I feel fortunate to be an offshoot of a family that European immigrants lovingly planted on American soil. All were deeply proud to become American citizens. They instilled their patriotism into their children and grandchildren, including my five brothers and sisters and me.
We have pruned our branch of the family into a uniquely American shape: We are white. We are black. We are Japanese. We are Mexican. We are gay. We are straight. We are able-bodied. We are disabled. We all have a place here, in this family and in this “Land of the Free.”
The 10 children our family is raising are being shaped by a plurality of perspectives. This is part of our strength and our American identity.
Over the past several months, our family pride has turned into a collective sense of vulnerability. These times feel unsettling. According to Southern Poverty Law Center, the days following the US presidential election saw nearly 900 reports of “harassment and intimidation from across the nation.”
An SPLC survey of nearly 10,000 administrators, educators and councilors from schools across the US reveals an uptick in instances of “verbal harassment” and “the use of slurs and derogatory language”; 40 percent of the educators surveyed reported that they have “heard derogatory language directed at students of color, Muslims, immigrants and people based on gender or sexual orientation.”
My sister-in-law’s childhood neighborhood made national news shortly after the election. It’s a small town in Indiana where she grew up and where her grandparents reside. Graffiti threatening to kill church goers because of their race defaced the oldest African American church there. Her grandparents don’t get out much anymore, but they go to church. Except, now, they are targeted. So now they are afraid.
Earlier this month, a synagogue in Chicago was defaced, and waves of threats have been targeting Jewish community centers. It seems especially cruel to threaten people at the places they go for refuge, community and peace.
Another of my sisters-in-law is a second generation American citizen. When she was a child, her mother insisted she and her siblings always carry their social security cards, in case their citizenship was questioned. My sister-in-law fears that she will have to reenact this practice with my niece and nephews. She wonders, too, how her family will go about hurtling this proposed wall when they want to visit their family members in Mexico.
My sister’s gayness is a source of pride in my family. She helped us become who we are as a family; she helped us learn to challenge biases that hold us back and to become more accepting people. Sometimes people lash out at her because her gayness is easy to detect. We were hoping our country was moving past this.
I recognize that my kids, husband and I inhabit “safe” skin and my husband and I a conventional-looking marriage. This gives us a deep sense of responsibility-to be listeners and advocates, to raise listeners and advocates. Here’s what we’re trying:
Talk about racism: And let your kids talk about it. What does it look like? What does it sound like? I just read To Kill a Mocking Bird to my fourth and fifth grader-which was conversation provoking. I found it helpful because it deconstructs the institutionalization of racism. It’s a case study of how American institutions systematically abuse black citizens. We used it to talk about that history and to discuss how groups can be systematically victimized.
Stay Informed: If racist flyers turn up in the community, discuss this as a family. If churches, synagogues, temples or mosques are vandalized, talk about how this is bullying behavior. School aged kids have been trained to recognize bullies and to stand up for those being bullied. Draw from this background.
Reaffirm your commitment to your local community. Build community at its most fundamental level. Increase your family’s presence at your place of worship or your community center. Show your kids that their community is full of people they can count on and trust, some who look similar to them and some who look different.
If, like my family, yours is in “safe” skin, listen to those who aren’t. Hear their stories without talking over the top of them. Unfortunately, many of our fellow citizens are victims of hate crimes. They need to be heard.
Keep in mind that people who are victimized might not be comfortable trusting people who look like their victimizers. So be a supportive presence and truly listen with the goal of understanding and building trust.
Commit random acts of affirmation. Anonymous acts of hatred are so deeply frightening. Send messages of support and acceptance to churches, synagogues, mosques or schools that might be targeted. Counter communication initiatives that aim to hurt and scare with your own that seek to spread support, love and hope. Involve your kids. They are experts when it comes to sharing love and friendship.
America was not established for any one kind of people. We all belong here. Together we make America great.