On Saturday night, my parents took my four-year old to a summer concert in a park by the water. On the way home, Kavi was riding on his grandfather’s shoulders, on top of the world. He wanted to take the water taxi across the marina. They were waiting on the dock when they heard an irate voice.
“I’ve been living here for seven years, and I know the schedule!” A white woman was yelling at a boat conductor. The boats were waiting to ferry all the families leaving the concert at the same time. “You need to get me a boat right now!” The woman started to swear.
My father, ever cheerful, ever trying to be helpful, said to the woman: “He’s just trying to do his job. But listen, you can walk this way around the Marina and get where you want to be in fifteen minutes…”
“Mind your own fucking business,” she said.
My father told her not to use that language around Kavi. The woman began yelling at my father. My mother put her body between them. Kavi squeezed my father’s head. My father gripped Kavi’s legs and walked away fast, but the woman followed them down the dock and yelled —
“Go back to the country you came from!”
She said it effortlessly, as if it was just in the air. She had only to reach out and grab hold of it and aim it at my father and son.
My parents came home shaken.
“What happened to the woman?” I asked them.
They ferried her across the water — by herself. She got what she wanted.
I imagined what would have happened had this person been a black man, or a brown bearded man like my father. Handcuffed. Maybe shot. But here was a white person who acted hateful and entitled – and was rewarded. It was a picture of white privilege. It was also a painful picture: She was on the boat alone. Isn’t that the work of white supremacy? To sever people from community and connection in exchange for the illusion of security.
“Didn’t anyone speak up?” I asked.
“No one said anything,” my mom said, more upset by the bystanders than the assailant. There was a small crowd of about fifteen people watching. A few offered sympathies after the fact, but no one did anything while it happened. Just like last time, when my father was walking on the beach with my son, wearing a baby carrier, and a man called him “suicide bomber.” And the time before that, when I confronted a man shouting “sand-nigger” in our neighborhood restaurant. Each time, there were bystanders who did nothing.
That night, while putting Kavi to sleep, I tried to help him process what happened.
“I feel sad,” he said. I kissed him and stroked his forehead and we talked about where we feel sadness in our bodies. Then we sang a shabad, a prayer, and he started to fall asleep.
I lie there, with my eyes open. How could people be so casually cruel in front of a four-year old? Then I remembered – This is a time with the government is separating small brown children who look like my son from their parents, caging them indefinitely, letting them die in custody or in the desert. This is a time when white supremacists are massacring brown families and their children in houses of worship. This is a time when “Go back to your country” is mouthed by the President of the United States, scrawled on the walls of our temples, and heard on the lips of those white supremacists before they open fire. This is a time when each day brings reports of all varieties of cruelty to brown children. So, of course, why would this person constrain her hate in front of a small brown child?
Suddenly Kavi put his ear on my mouth.
“Mommy, I don’t hear you breathing. You have to breathe to sleep.”
I thought I was playing it cool. I thought he had fallen asleep. But he sensed my heart pounding, my mind racing, the panic seizing me.
“You’re right, Kavi.” I started to breathe deeply, audibly. A few minutes went by, and my mind started racing again.
“What happened to ‘Breathe and Push,’ Mommy?”
All this time, I thought Kavi had no idea about my work in the world. Now here was my four-year old, giving my tools back to me.
“Right,” I said. I started breathing again, and this time breath anchored my body, and my son kept whispering.
“Breathe and push, Mommy, just breathe and push.”
Maybe we are all the people on the dock, trying to get home safely. We have all been in the position of bystanders, watching horrors take place before our eyes. Sometimes on the street. Sometimes by the state. Sometimes in our own families. We want to do something about it, but don’t know what to do. In a climate where people are primed to hate, how do we prime the rest of us to show up, stand up, and speak up when it matters?
I am learning what black and brown mothers on this soil have long known. We cannot protect our children from white supremacist violence — we can only make them resilient enough to face it. And insist, until our dying breath, that there be no more bystanders.
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Pass it on. #BreatheAndPush