I Love Thursdays

ACLP Bulletin | Fall 2020 | VOL. 38 NO.4

Teresa A. P. Schoell, MA, CCLS
UR Medicine Golisano Children's Hospital

I love Thursdays.

It’s game night, and my son sits in front of the computer, the table speckled with dice. His dark brown curls in neat locs fall like soft ropes around his face. The soft glow of the computer screen highlightshis brown skin in shades of cinnamon and toasted pecans. I watch a smile spread across his face, dear to me, as there have been so few of them since quarantine started. This is why I love Thursdays. On Thursdays, he plays D&D over the internet and it’s the one time each week when I know he will smile, laugh, and genuinely forget about everything else going on in the world. For a few hours, his universe is goblins, dragons, and fireball spells. He laughs so hard his whole body moves, and the thrill of the battle brings him to the edge of his seat. He is so free, so alive, so happy on Thursday nights.

I sit huddled on the couch in the next room, the lights purposefully off, leaving my face in shadows. I have no poker face, and I don’t want him to see my eyes. My chest feels heavy, filled with a pain that I have only a peripheral claim to, but it still makes each breath stab into me, sharp and agonized, tinted with rage. I prefer the rage. It feels so much better than the relentless, devouring terror that lurks beneath, that I pretend isn’t there, that is a defining pillar of my motherhood. I look down at my hands, dry and worn from the endless handwashing, but soft and pink underneath. These hands used to be enough to keep him safe.

"I didn’t mean to normalize racism.
I didn’t even realize I was doing it."

I am a White mother to a Black son. And I have to tell him.

I don’t want to. It’s Thursday, and his face is filled with triumph as his clever use of a cantrip spell amuses the dragon and wins his friends a new ally. I have to tell him. Though we haven’t yet allowed him social media accounts, he can text with his friends. His social studies teacher talks about current events. I have to tell him. He needs to hear it from me. But I really don’t want to. It’s Thursday. Thursdays should be sacrosanct, immune to joy-stealing reality. I have to tell him.

I have told him before. I told him the first time in February 2012 when he was only five years old. He stopped wearing the black hoodie from his grandmother. I told him in November 2014 when he was eight years old. He cried when I threw away his foam dart guns. I did, too. I told him twice in July 2016, before he even turned ten. Now I have to tell him again.

But I wait for Friday morning. Thursdays should be sacrosanct.

I knock on his door early in the morning before I leave for work. “I need to talk to you.” He looks confused for a moment – not because it’s early, he’s been awake for almost an hour playing games on his phone as he does most mornings before getting up to tackle the day’s school-from-home assignments. He looks confused because I usually just blow him a kiss from the hallway before I head to the hospital for another day of pandemic work as a child life specialist. His look of confusion fades as quickly as it appeared. As I said, I have no poker face.

“His name was George Floyd,” I tell him. “He was Black, and he was killed by a police officer.” We sit there in an endless moment of silence. I’m ready for tears. I’m ready for rage. I’m ready for sorrow and pain.

“Again?” he asks me quietly. His voice is filled with somber resignation. I am not ready for resignation. I am confused by it. But then I realize. We have normalized the murder of Black people. No . . . I have normalized the murder of Black people. And I have taught my Black son to do the same.

That singular moment of visceral clarity is carved starkly into my mind. It is the moment when I realized that I am part of the problem. I have always felt a certain pride in knowing that despite the world being racist, I was not. Didn’t I rage, and protest, and donate when Trayvon Martin was killed? Didn’t I cry, and mourn, and empathize with Tamir Rice’s mother? But when the news cycle ended, so did my rage, and my fear, and my attention. I moved on with my normal daily life and taught my son to do the same. I am part of the problem. I didn’t mean to normalize racism. I didn’t even realize I was doing it. 

I grew up with the colorblind virtue, proudly living a life in which we are all members of the same race, the human race. I studied racism in graduate school, writing my thesis on preventing racism in young White children by engaging them in multi-cultural education and positive interactions with people of color. My White husband and I bought a home in a diverse school district, and chose educational and work experiences that would engage us in daily interactions with people of all races. Our son’s birth mother chose us because our profile was the only one with brown faces in any of the photos. Does this sound like someone who is racist? 

I thought “racist” was pointy white hoods lit up by torchlight, ketchup bottles emptied on the heads of peaceful protesters, and racial slurs spit from hateful lips. I do none of these things, so I am not racist. I smile and greet my co-workers of color by name every day. I nurture the bond between my son and his birth family, the most beloved Black people in his life. I make sure the toys I use with my patients show a variety of skin tones. I do all these things and more, so I am not racist.

But when a coworker made a racist joke the next week about purposefully inciting violence at a peaceful protest, I didn’t say a word. I tell myself I was too shocked to say anything, that I was still gutted from talking with my son on Friday morning, that I was too raw from a weekend of protests usurped by hateful bigots and the ensuing riots and city-wide curfews. But I didn’t say anything the next time I saw that person either. My silence validated that behavior. I normalized it. I’m part of the problem.

I have spent a lifetime trying not to be racist. But it is not enough. How could it be? Since earliest childhood I have been steeped in the racist ideas, assumptions, and stereotypes embedded throughout my world. The media I consume is riddled with them, my education

ACLPBulletinVol38No4_Fall 2020_FINAL-I_Love_Thursdays

reinforced them, and my unwitting actions have perpetuated them. Racist ideas have been ground into my very pores, and I internalized the belief that to call them out is to be “rude” and therefore unacceptable. I joined committees, I led projects, I read books. But it is not enough. I signed petitions,  I donated money, I knelt outside my hospital for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. But it is not enough. I know it is not enough, because when my son asked “Again?” I just nodded. And he nodded. Then he got dressed and tackled the day’s school-from-home assignments, and I went to work. When I got home from the hospital, we ate dinner and watched the next superhero movie on our list. Just a normal Friday.

I have spent my lifetime being not racist, a way of life defined and encompassed by all the racist things I did not do. But now I know that this is not enough. I must be more than the thoughts I don’t have, the words I don’t speak, and the actions I don’t take. This is where anti-racism comes in. Being an anti-racist is about reflecting with naked honesty on all the thoughts I have, examining the subtle and insidious beliefs that have taken root in my subconscious to influence my reactions and actions without ever recognizing that they are there. It is about scrutinizing my words for bias, unintended meaning, and above all else for the impacts that they may have, large and small. Being anti-racist means recognizing that my devotion to courtesy, my aversion to conflict, and my pervasive desire to be accepted and liked by those around me so often serve as disguises for complicity, validation, and normalization of the unacceptable.

"My silence validated that behavior.
I normalized it. I’m part of the problem."

I barely know anything about anti-racism. This is a whole new direction in a journey I’ve been on my whole life. But here is what I know so far. This is complicated, messy, hard work. And I’m going to make a lot of mistakes. My own mind and personal history will be the biggest barriers to my success. They will use every excuse, rationalization, and reframing they can think of to relieve my discomfort, ameliorate my regret, and gently excuse me from the painful obligation of taking ownership of every action, and inaction, I take. I will feel defensive, overwhelmed, and ashamed. And there is no finish line.

But I am not alone. A whole lot of other people are on this journey, too.

The human capacity to adjust, normalize, and move on is deeply embedded, even vital, to our ability to function. As child life specialists, we recognize this human skill as the vital building block for resiliency that it is. But that resiliency can unintentionally prop up systemic racism by helping us to move on from tragedy. Time and again, White people have witnessed the horrors of Black people killed by police, expressed our collective outrage, maybe wrote a check or signed a petition, then drifted back to our everyday lives as the momentum faded, the outrage dimmed, and our lives began to feel normal again. But the danger, the fear, and the pain go on for the Black members of our community. They must choose to live in the terror or normalize that threat as a part of their daily lives and accept all the detriment and
consequences that normalization brings to their psychosocial and emotional well-being. As child life professionals, charged with the emotional safety of the children we serve, we know the devastation and damage that brings.

So, what is different this time, with the death of Mr. Floyd?

Beyond the data, the disparities, and the news cycle, something is different for White people this time. The difference is COVID-19. The White members of our community are all experiencing first-hand a threat that lasts beyond a single news cycle. We are feeling the daily impacts of a danger that lingers, a threat that pervasively and insidiously seeps into every aspect of our lives. Every time we leave our homes, we must consider the threat of the virus. We must take precautions. We must change our behaviors and activities in ways we do not want. And we must sit with the daily reality that even if we do everything in our power to protect ourselves, and our love ones, it may not be enough to keep us safe.

The pandemic has given White people a touch point for emotional connection, by providing an opportunity to empathize, even a tiny bit, with the experiences of the Black members of our community. The ongoing impacts of COVID-19 on our lives force us to experience, and remember, what living with a daily threat feels like, deep in our bones, over unending days, and weeks, and months.

This virus won’t last forever. We can’t let racism, either.