They grow up so fast...
On white boys, white supremacy and why we can't merely "talk to our kids about race" our way out of this...
“Child Growth Tests” (theirhistory/flickr)
I only know six things about Kyle Rittenhouse and yet I can’t get him out of my mind.
I know that he is white.
I know that he’s from Illinois (which means that he grew up not far from where my own two white kids are growing up).
I know that he is a member of a self-styled militia group called “Armed Citizens to Protect our Lives and Property” and that he and his much older buddies showed up to protests in Kenosha on Tuesday night packing heat.
I know that his social media presence is heavy on “Blue Lives Matter” tributes.
I know that he killed two people and seriously injured a third before being allowed to walk directly past a police line and flee the state.
I know that he is seventeen-years-old.
I am sure that, in the days and weeks that follow, I will learn more about Kyle Rittenhouse. Those details may be important or they might not be. But right now I’ve got these six facts and my mind feels like it doesn’t have any room for anything else.
Everything about Jacob Blake’s story has played out like a sadistic roulette wheel. Each turn has revealed a new way to devastate you. The kids in the car. The video, either viewed accidentally or described second-hand. The back story (he was trying to de-escalate a fight! That’s one of the jobs we’re told cops exist to do!). The prophetic statements from his family. The hollowness of public statements from everybody else. The lack of imagination on all our parts as we fail to stop what we’re doing and cry out “WE ARE SO BROKEN. WE ARE SO INHUMANE. WE ARE SO ALIENATED FROM EACH OTHER. WE NEED TO BUILD SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT.”
I’ve been devastated multiple times this week. But right now, it’s Kyle Rittenhouse’s age I can’t get past.
Seventeen years old and out shooting down Black Lives Matter protestors.
Seventeen years old.
I’m hung up on his age not to give him the gift of innocence that we don’t offer to Black boys in the juvenile justice system, but because of what it reveals about white supremacy.
Holy hell what a cruelly efficient system.
And yes, he may be an anomaly in some ways. The average seventeen-year-old white boy isn’t gunning protestors down in the street. But when I think about the lessons that somebody would need to learn, at seventeen, to associate all of his political sympathy with police and police only, to join a group focused on protecting “our lives and our property” I wonder how much he’s an exception after all.
How many white boys are growing up learning that the world in which they live is basically fair and that anybody who says differently is part of the problem?
How many white boys are growing up learning that anything that is uncomfortable, any request that rattles them even slightly, is an attack?
How many white boys are growing up learning that, regardless of their political beliefs, that they will never be asked to do anything that might deviate from their or their parents’ plans for their life?
How many white boys, regardless of politics, are learning that they’re the hero of the story?
Kyle Rittenhouse isn’t an anomaly because what he did on Tuesday night night was merely the mirror image of what an older cop did in that same city a couple days previously.
Kyle Rittenhouse isn’t an anomaly because law enforcement isn’t the only American system run by grown-up former white boys that takes Black and Brown and Indigenous lives for granted.
I am a white progressive parent who trains other white people in anti-racist organizing. My life, for the past three months, has been a non-stop stream of questions and resources and suggestions about “what anti-racist parenting looks like” or “how you can talk to your kids about race.” My nearest Target now sells separate Kendi-adjacent books aimed at three different developmental levels.
I applaud every single parent-to-child conversation that’s happened that wouldn’t have happened a year ago. I applaud every ounce of white parent soul searching. I applaud every earnest effort to do better. I truly do. And yet, I woke up this morning with Kyle Rittenhouse’s gangly seventeen-year-old face and absurdly large firearm staring at me and the only thing I could think about is that we are literally bringing an Antiracist Baby book to a gun fight.
You all. I need to say it again.
Holy hell this is such a cruelly efficient system, one whose job is to ensure that white children, especially white men, will learn implicitly that they will always get to define their own limits of comfort, of security, of change.
White parents, do we understand the stakes here? Do we understand that these are not merely “Black Lives Matter signs in your lawn” stakes. These are not merely “do some reflective journaling in your Me and White Supremacy book” stakes. These are not merely “furrowed-brow talks with your children” stakes. Some of those actions might very well help our kids be better neighbors than they would be otherwise, but they aren’t nearly enough.
The question isn’t “are we ready to talk to our kids about race?” but “is our family supporting this system or dismantling it?”
It’s “are we ready to actually live our lives as an experiment in justice rather than comfort, in community rather than entitlement?”
It’s “are we willing to interrogate our family’s school choices, our neighborhood choices, our job choices, the way we jerry-rig systems to our kids’ advantage, our willingness to smugly shun the “bad white people” from our lives rather than commit to the long-game of organizing them?”
Will our kids (especially our white boys) grow up with the same cultural logic as Kyle Rittenhouse— one that views any call for justice as an existential threat and that limits the bounds of their empathy solely to those who protect the system was we know it? Or will they see their parents fumbling and stumbling and experimenting into a different way of operating in the world?
This is such a cruelly efficient system. As parents, our time with our kids is so painfully brief. Seven-month-olds become seven-year-olds become seventeen-year-olds in the blink of an eye.
What’s that parenting cliche? The days are long and the years are short?
It’s true, right? And if it is true, then here’s what else it means:
We have all the opportunities in the world to teach our kids a different set of lessons but literally no time to spare.