O: Mommy, why are those people yelling?
K: Well, they are yelling because they are sad. And mad, but I think mostly sad.
We make an annual two-and-a-half-mile pilgrimage to Beverly Hills to go to Geary's, this super fancy store that has been there forever. They have a huge tree in the middle of their showroom and it has become Felton family tradition to go pick an (exorbitantly priced) ornament off the tree. We like it because it feels special and rarified, and because I am constantly looking for ways to create traditions that are uniquely ours. I also really enjoy writing tiny dates in Sharpie marker on special things.
This year, after we picked and paid for the extra-special, hand-blown, gingerbread man ornament, we decided to walk up to see the big Christmas tree. Even in it's falseness, the Beverly Hills Christmas tree always seems to strike the right note for me: the faux cobblestone and the fake snow, not as grand as the Grove, but not cheap like 3rd St Promenade. I am, after all, a LA girl at heart.
As we approached the tree, we heard shouting. Well, really, we heard chanting. The day after the Ferguson decision a group of people had come to Beverly Hills to protest the Grand Jury's ruling. My heart sank. Here we were, with a two-year-old and four-year-old, spending too much money, running around in fancy dresses, trying to make a memory, and there they were, with their pain and their rage, trying to make a difference. We, us. They, them. I felt small and petty and I prayed O wouldn't notice, that I could put this one off for another day. This city has forced so many conversations on me that I wasn't ready to have: homelessness, sexualized billboards, and now social justice.
O: Mommy, why are those people yelling?
I tried my best to be clear, to answer her questions and be honest. I told her that they were angry and sad about a decision some people had made, and that sometimes, when people feel angry and sad about something and they don't feel like they have any power, they join together, to protest, in public, to let everyone know that they feel angry and sad. I told her that, sometimes, this helps the people who are angry and sad by giving them community and a chance to be heard, and that when enough people join together, it can make a difference, that maybe the people who feel powerless can change something. I told her a man was shot, with a gun, and he died. I told her that.
How do you explain something to a ferociously-bright four-year-old that you, yourself, don't fully understand? How do you talk about race, and prejudice, and privilege, when your audience still can't tie her own shoes? How do you explain to her why you are standing at the top of the staircase, watching, instead of charging down those stairs and joining the cause, when your reasons are fear-filled, selfish, and shaky, at best? How do you define a word like injustice, to someone who is afraid of the monster under her bed?
She wanted to go and look, so Jim took her closer to the perimeter of where a small group of protesters had gathered: a mother with a newborn on her shoulder, two pre-adolescent boys, a group of college-aged kids, and a handful of people the age of O's grandpa. She watched for a while, clutching Jim's hand. I tried to read her expression while she watched, but she looked overwhelmed and far away. I felt uneasy, as though there was something in our spectatorship that was wrong or dirty. We waited, until she tired of watching and began the walk back to our car. I grabbed her by the shoulders, forcing eye contact and trying to stuff down my own tears, and told her if she had any questions, her dad and I would do our very best to answer them.
As we made our way back through Beverly Hills and the girls skipped ahead, I was struck by the attention and fawning they received. Everyone who passed them smiled at them, a fair number commented on how cute they were, some even stopped to engage them in polite conversation. As they moved through the world, I saw that world part before them, easing their way.
I don't know how to tell them that the world doesn't part for everyone that way, that by an accident of birth, they will experience certain advantages. I don't know how to tell them how unfair that is.
I worry a lot, about my kids, about their safety when they are out in the world, but I don't ever worry that they will be shot, because someone perceived them as being dangerous, because of the color of their skin. I can't pretend to imagine that I could understand that fear, that anger, that sadness, that a mother would have, even for a second, but I am trying.
We did the best we could in the moment, but I don't feel great about any of it.