must be tough and mean and callous. As much as I worry about the ways in which our girls will have to dig in their heels on issues of gender equality, I worry about our boys. I worry that in this world, our boys might struggle. I ache for the way in which young men are ridiculed for showing their emotions. I don’t want that for our boys. And yet I want them to be able to be emotionally healthy, open-hearted, open-minded, young people.
All I can do is make this home a place where they know love, where they can always cry and express their outrage, if they need to, where they can be silly and ridiculous and immature, if they want to.
All I can do is say, ‘I love you’ and ‘you are safe here’. And I know that is huge. That will make all the difference in the world to them, even if, despite all that happens out there, it seems like such a tiny spark, in the midst of the hatred and darkness.
But that is all that will matter to my Offspring; that is all. They don’t care about any lofty speeches I might make on the human character, and they’re too young to know about some of the worst the world has to throw at them. They’ll learn all of that later. Until then – and even after – they need to be safe, and be loved. And that really is all I can do.