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What My 10-Year-Old Daughter Taught Me About the Death of Freddie Gray

04/25/2015 03:53 pm ET | Updated Jun 25, 2015
JGI/Jamie Grill via Getty Images

"I don't like Black people" a little girl said to my daughter earlier this week in school. My daughter, who is Black, was stunned to hear these seemingly out-of-nowhere words from her non-Black classmate.

She came home that night, upset and hesitant to tell us what happened. She didn't want to get her friend in trouble, but she knew what she said was wrong. We affirmed her decision to tell us about it and we told her that we would contact their teacher.

At recess the following day, the little girl came up to my daughter complaining that telling on her was "mean" and that now her parents were going to punish her for getting in trouble. She added that their teacher said she had to apologize so "Here it is. I'm sorry." And she walked away.

My daughter came home again upset. And I was too. My daughter, like her parents, had little interest in this other little girl getting punished. Her having to miss a part of recess or her sitting in timeout at home is not very important to us, nor is it the most helpful or important outcome. This only teaches her that it is rude to say such things aloud. It does nothing about the fact that she "doesn't like Black people" and that those thoughts and feelings come from somewhere.

My daughter didn't need the apology or for her classmate to be in trouble. She needed and wants her classmate to understand why feeling that way about an entire race of people before you meet them is wrong and leads to dangerous, racist, hateful, discriminatory, and even deadly situations.

I held this situation in my heart while simultaneously holding the tragedy that has struck my hometown of Baltimore, Maryland.

On April 19, Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Black man, died after a week of being in a coma. His death resulted from a broken spine suffered at the hands of the police. And now, Freddie's name will be mentioned in the same breath as Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Eric Harris, Rekia Boyd, Walter Scott and the many many others who have been killed by police officers -- just in the last year.

As tired and as nearly numb as I am after the emotional beating so many of us have felt after a year of demonstrating, writing, speaking out, teaching, and crying, my heart broke at seeing the images of people marching on the streets of the city that I grew up in. In fact, as I write this, my sisters and brothers from Charm City are marching towards the downtown police station. And I too am marching -- not with feet, but with my words. And with my broken heart. Seeing the hurt, betrayal and devastation of my hometown people is killing me -- killing us all. We aren't just dying in, we are dying inside.

My first reaction was to want justice. I want those officers not only suspended as they have been a this point, but I hope that perhaps my city can make a statement that this kind of of brutal treatment of a person whom they chased only because he seemed "suspicious" and ran will not be tolerated. This can't be seen as just a regrettable mistake, it must be seen as at the very least manslaughter if not murder. But will Freddie's death, like Michael's and Eric's not even be deemed worthy of going to a trial let alone a conviction?

And yet punishment, or even justice is not enough. Justice is important, no doubt. It's an important part of restoring a community's faith in its authorities. But what concerns me even more are the feelings and thoughts that many (not all) cops -- and in reality many Americans -- have about Black and Brown people in this country. And I think many people miss this.

The police chief in Baltimore has suspended the involved officers. He's called for not only an internal investigation, but also an independent one. The Justice Department is now investigating it. These are all things that some of the other cities and towns in similar situations over the last several months, did not do. Further, I like to think that my city will learn from Ferguson and other localities and take this to a trial. It is odd to say it, but I think that we are or at least will get better at dealing with bad situations and bringing about justice.

But, that's all that I've seen with the little girl at my daughter's school. The teacher, who is a great classroom educator, dealt with the little girl swiftly. She brought her in, pulled her out of recess, and notified her parents. The school has managed the situation well and I imagine that she is getting punished. But my beautiful Black daughter was right to not want just punishment. She wanted her classmate to learn, to understand, and to reform.

This must be one of our demands while demonstrating. Getting rid of bad apples isn't enough. Making them stand trial and perhaps serve time for what they've done isn't enough. None of that can bring Freddie back nor can it prevent there from being more Freddie Grays or more Walter Scotts or more Michael Browns. Putting a child in timeout might prevent her from saying that she doesn't like Black people anymore, but it won't reform her thinking. It won't explore the message that she has learned wrongly and painfully from somewhere.

The kind of thinking that teaches someone that a Black man or woman standing somewhere is suspicious simply because of the color of his skin also comes from somewhere.

We need a complete rethinking around how our police our trained. This I pray is one of the things that our new U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch will work on. My brother shared with me wisely that it makes more sense for a department to spend a few hundred thousand in changing police training than to continue to spend millions on settlements with the families of victims. But it's about more than money, isn't it?

This kind of reform makes the world better. It might eventually restore some of the trust that has been broken. Reform and greater understanding might even restore the broken friendship that my daughter experienced this week.

The story coming out of Florida earlier this year where police were caught using Black faces on targets for shooting practice is an example of how racism and "suspicions" are taught. But this social construction of Black men and women as being dangerous pre-criminals is taught before people make it to the police academy or to school. It's taught by the local news and stories and images they choose to share with viewers. It's taught by schools that undervalue diversity and don't expose their students to different types of people. It's taught by institutions that only punish people when they are caught as opposed to reconsidering how they train and educate people. It's also taught at home by parents.

A dear White brother of mine wrote to me recently asking for advice about whether he and his wife should teach their young elementary-school-aged kids about famous Black Americans and race. The tension that he felt, I think, was that on the one hand, he recognized the importance of teaching a history that they might not get in school and the positive benefit one gets from being exposed to experiences other than one's own. On the other hand, they thought that there is something very sad about exposing children to the realities of difference and to how some people use that difference to discriminate and hate and fear others.

Upon hearing from him, I thought to how my daughters all got the race talk from me when they were very young. They are not privileged in such a way that they can avoid the issue. Nor do I want them to. They should be and are proud of their heritage and their race. But they are also sadly aware of racism.

I told my friend that each parent knows when the right time is to have these heavy conversations, and that there are certainly ways to have difficult conversations without them being scary and without them stealing away the innocence of children. On the other hand, sometimes kids have their racial innocence taken away from them by small hurtful comments made by other kids at school. Others lose their racial innocence by hearing about a 25-year-old from their neighborhood who is killed by police simply for looking suspicious and running.

It's so important to have these conversations at home. Some parents don't realize that they are having these conversations unintentionally through the things that they say about people on television or the people that they pass while driving through the city. Kids pick up the "those people" comments, they see the eye rolls, they perceive the clutched purses when walking, they notice that their parents don't have friends of certain races. In the same way, kids pick up how they are viewed by others, how they are portrayed on television, how they are thought of as suspicious just because of the color of their skin.

I'm always wary of the argument that all problems can and should be solved at home. I think that takes some of the responsibility off of other institutions that can bring about social change yet drastically need reform. But the role of parents and families is an important one -- particularly in the prevention of racial discrimination. And perhaps those who are the stewards of justice in our nation can learn a lesson from the best aspects of parenting. Timeouts without an explanation and unpacking of what went wrong is incomplete. We can and must do better.