Lately my 9-year-old son has been asking me questions about, basically, racism — things like why people are arguing about certain Confederate statues, and what the phrase “Black Lives Matter” means. Any advice on what I might tell him about any of this?
The woman who sent me that question also asked if I'd respond to it. So here we go:
Try telling your son something along these lines: So, you know my mother and father—your grandparents? When their parents were the age you are now, there were black senior citizens walking around everywhere, who, from the very moment they were born, were owned by white people.
Just over 150 years ago—and you’ll probably live to be 100, so we’re not talking about a whole long time here—it was considered perfectly normal, right here in America, for white people to own black people, the same way you might own a toy or a dog.
Black people who were owned by white people were called slaves. Being a slave was the most awful thing you could ever imagine. If you were a slave, the white person who owned you was perfectly free to beat you up, starve you, let dogs attack you—they could do anything they wanted to you, no matter how bad it was.
If I were a white person who owned a black woman, and that woman had a baby, I could, any time I wanted to, snatch that baby right out of her arms, and sell it to another white person. And if the mother slave cried, because she knew she would never see her baby again, I could punch her in the face for crying. If I wanted to, I could tie her to the back of a horse, and drag her through the middle of town until she was dead. And I wouldn’t get in any trouble whatsoever for doing that. It was my right to do that. Because that slave was mine, and I could do to her anything I wanted.
The reason white people felt okay with treating black people so badly is because they didn’t consider black people human beings. If you don’t think of another person as human, then you’ll do anything you want to that person, because you’ll feel like they won’t care how they’re treated the same way you do about how you’re treated. To white people, black people were nothing but things, or, at best, animals, that they could use for as long as they wanted to—and then, however they wanted to, just get rid of.
Only 150 years ago—and after a whole huge war called the American Civil War was fought over it—slavery was finally made illegal. After the Civil War, it was finally against the law for white people to own black people. Black people then had all the legal rights white people had.
But a lot of white people who had owned slaves were very angry about losing the Civil War.
They liked owning black people, a lot. They didn’t want that to stop. Because owning other people made them feel so big and powerful.
The statues you see being torn down now are usually of men who fought their hardest to keep slavery from becoming illegal. The purpose of the statues is to broadcast to the world that the people who fought in the Civil War to preserve slavery were good and honorable. And, individually, in their own ways, they may have been. Nobody is all good or all bad. Good people can do terrible, terrible things. And fighting for the right to own other people—no matter how nice a person you might be otherwise—is about as terrible a thing as anyone can do.
When black people go to a park, and just go walking around, they don’t want to see huge public statues all about how great and noble slavery was. And they sure don’t want their children to see those statues. Because they know that the message, It was awesome when your great-great grandparents were owned by white people is a horrible one for their children to receive. So they, and all the people who agree with them—which includes millions and millions of white people—want those statues taken down.
“Black Lives Matter” is just a way of saying that black people deserve as much respect and fair treatment—what’s called justice—as anyone else. And of course they do. No one should have to stand out in the street saying that their life matters. But black people sometimes feel they must do that, because that’s how tired they are of being treated—by mean-spirited individual white people, and by the white-dominated institutions that have always wielded so much power in this country—as if their lives aren’t worth as much as the life of any white person.
And the fact that so many white people, even today, still believe that black lives aren’t as valuable as white lives, is just about the worst and saddest thing there is in the world.
But, you know what? It’s getting better every day. And you and I can help make sure it keeps getting better, by making sure that we treat everyone exactly the way we want to be treated—and that, whenever we see someone, or know of someone, who is treating another person in a way that is wrong or unfair, we just don’t stand by and let that happen. Because that just lets the bad person keep being bad. We have to stand up, and come alongside the person who is being treated unfairly, and take their hand. And then we join with that person in saying to the bad person: Stop. Just stop it.
From "Ask John," the advice column I wrote for the Asheville Citizen-Times newspaper (part of the USA Today Network) from October 2016 through January 2020.