After George Zimmerman walked free, we finally showed our 10-year-old the Jackie Robinson biopic, 42. He had trouble sleeping. So did we.
We’re white. He’s African-American. In the past, when we’ve tried talking with him about what’s wrong with the N-word—a word so coolly slung in his favorite songs—he's told us that “no one cares” about that race stuff any more. He can think that because he's grown up in a Cambridge, Mass., bubble, where his family—two white women raising one brown boy—is boringly ordinary. He knows plenty of other brown and black kids—on our block, in his school, on his sports teams—with at least one white parent, whether by birth, remarriage, or adoption; often enough the parents are two women or two men. In his daily life, “all that race stuff” can easily seem like ancient history.
But he's stopped saying that since he watched 42, and heard the N-word used in its native habitat, flecked with the spittle of hate and contempt. It was painful. But it gave us the opening we needed to talk seriously about race, including the gut-wrenching Zimmerman verdict. He hadn’t known about the trial—Whitey Bulger, Aaron Hernandez, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev have dominated the crime news up here in Boston recently—but we had to find a way to tell him. Because although he doesn’t know it yet, it was a trial about him.
So we put on the movie. Had I watched 42 before my little Bruins-loving man came into my life, I would've found it cheesy. I would've rolled my eyes at Robinson’s ideal and admiring bride; I would've yeah-yeah-yeahed as, one by one, his teammates stepped up to fight others’ prejudices. And I would've had no patience with the simplistic depiction of racism as meaningless ignorance easily overcome by real contact with black people, rather than as the structurally entrenched enforcement of a damaging caste system in which some humans profited from other humans’ debasement.
But with my boy sitting next to me, visibly miserable to learn what Jackie Robinson faced, and knowing that Trayvon Martin had been shot and killed in the same town—Sanford, Fla.—where the movie showed Robinson threatened by the Klan, 42 left me in tears. Our son told us that he didn’t like the movie, and asked if we could turn it off. But we can’t in good conscience launch him unprepared into a world where there are still George Zimmermans walking free. He needs to understand this sickening history, both the unreasoning white hatred and the white allies who stand up to it. The past isn't over, as Faulkner wrote. It isn't even the past. We watched it all the way through.
Afterward, our sweet-headed boy—a child who's terrified of spiders and loves fart jokes—was especially upset by the fact that Robinson had gotten hate mail from strangers, that his life was threatened for playing baseball with white men. He kept asking us: Who wrote those letters? Did the police catch them and put them in jail? Why not? We’ve worked hard to undo his outsize fear of “bad guys” and burglars, to teach him that most people are good, to understand that the police and the law are there to protect us. So it was painful to say: Some of those letters were probably written by cops.
When he wanted to know why the jury let Zimmerman off, we didn’t have the words to explain reasonable doubt to a 10-year-old. He wouldn’t understand phrases like poor prosecution, indifferent investigation, or “stand your ground.” We couldn’t articulate the probability that by refusing to consider race, the mostly white jury was probably influenced by parts of their brains they don’t know are there, or to explain that hidden biases could have influenced both Zimmerman and the jury to perceive a young black man in a hoodie as a potential menace, whereas a young white man, similarly reedy and with a hood up to keep out the rain, might get the benefit of the doubt. How do you explain that sometimes these attitudes grow not out of overt hatred but because of the more subtle biases, nearly undetectable except by social scientists and neurologists, lodged in American neurons so deeply that most of us don’t even know that they're there?