We Can’t Bring Our Children to Water We Do Don’t Thirst For; B is for Black Lives Matter, Bodies and Bias
I found myself texting the phrase structural gaslighting last night, as I tried to put a word to what triggered me.
Earlier that morning I’d led an online intergenerational workshop where we are building shared vocabulary.
A is for abolition.
B is for Black Lives Matter.
B is for bodies.
B is for bias.
V is for violence.
We had to skip ahead several letters, because it’s incongruous to define anything else without naming violence.
Violence is how racism and policing are expressed. What changes is the scale or the source, but in every scenario one body or a group of bodies are targeted, and in too many cases murdered and assaulted.
I tried in a thirty-minute segment to connect Juneteenth, the killing of Black Trans Women, the Movement for Black Lives, the March to Defend Black Womxn, the five-year anniversary of the Charleston massacre, and the assaults and death of Oluwatoyin Salau.
Shared language is a part of that, because concepts need a reference point.
More often than we name, children connect concepts more quickly than adults simply because they are still deciding what is true for themselves.
They are open to arranging, and rearranging the world, and not yet as invested in one worldview.
And, in glimpses, they are braver at speaking the truth and pointing out patterns and contradictions.
While watching a movie together, my seven-year-old nephew observed, “They named their town Gaslight.”
While watching a mattress commercial a year earlier he looked at me and said, “Do you see how this commercial is trying to make white seem better?”
In a late-night conversation, he reflected, “You know what else is true? Those friends took care of each other, and that made them safer.”
My brain is littered with short clips similar to these that push back on the adult bias that children can’t understand complex ideas, or that they benefit from receiving milder truths, which are then less true.
In another moment, we were having a conversation in which he asked me, “do you think gaslighting is violent, or that it leads to violence?”
“Both,” I responded. “I know it’s both.”
In my relationships, and especially my relationships with children, my strongest conviction is to be a reliable narrator.
Unreliable narrators in literary terms are narrators whose credibility is compromised.
They are narrators who we can’t trust, and who gradually we no longer trust.
Right now, we are watching many people wake up to white supremacy and policing as unreliable narrators.
We are witnessing that label then apply to specific people, places and ideas intimately woven into our lives through relationships and memories.
And we are witnessing a version of that question that my nephew asked me being asked repeatedly.
Is racism what’s bad, or only racial violence?
Are police bad, or just police who kill unarmed Black people?
Is whiteness bad, or just white supremacy?
Are the roots of violence violent, or just the seeds that have sprouted?
My response is still, both. Both are violent.
When I think about how I’ve described gaslighting to children, I’ve focused on its effects.
Gaslighting is a kind of lie that teaches you that you can’t trust yourself. Gaslighting tells us emotions can’t be trusted, our observations can’t be trusted, our bodies can’t be trusted, and unreliable narrators like authority can.
It’s an easy leap then to learn not to trust other people’s experiences or feelings too, and we see the way that whiteness presents chances to litigate trauma and oppression mercilessly, still insisting there’s more data to collect, more deaths to amass, more people to sacrifice, never now.
Gaslighting children starts immediately.
Stop crying, nothing’s wrong with you.
Do what I say and not what I do.
Children should be seen and not heard.
Rules are fair.
Kindness can fix racism.
Your role is not to question, but to absorb.
Eat what I put in front of you.
This image of eating when you’re not hungry, of listening to authority over your own body, of learning that it is normal for bodies to have unwanted experiences, has wide reaching implications.
We teach children directly and indirectly that what happens to bodies is unimportant.
We teach them that force is how you get your way.
We teach them that it is ok to force bodies to do what we want them to do.
This becomes the voice of their self-talk, and also their relational skills and assumptions.
In many cases it’s their voice for God, their voice for parenting, their understanding of how to be listened to, and how they are to react or expect to be treated when they aren’t listening or heard.
We offer them disembodied understandings of bodies — bodies aren’t really people, they’re just bodies.
And now we are wondering, what children’s book can unteach me what I then taught my child?
What can I add to my diet while still consuming whiteness consciously and unconsciously?
What qualifiers can I add to policing that equate it with safety?
For white families in particular, we underestimate the extent to which whiteness influences us.
We underestimate the age that children’s actions begin revealing their biases and socialization.
We underestimate the vastness of what comes down when this card castle falls or is pushed over.
White supremacy and policing will be pushed over, and abolition will come afterwards.
How do you feel about that? Can you answer that truthfully? Can you notice defensiveness?
What does it look like to offer reference points that give racism and violence a name?
What does it look like to introduce children to words like gaslighting, so they can question ideas and trust their bodies?
What does it look like to nurture their relationship with their body, so that they might treat others as if what happens to them matters and is important?
These lessons go together, and we don’t have the luxury of teaching milder truths.
I am invested in equipping children with tools that enable them to be critical thinkers who can when asked know and believe that — gaslighting is violence, homelessness is violence, policing is violence, racism is violence, and I am not helpless or uninformed.
Bodies are where we experience, where we resist, where harm happens, where creativity lives, where resources are nurtured, and where we integrate truth.
May we aspire to be voices that children’s bodies trust and choose to listen to, and may we hope that they are fortified beyond our own biases.
Unlearning is for us, and children will reveal what we have taught them to trust and believe.
Hopefully, in part, we’ll have told them that they don’t have to consume everything we’ve served them.