About a month ago, I was out with some friends for karaoke and a pitcher of marvelously cold Narragansett beer. I like to sing in two places: the car, and halfway through one of those pitchers with my neighbor and good friend, Jan. So, there we are, having some laughs, chatting with some other regulars and enjoying the other singers, when a song came on, and a group of twenty-somethings started to sing, gleefully, about an explicit sexual encounter, rife with violence and appalling language. It made my skin crawl. I looked for the door.
Now hold up. YES, I was in a karaoke bar, not Mickey’s Play House. I get it. I hear things now and then, deftly dodge the occasional unsavory person in the name of a relaxing night out with my ladies. It comes with the territory.
But this was so far against my principles as a feminist and an anti-racist, that I simply had to remove myself, both as a sign of displeasure and frankly to get some air and get the hell away from that rubbish. But there was one other thing, something that nagged at me (clearly) for weeks and weeks; this sense that, as someone’s mother, I owed something to them even when I wasn’t with them. A certain comportment, maybe. And that moment of discomfort and agitation was as much about myself as it was about them.
Reason #1: Women, Trans-Women, and Girls.
I teach my boys respect for women and girls. I have a high bar for this, as should every parent, especially of boys. Say what you will that “everyone should be respected”, that isn’t my point. Of course they should. But women are constantly targeted by men, girls by boys, it is a fact we cannot ignore.
Recently at an indoor bounce-house playspace, my oldest knocked into a little girl, received a warning from me, then pulled it again. He got yanked out by his foot and gently placed on a bench to take a break. When he stopped whining, I explained to him that it was not OK to touch her or be in her space (I would add “without permission” but he doesn’t understand that yet so I’ll add that detail in a year or two) and that I expected an apology to her and her mother. After he begrudgingly complied, he received copious hugs, kisses and praise, then ran off to dismantle a play kitchen. The mother of the little girl approached me after and said rather coolly, “You know…they are just kids its what they do. I’m not worried about it.” I don’t know what possessed me to go deep on this one, but I looked at her evenly and said, “This is how it starts though. This is when he starts to learn what is acceptable behavior towards friends, especially girls. I can’t help that he will grow up in a world telling him his maleness gives him the right to be in your daughter’s space or touch her body without permission. But I have to make it explicit in my discipline, that it is completely unacceptable. That it will not go unnoticed or excused by the people he learns from the most. In ten years, twenty years, do you want him to think it is ok to lay a finger on her, or violate her space in any way with explicit consent to do so?” She paused. I had gone there. “I see your point” she conceded, and walked away.
Reason #2: People of Color:
I work to be an ally to folks of color. It’s not something I think I can self-identify, either, that just feels like another way of using my white privilege. The very fact that these songs are just “soon funny” is beyond me. This particular song chronicled getting beaten by a white man for engaging in intercourse with his daughter. So many identities, privileges and oppression swirling around in that narrative. My kids haven’t expressed any apparent notice of color or behavior that would suggest a relationship with the race of themselves or anyone else. And yes, they have plenty of playmates of color, largely black boys. But it will come up, I am sure of it. Or they will behave in a way that signals to me that they have already internalized their superiority as white kids. Privilege is like that. And in that moment, and dozens and dozens after, I will need to teach them what that narrative is, why it is immoral, untrue and an incitement to speak out, but also that as my sons, they are expected to simply…act right! And racism isn’t simple, my journey thus far has told me that. It is sneaky, seemingly invisible most of the time, but it is everywhere. And it hurts my friends, their beautiful children and our community. If I let my boys hear songs like that, during this impressionable period, when they are defining norms and cultural reference points, or if I sit passively while that hate speech is expressed, I am a hypocrite. More than that, I would be a liar. Truth is, it pissed me off. It should piss me off, and it should piss everyone off.
Like an electric fence that stopped me at a certain number of drinks (which five years ago, wouldn’t), or that made me hand over my keys without a single second of protest to a friend on New Year’s Eve (again, 2011), I knew that I could never shake being someone’s mama. I can never shake the responsibility, the complete inability to behave recklessly. There was a time when I did, and it won’t come back. The truth is, there was so much freedom in not caring, growing in spaces when I felt like it. But that time has given way to the constant, unchanging reality that two people will either contribute to a better more just world, or they will be part of what unhinges it. So maybe that’s it then, the options: laziness or legacy?