In Anoka, Minnesota, in July of this year, a gay teenager named Justin Aaberg killed himself. He killed himself because he was being bullied, and he was bullied because he was gay.
He was one of three gay students in his district to kill themselves in the last year.
Justin’s mother Tammy is campaigning to bring LGBT-positive anti-bullying education programs to the Anoka-Hennepin school system, but the school district is resisting, and other parents have started organizing against her.
Tammy Aaberg is right, of course, and the parents who oppose her are wrong. But her rightness and their wrongness isn’t what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about something else we can do about bigotry, without going through school boards or waging big campaigns.
I want to talk about talking.
My daughter Casey is seven, and going into second grade. This summer she went to a day camp outside the city, which meant half an hour or so on the bus each direction every day. The campers and counselors brought CDs to play on the ride.
Which is how she wound up singing “Don’t Stop Believing” in the back of our minivan when she and I and her little sister were on a camping trip to Niagara Falls a few weeks ago.
It took me a while to figure out that she’d learned the song from the Glee soundtrack, but figure it out I eventually did, and then I found their version of the tune online and we put it on repeat, the three of us belting it out over and over again.
By the time we’d got back to the city, I’d decided to let them watch the show.
Which is how we wound up on my bed a few nights ago watching the episode in which Kurt (the gay kid in the high school glee club from which the show takes its name, for all my elderly readers) tries to land a solo singing a song written for a female singer. The episode in which Kurt’s dad, an adorably well-meaning and supportive auto mechanic, gets an anonymous phone call threatening violence against his “fag” son.
I paused the show at that scene.
I paused the show and told Casey that “fag” is a really really bad word, a horribly mean word that some horribly mean people use to be horribly mean to gay men and boys.
She nodded somberly.
I told her that if anyone ever uses that word around her, she needs to call them out on it. She needs to tell them to stop.
She nodded again, even more somberly.
At this point her somberness was getting to me a little, so I asked her if she knew why she needed to tell them to stop. She shook her head. I broke into a huge grin, which made her smile too. I said “because we’re the good guys!”
And I gave her my fist to bump. Which she did, enthusiastically, grinning from ear to ear. And then we went back to watching the show.
A few years ago, some academics did a study of racial attitudes in small children. They wanted to find out whether generic assurances that everyone’s the same on the inside — the standard white liberal catechism of racial good feeling — actually make a difference in whether kids turn into bigots.
Telling your kid that everyone’s the same, that nobody’s better than anyone else, that everybody’s friends with everybody, accomplishes nothing. You can say that kind of stuff all day and all night — and believe me, white liberal parents do — but if that’s all you do, when a researcher sits your kid down and asks your kid whether black people are as nice or as smart or as pretty or as good as white people, they’re going to get answers that are going to make you cringe.
Because there’s bigotry floating around in the air in our society. Not anywhere near as much as there used to be, but not none, either. And your kid is going to pick that up. And if that’s all your kid picks up, it’s going to stick.
So if you’re a white parent who wants your kid to not turn into a casually creepy bigot at the age of six, you need to talk about race. You need to tell your kid about racism. You need to be the first to explain racism to your kid, before that bigotry floating around in the air has a chance to land on them.
You need to say that some horrible people think that black people aren’t as nice, as smart, as pretty, as good as white people. You need to say that those people are horrible, and that they’re wrong. You need to say that people like those people — white people like those people — used to be in charge in a lot of places, but that nice, smart, good people (some, but not all, of them pretty) fought against them in the courts and on the streets and changed the rules so that the horrible people wouldn’t always win.
You need to tell them about Dr. King and Rosa Parks and Ella Baker, and about the white folks in SNCC, and Goodman and Schwerner and Chaney. You need to tell them about Frederick Douglass and John Brown and Sojurner Truth and Nat Turner.
Okay, maybe you don’t need to go that far. Maybe you don’t need to do all that. (But I do, just in case.)
On our way to Niagara Falls, I took Casey and her sister to Harriet Tubman’s house in Auburn NY to learn about the Underground Railroad, and to the Seneca Falls National Historical Site to learn about the birth of modern feminism.
I don’t want my kids to be bigots.
I don’t want my kids to be bigots, and that’s not all. I want my kids to be fighting against the bigots. And I don’t just want them fighting, I want them winning. And so I started arming them for that fight before they were out of preschool. Because that’s what you need to do.
Those of you reading this who are parents, talk to your kids. Those of you who are going to be parents, start thinking now about how you’re going to talk to your kids, when they get here. Those of you who are siblings, talk to your brothers and sisters. Those of you who are children, talk to your parents. Talk to your friends. Talk to your teachers. Talk to your professors.
Talk. Talk. Tell them what you know. Tell them what you believe. Tell them what you’ve learned.
Don’t let them walk around not knowing.
The next Justin Aaberg may be one of your children’s friends.
The next Justin Aaberg may be your own kid.
PS: Thanks to @Legere on Twitter for this post’s title.