Behind Closed Doors

September 21, 2020

With the state of the world, there are so many difficult conversations about racism, hatred, and violence that we need to have with our children.

Not only in America, but throughout the world, difficult conversations are taking place in many homes. Behind closed doors, children are getting exposed at an early age to discussions about heavy topics like violence, hate, and human cruelty.

I am blessed to have three daughters. I try to create a safe and sane home for them, but I have never imagined engaging them in some of these talks, especially here in the US, in the 21st century.

When I moved to Portland, Oregon in 2009, I thought the city’s nickname (the Rose City) meant things would be much safer and more comfortable for my family. My wife believed that moving from the southern to the northwestern part of the country would make things easier for us as Muslims and people of color.

But shortly after arriving in Portland, a young Somali boy was accused of planning a terrorist attack in one of the city’s busiest spots, the Pioneer Square. We found ourselves working with community leaders and the Muslim youth on topics like emotional safety and well-being, how to be a proud American Muslim, strengthening family ties, and improving the relationship between the community and its neighbors and law enforcement agencies.

Fast forward to 2011, a bloody civil war started in my home country Libya. I ended up leaving my small family behind to care for my large family overseas, trying to heal some of the many psychosocial wounds of that protracted conflict. I lost friends and loved ones to violence and extremism. My wife and children had to live through periods of uncertainty and high anxiety every time I boarded a plane and partook in that dangerous journey. 

The new decade, we thought and prayed, was going to bring a better energy, but the year 2020 has been one of the most challenging years of all. Here in Oregon we have been struggling to breathe, literally and metaphorically. It is not only the threat of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) to our respiratory system, but also the systemic knee of injustice on the necks of our black brothers and sisters, and the wave of hate facing minorities and people of color. The mask can help with the former crisis, but unmasking is what is needed for the latter. It became the norm to talk with kids about their identity and self-worth, about micro- and macro-aggressions, about speaking up on behalf of the voiceless, but also about how they can defend themselves when someone decides to attack them verbally or physically. After the Portland max train stabbing incident and the New Zealand mosque shooting, we spend lots of our time and energy brainstorming ways on how to stay alive and feel safe at our places of social gatherings and worship. Trauma steals precious moments and impacts the potential for beauty. 

I was recently on a panel discussion about combating hate. A young black female stated that, “things at least are not as bad for this generation as it was for our fellow citizens in the 1950s and 60s.” That really broke my heart. Just because hate and violence are “not as bad,” that doesn’t make them right. Children should not have to settle for a dysfunctional world. 

“The talk” we thought we would have with our children is about how to survive the emotional turmoil of puberty. In the Black community, that talk is also about how to stay alive in America. In the Latino community, it may be about the immigration system. In the Muslim community, it may be about terrorism. Hate sucks, and it not only make survivors doubt their own beauty, but it also makes us miss out on each other’s beauty.

We thought COVID-19 was only going to impact our ability to breathe, but then Mr Floyd’s death reminded us of the ugly pandemic of oppression. In Oregon, the smoke of the wildfires stirs different discussions about existential themes, like the relationship with God and the meaning of life.

Is it bad that our children are growing up very quickly and having these mature conversations at a young tender age, or is that the new norm? My hope is that trauma will eventually produce a more resilient generation and a more compassionate and cohesive society. I believe that many trauma survivors become better humans not despite, but because of, their trauma stories.

Dr Reda is a practicing psychiatrist in Providence Healthcare System, Portland, OR. He reports no conflicts of interest concerning the subject matter of this article.