“I don’t want to hear Trump’s voice,” is what Sami, my five-year-old son, told me the other day, after I turned on NPR and started to make breakfast. I can’t blame him, neither do I. Sami dislikes many things about Trump, but is particularly appalled by his vitriol against immigrants and othering of Muslims. I know what you are thinking, a five-year old, really? Yes, for real. But the other day he wasn’t interested in chiding Trump. No, Sami just didn’t want to hear him. “Turn that off, I want to listen to my playlist,” Sami bellowed. I obliged. After he jammed out to “Hit the Road Jack” (no pun intended!) and finished his scrambled eggs, I told Sami to hurry up because he was going to be late for winter camp. It’s at that point that I poured myself a cup of coffee and turned back on NPR. “We’re going to turn to Germany now because there’s been a mass shooting.”
The news hit close to home. Sami, Azin, his mom, and I live in Upstate New York, but we have deep ties to Germany. Azin is an Iranian-American, who was born in Tehran and raised in Berlin. We fell in love over a decade ago and decided to build a life together in the US. This wasn’t easy for Azin, nonetheless she welcomed the move primarily because we were madly in love, but also because of the comfort she felt in the US and uneasiness in Germany. Azin’s Berlin is a thriving cultural hub with an immense amount of diversity, but also one that consistently reminds her of her ‘foreignness.’ “Your German is so good” or “you are so modern” were common ‘compliments’ that Azin heard from fellow Berliners. In other words, she was a ‘good’ foreigner or Ausländer, not a ‘bad’ one who spoke German with an accent or wore a headscarf.
Azin and I locked eyes across the kitchen when we heard the news that a 43-year-old German man, who posted a racist manifesto online and praised the ideas of Trump, went on a shooting spree, killing nine people, and wounding six others. Although the attack took place in Hanau, a small city outside of Frankfurt, the bodies of our family members and loved ones in Berlin, whom the killer and other white supremacists, understand to be Ausländer, too, felt that much more vulnerable. We were frightened, angry, and immediately turned to Sami, who like us, was absorbing the news.
“Baba, what happened?” Sami asked immediately.
Not knowing how to respond, I said “there was an attack.”
Sami immediately followed, “Where?”
To which I said, “Germany.”
Visibly shaken and concerned, Sami asked “Dayi (uncle) and Tante Suzette (aunt) live there. Are they okay?”
“Yes, they are. The attack was outside of Frankfurt, not in Berlin where they live.”
“But why baba, why was there an attack?” Sami countered.
“Because a man hated some people in Germany and thought it was okay to hurt them.”
With unwavering confidence, Sami stated “That’s not okay. It’s not okay to hate and hurt people.”
I was heartbroken. Here I was having a conversation with my five-year-old son about bigotry and violence. But I was also inspired by his wisdom and moral clarity. I got on my knees and said, “No, no it's not, canım (my darling). You know it's difficult for me to talk with you about these things. But I will always tell you the truth because I love and respect you.”
What felt like the reversal of parental roles, Sami told me, “Yes, baba, I know. I want to tell you something, too. Someone said 'shut up' to me yesterday in camp."
Brought to the verge of tears because of the subject of our intimate conversation and because Sami decided to share something difficult with me, I picked him up, kissed him on the cheek, and said, “Aslanım (my little lion), I'm so sorry. That's not okay.”
Sami tried to console me at this point, telling me “I know, but I wanted to tell you.”
I hugged Sami goodbye, gave Azin a kiss, and quietly prayed for their safety. And they were on their way.
I sat down, conflicted. The busyness of our daily lives just doesn’t seem to make time for such vexing conversations. But more than that, I was conflicted about whether I should have shared more or less with Sami.
I told Sami that a man harbored hateful ideas and hurt people. However, I left out a lot, details that terrify Azin, me, and countless others with similar names and backgrounds living in Germany. I didn’t tell Sami that the killer believed that people of color “must be completely destroyed.” I didn’t tell Sami that the killer didn’t indiscriminately shoot people on the streets of Hanau. No, he strategically targeted two shisha cafes. He picked them because they are venues which people whom the killer considered to be Ausländer frequent. I also didn’t tell Sami that we should be aware of and condemn both the sensationalist outbursts of white supremacy like the Hanau shooting and the Halle synagogue attack in October, which grab the attention of media outlets and op-ed columnists, but also the ubiquity of its more subtle forms, like the good/bad Ausländer binary, which tend to illicit less condemnation. Both indelibly scar the psyche of individuals from minority communities and wreak havoc on the moral fiber of society. But this isn’t just a German problem. No, white supremacy is raging in the US, too, both in its more ‘explicit’ and ‘subtle’ forms. And it’s the synergies between white supremacy in Germany and the US that cause great angst for Azin and me, as well as countless other parents.
I ask myself whether I should have exposed Sami to these details and linkages? Some friends and family members firmly believe that I shouldn’t. “Don’t talk to him about these things, he’s too young to understand hate!” I’m not so sure. After all, we live in a moment in which people from all walks of life in Germany and the United States, old and young, are regularly exposed to xenophobic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Semitic rhetoric, as well as acts of violence. I can’t cover Sami’s ears every time Trump dehumanizes immigrants and I wasn’t able to cover Sami’s eyes when we walked through the streets of Berlin last year and regularly encountered bigoted posters from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) featuring veiled women and the words “stop Islamization” (Islamisierung stoppen). I often ask myself whether avoiding conversations about white supremacy with our little ones, in order to ‘protect’ them, play a role in their normalization. What should we do as parents? Should we only tell our children half-truths? Or stand ready to turn off the news when we hear updates on violent attacks or the deluge of reports about the hateful vitriol that politicians regularly traffic in? I don’t have the answers, but I remain committed to the idea that I should talk to Sami about the existence of hate and oppression, as well as about love and justice. Anything less would be an abdication of my immense responsibility as a parent and human being.