Talking to My Black Kids About the Protests

June 10, 2020

Standing with children to support the movement for Black lives — and why self-care needs to be a top priority right now. 

It has been an incredibly difficult week, month and year for us.

International borders closed the day before my West African husband was scheduled to return home to New York after visiting his mother in Burkina Faso. He would spend two months under curfew in Burkina before he was able to fly home on a U.S. Embassy charter flight.

During that time, I sheltered in our two-bedroom Manhattan apartment with our 7- and 9-year-old daughters, who struggled to come to terms with our new reality sans their father. While they were yearning for normalcy, their best friend lost both her grandfathers, and in April, at the pandemic's peak in the epicenter, we heard at least once a week about the death of a member of our community. 

While COVID-19 kept Zuhirah Khaldun-Diarra's husband in Burkina Faso for months as he waited for a flight home, she and her daughters, 7 and 9, spent seven straight weeks inside their Manhattan apartment.  © Zuhirah Khaldun-Diarra

We prayed daily for our safety and that of our community — which, like all African American communities, has been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus — and for Daddy's safe return, while settling into a new normal: distance learning and no access to the outside, with our building amenities and outdoor areas closed.

We got a mini trampoline for the girls' room during the longest stretch they stayed inside the walls of our apartment, which was about seven weeks. Seven weeks in which my younger daughter cried herself to sleep every night, wondering "Why did Daddy have to go see his mommy anyway? Why didn't she come to us?" and praying for a "cure for the coronavirus" while thanking frontline workers every night at 7 PM on the dot. Stress on my youngest also manifested in bathroom issues, pains in her chest and panic attacks.

We prayed daily for our safety and that of our community — which, like all African American communities, has been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus.

All the while, I worked with the UNICEF USA team developing a messaging framework for our global COVID-19 response and worried about my Black sister-in-law, the chief medical executive for the state of Michigan, who faced armed white militia men as she and the Governor worked ardently to treat the rising numbers of citizens affected by the coronavirus while determining how to reopen the state safely.

Daddy returned two weeks ago, but a couple days after his arrival, the other shoe dropped. Amy Cooper threatened the life of a Black male birder in Central Park and the life of George Floyd was violently taken by a man who had sworn an oath to serve and protect the citizens of Minneapolis.

The polis.... The polis that I clung to, that ideal place of elevated thought, and diversity, and innovation, and enlightenment. All roads lead to the polis and we prided ourselves on being city people. A recent Google search showed that polis is also the Scottish and Irish form of "police."

The author's daughters rode in a stroller to their first protest, after no justice was found for the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2013. © Zuhirah Khaldun-Diarra

So here we are. Black Lives Matter on my Amazon home screen, to my sneaker company — and now, reportedly, the NFL (are they serious?!). CNN hosted a Town Hall for children, "Coming Together: Standing Up to Racism," last Saturday and Parents Together Act along with the Women's March, MomsRising and the Working Families Party held a Virtual Protest for Families in support of #BlackLivesMatter last weekend.

The increased urgency is palpable... it seems like this time, we might make some real progress in dismantling the structures of oppression that endanger Black lives and support a highly inequitable society.

I'm dialoguing with my white and brown friends on how to talk to their children and their white and brown friends and family about racism and how to lend support to the movement, and I am so excited to see how many mainly young Black people have led protests and been joined by white and brown allies in solidarity. 

The increased urgency is palpable. Despite numerous pivotal moments and movements that have taken place in my lifetime, it seems like this time, we might make some real progress in dismantling the structures of oppression that endanger Black lives and support a highly inequitable society.

The fire this time feels different.

We've had many talks with our children about discrimination and the oppression of Black people in America, starting when my older daughter was 5 and first noticing racial difference. This week, when I asked her about the meaning of the Yin Yang symbol on her handpainted #BlackLivesMatter sign, she said, "It means that Black people are inside white people, so when they are hurting Black people, they are hurting themselves." 

My priority in this moment... is that my children feel safe, loved, supported and empowered. The very worst parts of our existence as Black people in America are being discussed and structures that keep them in place dissected. I don't want them to feel victimized, but free to be their entire Black selves and take pride in that.

But my priority in this moment — especially with the compounded trauma of what they have been through with the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on us and our community — is that my children feel safe, loved, supported and empowered. The very worst parts of our existence as Black people in America are being discussed and structures that keep them in place dissected. I don't want them to feel victimized, but free to be their entire Black selves and take pride in that. A balanced narrative must include their majesty, beauty and magic.

I am not keeping them in a bubble. We know that is impossible. I want them to be a part of this important moment and their own emancipation, but self-care is of the utmost priority in our house right now and I am holding onto and seeking a loving community so they know they are not in this alone. We have been through too much, not just this year, but since their first protest in Manhattan's Union Square after finding no justice for the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2013. Fortifying them with love and community comes first, as does being a caring sounding board for their questions and concerns. 

So while the Families Virtual Protest for Black Lives was Saturday afternoon and it was incredible to be a part of this uprising of voices in solidarity with Black lives, I was sure to attend my niece's virtual cello recital along with family from across the country and the Atlantic, first. My babies are beautiful, international, perfect, valued and free. In short, I am telling my kids that they matter. This is what I am communicating. White friends, you can tell that to your kids about my kids too.

Contact your Senators and urge them to cosponsor the Justice in Policing Act (S. 3912), a first step toward reimagining public safety in a just and equitable way.

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Top photo: In Atlanta, a young boy raises his fist for a photo taken by a family friend during a May 31, 2020 demonstration following the death of George Floyd while in police custody. © Photo by Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images