Halloween humor and a dark-skinned son

By LeeAnne Watkins

Part 1: Knock on the Door

I’ve got a difficult thing to do tonight.

It started a few days ago with my neighbors down the street. They have these humongous McCain/Palin signs in their yard, and as they were decorating their yard for Halloween they added their usual assortment of ghouls and ghosties.

But this year one of the ghouls was leaning over the McCain sign, holding the severed head of Barack Obama.

My son Shyam and I saw it at the same time, and while I was shocked, he went straight to outrage. “That’s a death-threat to Obama! We have to call the police!” I mumbled something about Halloween being different somehow, and he just looked at me in a puzzled way. Then I mentioned free speech, but he said, “free speech doesn’t include death threats, does it?”

We’ve been talking about it for days, both of us deeply disturbed in a way that gets a little worse as each day passes. We have been wondering what to do, if anything. Calling the police didn’t seem right. Shyam asked his godmother Lisa for advice, and she suggested that he talk with the neighbor and explain how the display makes him feel. Shyam brought it up with his teacher and classmates, but although I hear the discussion was good, they didn’t have any satisfying suggestions about what was to be done. In the end, he and I talked about exactly what we want say, and not say. We agree that I’m the one to deliver the message. So tonight I go to knock on the door of a neighbor I barely know, and without any smooth segue, try to explain what effect their display has had on us.

As I’ve been imagining how I might have this conversation in a way that brings out our best selves, I might try to explain what it is like for my son, who they have never really met but surely have seen. I will tell the neighbor what I overheard my son tell his friend Colin this morning as we drove past the Barack head on the way to school: “It looks like me, doesn’t it?”

You see, my son has dark skin, and black eyes, and black hair, and in that mask he saw a version of himself.

How difficult it must be to be one of the only kids of color in his suburban grade school. There are layers of depth to the experience he must be internalizing about growing up dark in an almost exclusively caucasian Minnesotan town. I intellectually know that Shyam’s not being white puts him at a disadvantage in our world. I know that given the lynchings in Minnesota’s history, and the continued violence toward people of color, that his race will always be a factor in his safety. I’ve known that in my head, but I’ve never felt that deep chill like I did this morning, when Shyam recognized that this level of ugliness is real, right on our street, against him more than the other boys he plays baseball with.

It made me cry a little on the way in to work today. I want to be a good mother of an inter-racial family, and on days like this I feel so ill equipped. I wonder if I should move into St Paul where there are more people that look like him, where there would be more safety in numbers. But that’s an illusion too, isn’t it, the safety in numbers. So what do I do, to make the world a better place not just for all people of color all over the world, but for my boy, on my street? I will knock on the door.

But I fret over how that might go. I have imagined them yelling at me, thinking me a left-wing whacko, giving me a lecture on free speech, on how I ought to mind my own business and not try to control what other people do with theirs. I worry that they will argue that it is simply a joke, a little Halloween fun and I’m making too much out of nothing. Maybe they are right.

But no, they are not right. There are consequences to free speech, and this one has offended and frightened my family. The mother bear in me has been aggravated.

In my best imagining for this conversation, the neighbors quickly apologize, saying they never thought about the implications of their Halloween joke for the dark-skinned boy down the street. At the very least I hope they take down the decapitated Obama head. But I would also hope that they could reach out to Shyam in some way that builds relationship, that strengthens rather than frays our little attempt at a neighborhood community. I guess I’m looking for transformation, on our little street, just this one actual street, changed to look more like the Reign of God. In my best imagining this is how racism is washed away, each of us gathering up our courage to influence the tone of our common life, one difficult conversation at a time, face to face, neighbor to neighbor.

I’m used to preaching on this theme, but I’m embarrassingly anxious about moving my feet to make it so. But I believe in the whole Reign of God thing. I believe that bit about God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven. I do believe in the example of Jesus as a guide in making that so. So tonight I will knock on my neighbor’s door. I will say my prayers for courage and for the right words and for the Holy Spirit to move between us. I will pray for a better world, for all of us, but especially for Shyam, who will be watching.

Part II: “Tell your son it’s only a mask.”

It was the height of awkwardness. I knocked on that door, stomach in knots, and was nicely invited in to the living room to have a seat. I explained that my goal was only to be a good mom, and ask for a few minutes of their time to explain what effect their Obama display has had on my boy. I tottered around my well-rehearsed sentences. They listened. They were surprised to hear about what my son said about how the mask looks like him, and had to spell out that Shyam has dark skin and dark hair. (it is always interesting to me the way in which people see, and don’t see, race).

Then they said: “Tell your son it is only a mask.” And: “If we had a body to put under the mask, we would have” and “We never gave it much thought.” And then they went on to say how many people have driven by to run up and have their photos taken with big “thumbs ups” in front of it. And how mine is the first negative comment they have gotten, verses the many supportive ones.

The room got silent. I couldn’t stand the quiet and so began repeating myself until I realized the conversation was pretty much over. I stood to go, they continued to sit. I said ‘good night’, and they wished me a good night too, but I felt their hostility as I made my own way out the door.

What happens now? On one hand, I feel I did what I set out to do, which was to speak out against a situation that was offensive to my family, and my son knows that I did. What my neighbor does or doesn’t do with that Obama mask is only mildly relevant at this point. I acted like the mother (and the neighbor, and the citizen, and the Christian) I want to be.

All this leaves some profound questions. Where is the line between free speech and hate speech? Where is the line between speaking out against a perceived injustice and butting in to someone else’s business? Does our history of violence make that headless black man a symbol of something much more sinister, or is it really just a Halloween mask?

So what is next? I’m prayerfully pondering all sorts of options, including doing nothing at all. Or I might speak with my elected representative on our local human rights commission, or the police chief, or the mayor, asking for advice. Maybe I will make a version of this article into an Op Ed piece for the newspaper. I don’t know. But I do know that I still want to make the world a better, less intimidating place for all people, most particularly my son, even here, particularly here, on my street.

The Rev. LeeAnne Watkins is rector of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the mother of an adopted son.

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