“Mister, how many times can I get in trouble before I go to jail?”
This was the question posed to me by a six-year-old boy, gathered for the Jack and Jill of America’s National Conference in Southern California. My heart sank I struggled to catch my breath as the silence was deafening. I was invited by Jack and Jill of America to facilitate the Youth Town Hall and session for more than 100 teenagers to gather to discuss the issues most important to them and their peers. When asked to identify the most pressing concern, the teenagers identified the following:
- “My friends say I’m the whitest Black person they know,” and
- “I worry about dying… about people questioning whether Black lives matter…if my life matters”
Jack and Jill of America is an organization established by dynamic women of color to ensure — among other things — that affluent African-American children and youth enjoy relationships with other affluent African-American families, often in service, in ways that might not otherwise occur given residential segregation and social isolation.
The first response was somewhat expected — notions that high achieving and affluent African-Americans are “acting white” have been prevalent among high-achieving and affluent African-Americans since the establishment of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
However, I realized that while most would deem this a privileged and protected community of young people, grappling with the reality of being both Black and conscious in America today leads to being in a state of rage, as James Baldwin eloquently explained.
While engaging with the children and youth of Jack and Jill of America I was reminded that neither affluence nor privilege protects Black children from the toxic stress and trauma associated with being Black in America. In addition to being reminded that privilege does not protect marginalized individuals or communities, my time with the children and youth of Jack and Jill also reminded me that sometimes caring and concerned adults forget young children are working to make sense of the world around them—often before most caring and concerned adults believe they are developmentally capable of engaging in the practice.
Once I gathered enough breath to respond to question posed by the six-year-old, I responded in the way I would want for adults to respond to me—with truth and love. “Sometimes sadly, we don’t get to make mistakes,” I began. “We have to make smart choices and avoid getting into trouble. It’s not fair but it’s true.”
I took another deep breath before calling on another child. We continued to talk about the importance of doing well in school and graduating from college, debated who has the best voice among Fifth Harmony, and whether Batman is better than Superman. Things that matter to kids—having fun and saving lives.
My hope is that all caring and concerned adults have opportunities to engage in honest dialogue with children and youth about the things that matter to them—the things that sometimes make adults uncomfortable when working to protect them or prevent them from experiencing the weight of the world.
We must talk to our children and listen as young people wrestle with what is happening, primarily to marginalized and oppressed individuals and communities, both in the United States and throughout the world.
My experiences as an educator and most recently as the Executive Director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans affirms my belief that caring and concerned adults should assume that children and youth have access to information and possess the skills required to process meaningful and complicated thoughts.
Acknowledging that all children regardless of privilege deserve protection and it is up to us to do the work of ensuring they are.