Mom was in town, and had me serving as her chauffeur to run errands across the city. As we drove, we engaged in a rousing conversation about her upbringing in Jamaica and the false ideology that Patois was simply “broken English.” I mentioned colonialism. She brought up notions of what was considered proper. I retorted with a breakdown of respectability politics. She said, “We did what we had to do,” then said nothing more. I had crossed a line, and she was offended. I glanced at Mom’s steely profile then back to the road, feeling the silence swirl through the car, getting thicker and thicker between us.
In my adulthood, the relationship between myself and my parents has undergone an interesting role reversal: the student has become a teacher and a peer in some ways. After their divorce I helped guide them through their returns to the dating world, and after the birth of my daughter I leveled up a bit as an equal in the parenting game. In conversations with them, the complete deference I held as a child has been replaced by the ability to debate with respect and strength. Where they used to try to hide humoured expressions when I made a passionate point, they now take in what I’ve said and weigh it in their hands with a new regard for its value.
One of the biggest markers of the generation gap between millennials and our parents is the access to and immersement in the digital space. We are no longer learning simply in classrooms and textbooks – we now have access to people all around the world who introduce us to new words, concepts, and histories. We’re then able to Google those words, concepts, and histories and find resources that teach us everything we need to know, adding things to our arsenal that were never given to us by professors and class syllabi. It’s this immersement that has helped shape a new lens with which to see myself and the others around me, and it’s what has greatly impacted the relationship with my parents when I’m playing the peer or teacher role.
In the best conversations with either of my parents, we teach and enlighten each other. Among the worst of conversations are when I either insult them by my haughty dissection of their experiences, or when I’ve alienated them with the language I’ve used. When my mother fell silent in the car after our debate, it was a stinging reminder that intent means nothing if the impact is hurtful. Being able to analyze the past with new context, to assess the present with new language, and to look to the future with the vision of new possibility is wonderful – but if we fail to meet people where they are and include them meaningfully, it all loses its power.
We are able to pick up the mantle for generations past and represent for them today, defining and contextualizing things in a way that wasn’t done before. Such is the nature of life – we learn and grow and stretch beyond the reaches of the foundations that nurture us, then go on to provide a foundation for the next generation to bloom in. What is of great importance is remembering not to stretch in such a way that the connections between us thin out. As we grow and push forward, we have to remember to be intentional about bringing others with us, not leaving them behind.
I don’t believe a message can be watered down when your intention is to make it accessible for others. Taking alternate routes to a destination isn’t a problem, as long as we all reach the meeting point. Maybe that looks like changing the language we use during discussions. Maybe that looks like listening more than we speak. Maybe that looks like an effort to understand our counterparts instead of attempting to diagnose and treat them.
People’s experiences are building blocks of their identity – not problems to be solved because we think we know better. Is it crucial to share knowledge, enlighten others, and help people divest of problematic ideologies? Most definitely – but what is vitally important is remembering that methods matter. To educate lovingly means to be aware of who we’re speaking with, how we’re speaking with them, and acknowledging where they’re coming from. What experiences shape their beliefs? What approaches will make them more apt to ingest the message we’re trying to impart? Whether we’re speaking to a room full of strangers or to the person we’re most intimate with, the method matters as much as the message.
That silent car ride with my mother will forever be cemented in my mind as a “What Not To Do” reference. I took our closeness for granted, and figured she would understand what I was trying to say – that I wasn’t attempting to gaslight or railroad her experiences, even though that’s how it came across. We hashed it all out in a later conversation, and that moment of mutual enlightenment presented itself again – another reminder that just as we can be each other’s teachers and peers, we always remain students.