In the aftermath of the not-guilty verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman, I have tried to offer and elicit analysis of the legal, historical and political meaning of the case and its outcome. But in this case, the political is deeply personal. I have experienced the killing of Trayvon Martin, this trial, and this verdict as a political scientist and television host. But I have also felt it, in my gut, as the parent of a black child.
I am far from alone in this experience. Parents of children of color are struggling to process their own fears and cultivate meaningful conversations with their children about personal safety, about the history of injustice in our country, and about sustaining hope and a sense of youthful exuberance and possibility. Parents of white children, trying to raise conscious, engaged, fair-minded kids, are seeking their own ways of talking with their children. We don’t want to be a generation of handwringing elders who make our children afraid to grow and explore. We do not want to nurture hatred, fear, or disinvestment in the collective project of America. But we also want to give them the tools to thrive in a country where race continues to predict their life outcomes in powerful and insidious ways.
I do not have all the answers. Not even close. I have been asking others to share. On Sunday’s Melissa Harris-Perry, my panel of parents spoke about how they were grappling with talking to their kids.
In the spirit of parents helping parents, I am opening up about the very personal interactions my husband and I had with our daughter on Saturday night. I know that sharing these words will undoubtedly leave me open to criticism. But I hope that there is something here that can help others as we work toward just and loving responses to the pain so many of us are feeling.
Here is our story of Saturday night.
The first text came from msnbc central booking at 9:30 pm:
msnbc: Melissa, the verdict is in. We need you to come on in.
MHP: Ok, I’ll be there in 15 minutes.
Ten minutes later the second text arrived:
msnbc: Not Guilty.
MHP: Oh, this is going to be a long night.
Thirty minutes later I was in full broadcast make-up, sitting on set in at 30 Rockefeller Center. Along with my msnbc colleagues, I listened as the prosecution and defense attorneys shared their reactions to the verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman. At 9:52, my phone buzzed again. This time it was a text message from Parker, my 11-year-old daughter. Parker spends the month of July in Chicago with her father. She was awake and tuned into msnbc along with her dad.
Parker: Hey mom. Watching u now. I can’t believe this America has no justice. It makes me sick. So sick.
I felt so powerless. I desperately wanted to reach out and soothe her, but she was thousands of miles away and I was on live TV. So I fired off a quick note.
MHP: It is ok. I promise, everything will be ok. I love you. Please try not to worry about it.
Parker: Ok, but maybe next year we can move to Paris.
Paris—the destination of choice for generations of African-American intellectual and artistic expats, trying to escape the systemic and dehumanizing racism they experienced in the United States. It was hard to tell if she was tapping into this long tradition, or just making a tween plea for a trip to Europe.
MHP: I understand. I really do. I am heartbroken. I wish I were with you to hug you. You are my everything. I just want the world to be a safe place for you and for all black children.
Parker: I want the same.
My last text from Parker arrived at 10:20 pm. But it turns out that she was still reaching out for comfort and understanding. As she saw me beginning to talk on television, she was reluctant to keep texting. So Parker began to text with my husband, her stepfather, James. When I finally had a chance to see the messages the next day I was overwhelmed with gratitude as I read evidence of my husband’s extraordinary long-distance parenting in the midst of a painful and confusing night. I was in awe of my own daughter’s understanding of the complicated issues surrounding the case.
Parker: I can’t believe what happened! If Trayvon was white and George was black there would be a whole different story. It makes me mad.
James: You are right to be mad. But now you must turn to the question of what you will do to make things better. We can all do something. What will you do?
Parker: I will wear hoodies everywhere. That is what I will do. I will get a shirt with Trayvon’s face on it. I will make Christmas cookies and pancakes in the shape of his face.
James: That is a great idea. What will that do to help?
Parker: Let people know that I care.
James: That is very important. How do you think they ended up making such a bad decision?
Parker: There were no black men or black women on the jury.
James: Do you think white people can understand racism?
Parker: Only a few, like Grammy she understands racism.
James: What helps her to understand?
Parker: Grammy is smart. She knows racism and math English and history. She knows a lot. I love my Grammy. I do not know if she is the smartest white person I just know she is really really really smart.
James: I agree Grammy is very smart. Racism is very complex and very difficult to understand. Some people who are racist are extremely smart…even genius. Some people who are racist are extremely stupid. In the end it does not matter how stupid or smart they are, racism still hurts.
Parker: I agree.
James: The most important thing is that people like you, Grammy, your mother and me who understand how terrible racism is, must take steps every day to challenge it. It does not matter how big or small our actions are, we must make sure that we challenge it every day. I love you and I am proud of you for paying attention and analyzing a very complex issue. Sleep well.
Parker: Goodnight. Love u. I have church tomorrow.
We are like many American families. We are trying. Parker’s father felt it was important for her to know the verdict, to think about it, and to understand what is happening. I wanted to let her know how precious she is and how much she is loved. James encouraged her to think about what she could do to make a difference and how she could understand the difficult issues the verdict raised. And Grammy (my mother, who is white) is there as proof that love and understanding can and do cross racial boundaries; a reminder not to vilify or judge others simply because of their race. It is hard work. We cannot be certain if we are doing it right. But we are all in it together.