opinion

OPINION: Teach your children empathy so theirs don’t have to learn fear



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“I can’t breath,” reads a sign May 29 at the Monroe County Courthouse. Protesters joined together after the death of George Floyd. Alex Deryn

Growing up white, I was taught to brush my teeth twice a day, use a tissue when I blow my nose and always say please and thank you. 

I imagine most black sons learn the exact same things. But they also have to engrain in their minds countless rules that I don’t. 

For example, my mother never scolded me for having my hands in my pockets while walking through a store. If I wanted to go jogging when it was cold outside, she didn’t caution me against wearing a hood or a hat. 

I don’t recall my father ever outlining a precise line of etiquette for me to follow if ever confronted by law enforcement, worried I might choose my words carelessly and have them be my last.

As it stands, our country expects black parents to impress an absurd amount of lessons upon their children simply to keep them alive. I was told not to drink cleaning supplies or stick forks in electrical sockets. Black children have to be mindful of everything from their clothing to their tone of voice when talking to the people supposedly entrusted to protect them.

This disparity in expectations is just one case of systematic racism in an immeasurable multitude, but it may be the most crucial. When white boys and girls are raised to act with neither empathy nor restraint, black boys and girls grow up in fear. 

If somebody fails to comprehend empathy, their understanding of power becomes dangerously askew. A white man who learns neglect as a boy may seek the power he desperately craved in the form of a badge and a gun as an adult.

Likewise, a bully who was never told no and instead received everything he wanted will continue to exert his will on those he deems lesser. For every white police officer who thinks his skin color makes him judge, jury and executioner, an entire community of black citizens must exist in suffocating anxiety.

Even if a black man or woman is lucky enough to go his or her whole life without suffering at the hands of law enforcement personnel, they will always be distrusting as a means of survival. 

It’s probably a safe assumption that police officers aren't going anywhere. Therefore, so long as there are cruisers waiting to be driven by people with sidearms and the permission to fire said weapons, we must ensure the people filling those positions do not carry malice in their hearts, and certainly not the kind predicated on race. 

Sure, there will be some for whom the message doesn’t quite stick. There will always be a certain number of self-entitled bigots. Fortunately, it appears to me that these same bigots tend to also be tremendous cowards, most confident in their twisted ideologies when behind the anonymity of a screen, the comfort of wealth or the authority of a job title.

If those cowards live in a world that condemns their racist impulses, they will be forced to slink back to the fringes of a society that refuses to tolerate their behavior.

There are a lot of things I would love my future son or daughter to be. Intelligent, humorous and independent come to mind. Above all, however, I want that child to be alive. I can’t conscionably raise a child knowing his actions or lack thereof could jeopardize the livelihood of someone else’s kid.

The ability to decide whether your children learn hate or compassion doesn’t seem like a privilege until you realize that countless parents have no choice but to teach theirs to be afraid. Until we recognize that privilege and choose empathy, entire generations of children will be born into fear.

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