We live across the street from a public elementary school. The grounds are beautiful: two playgrounds — one geared toward younger kids, the other with more for older kids to do — a nature walk that winds around the big kids' play area, and a lovely community garden on the other end of the campus. My daughter loves to go there. She gravitates toward the tomatoes. Notes the change of color. Tries to pick them before they are ripe. I like to go because it feels hopeful. Everything is being made new again. Alive again. They burn large parts of the garden in the Spring to help inspire new growth. It is literally a phoenix rising from the ashes.
We hunt for bugs with her purple magnifying glass. We smell the flowers. We pick raspberries and eat them right away. She burrows sticks and wood chips into the earth until they are standing in a circle, like miniature Stonehenges.
But a few mornings ago, on our way to the garden, we came across some graffiti displayed prominently on the ground in front of the school's entryway. It read "Diversity is White Genocide." My heart plummeted. I stood there rereading the words, letting their meaning sink in, grateful my daughter couldn't read. We finally moved around it, her skipping and chattering away, happy to be outside and in one of her favorite places.
Later that day while she napped, I checked the timeline feeds from neighborhood groups I belong to on Facebook and discovered that the school wasn't the only place hit. The sidewalk in front of a local church, the sidewalk a block north of our apartment building on the street where we live, a neighbor's garage, and a nearby train stop had all been marked with racist and anti-Semitic language.
I wondered, "Did the person or people who did this . . . live here? Have I passed them on the street?"
After the protests in Charlottesville, VA, I listened with incredulity as our president referred to neo-Nazis and KKK members as "fine people," drawing false equivalences between them and those counter protesting that night. I read in the news and on social media threads defending Donald Trump, sickened by their inability to acknowledge any culpability on his part. And now this tiger that's been let out of its cage was literally just outside my door.
My neighborhood wasn't having it. People were outraged and took to social media, offering help, information for who to call, what to do. A peaceful protest rally and march was organized for the following day around the school and nearby parks. By the following Monday, all the cruel words were washed away as if they'd never been written. I felt proud to live in this little pocket of Chicago. And yet, deep down inside, I wondered, "Did the person or people who did this . . . live here? Have I passed them on the street?"
I am no stranger to coming across racism in supposedly safe spaces or people. I am a black and white biracial woman, now a wife and a mother, who lives in a predominately white neighborhood. I grew up in a similar environment, raised by my white mother within the context of her family and an all-white community. It is the cultural crucible that I was shaped in, where I have enjoyed many successful, loving relationships with white people, including my husband.
And yet, far too often in all-white spaces, I continue to encounter the same archaic message people of color in this country have been confronted with since the founding of our nation: that we are not truly "citizens," legitimate members of the community, and the equal of those who surround us.
This, of course, is a lie — but it's an old and pervasive one, not easily thwarted.
I'll be honest, the presence of that graffiti in my neighborhood triggered childhood feelings of inferiority, anger, and sadness. If I am not vigilant, those three together could reduce me to a lump of bitterness. I've been in that place before, but the stakes are much higher now. I want to be able to model for my daughter a sense of wholeness and self-accepting love for oneself. But I also want her to learn how to value people, their humanity, who they are, and what they have to contribute, regardless of how different from her they may be.
She should not have to cower, make herself smaller, or become palatable in the presence of those who are frightened by her parentage.
So much of what upsets me about what happened near our home is felt on her behalf. Similarly, with the tone that's been struck in the public square — this isn't the kind of country I want her to grow up in. And it is her country. My beautiful daughter in all her wonderful, built-in "diversity." She belongs here too. She should not have to cower, make herself smaller, or become palatable in the presence of those who are frightened by her parentage. And yet, I want her to understand the concept of being "your brother and sister's keeper." The idea that your neighbor isn't just someone who lives next door to you.
In the wake of Charlottesville, I started thinking about volunteerism as a way to shake off the hopelessness and the urge to go into a self-protective cocoon. The malevolent energy of white supremacy and anti-Semitism seeks to divide and conquer. I wanted to fight back with benevolent energy, with acts of kindness that unify people and remind us how much we truly need each other.
I began looking for a way to do this with my 2-year-old in tow. I didn't have to look long. Only days after the incident, a request for diapers was posted by a fellow mom in my neighborhood Facebook group. She was working with the Diaper Bank in Houston — her hometown — on behalf of children in need after Hurricane Harvey.
My little girl and I had fun gathering all of our extra diapers and wipes into a bag. I explained to her that there had been a big rainstorm in Texas, in a town called Houston, and there were a lot of babies and little kids who lived there who needed our help. Toddlers love to help. She was all smiles as we rolled up in front of the woman's front porch with our Trader Joe's shopping bag full of stuff for the Houston kiddos. It seemed fitting that a kind of antidote to the poisonous and cruel deed done in my neighborhood should come from an act of charity within that same neighborhood.
It's a small thing, I know, and when I consider the larger systemic part of how racism grips our country by the neck, I know this lone action is simply not enough. But in terms of encouraging my child to become someone who cares about people and who would want to help change that systemic injustice, it's foundational. You can build on a foundation.
Maybe in time, we can recover from this fire that's spread across the land, regenerate and grow something beautiful. Maybe we can rise from the ashes, like the garden across the street from our apartment. I don't know. Sometimes I really don't think so, but I want to try anyway.
I want to do it because every day I wake up to a pair of brown eyes staring back at me with leftover sleep in the corners and an unwavering gaze of trust and pure delight to see me. And even though I'll admit that some days, my discouragement only begrudgingly gives way to hope, she makes me want to believe there's still time to make it right. It reminds me of the lyrics to "White Man's World," my favorite Jason Isbell song: "I still have faith but I don't know why. Maybe it's the fire in my little girl's eyes."