How racism found my son on Fortnite

My six-year-old is eating pizza and rambling about a video game friend when suddenly racial trauma rears its head

Published April 24, 2021 7:30PM (EDT)

Wallace Lane and his son (Photo courtesy of the author)
Wallace Lane and his son (Photo courtesy of the author)

What I love most about being a Black father is also what I love about being a Black male educator for Baltimore City Public Schools: discovering teachable moments in the face of adversity. But what I am particularly fearful of in that same duality is Black children's inattentiveness to racism in all its ugly forms. And that alone is not fair. Especially when Black children, more than any other demographic, are currently battling the most trauma associated with a global health crisis as well as threats to their humanity, from police brutality to a slew of other modern racial injustices.

Sadly, racism doesn't surprise me anymore. This is nothing new. And I think I speak for every Black man when I say I am tired, to the point where I'm reluctant to watch another video of yet another Black body robbed of its life. And let's not mention the protests that follow; I'm definitely not marching in the streets with the hope of convincing lawmakers, who will never understand the trauma of my Blackness, that my Blackness matters. This what troubles me most and makes me feel hopeless on so many levels — the inability to protect your children, let alone yourself, from unforeseen racism. Police brutality this day. Being Public Enemy #1 to a health pandemic the next. And, as I learned on a recent Friday evening over dinner with my six-year-old son Waylon, there's even racism on Fortnite. Yes, there are actual little kids who are racist on Fortnite.

Fortnite, bruh. Fortnite.

"Daddy, why don't white people like Black people?" Waylon blurted out between chugging his carton of Yoo-Hoo and wolfing down skinny slices of cheese pizza. 

Friday is our day to kick back together and bond. It's chat and chew night: We eat fast food, play video games and pretty much don't leave the house. By the way, when I say "skinny slices of pizza," I don't mean we're starving and I can't afford DiGiorno or nothing like that. This is a parent hack I figured out myself to get Waylon to eat more with his fluctuating appetite. Hence, we ate thin slices of pizza. Remember the teacher who hyped that pizza party all year, only to serve students those thin appetizer-like slices of pizza? I still can't believe teachers had the audacity to hype a pizza party all year long, only to serve you slither slices and a swig of Pepsi in a plastic cup. Talk about finesse. But those little slices keep my son eating when a regular-sized slice might not.

"No really Daddy, 'cause Eden told me that. He's my friend on Fortnite. Bro is not an opp either, he really lit, he has all the Travis Scott skins," Waylon ranted. He kept rambling for the next five minutes or so.

"Sh*t," I discreetly mumbled under my breath, attempting to remember if I enabled the parental controls and age settings on his Nintendo Switch. I did. I always do. But here we are. 

"Sh*t," a second, louder, curse slipped out when I realized my son is an actual Travis Scott fan. My G.O.A.T. Top 5, dead or alive, rank in this order: Jay- Z, Nas, Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole and Lil Wayne. I can't believe my son idolizes Travis Scott. Where did I go wrong?

"Hey, watch your mouth, Daddy," Waylon chided. "I'm only a child "

Fortnite is a wildly popular free third-person shooter video game. For internet babies like Waylon, Generation Alpha — kids born after 2012 — mastering the internet and related technology like Fortnite is their rite of passage. These tech-savvy children navigate technology that makes them far more advanced than children of my era. Artificial Intelligence, facial recognition, and VR stand no chance with an Internet Baby. Once they get the hang of it, it's a wrap. What Fortnite offers to these highly advanced yet still impressionable children and teens is it allows them to bond with other children of different races and cultures while hooking them on the same poisonous pop culture we're all exposed to, all via video game play. 

In Fortnite, a player in survival mode gathers resources, weapons and tools to create bridges and forts as a means of survival. Sorta like The Simms times Final Fantasy on steroids, and the 100-player Battle Royale is similar to a last man standing match in pro wrestling. It has a colorful cartoon scheme that is constantly updated with celebrity skins, trending themes and music. It's addictive, and no wonder — for internet babies, Fortnite is like their Instagram newsfeed. 

"Oh really," I replied. "Is that right." I stole a pizza crust off his plate and tried to keep my cool. I wished I could see Eden — and his father. 

"Yeah, Eden is so cool. He wins Battle Royale mode all time," Waylon said as he peeled the cheese off his pizza. 

Watching kids eat is like watching one of those "Dr. Pimple Popper" shows on YouTube — intriguing and pleasantly disgusting. 

"Well, what made Eden say that to you?" 

"Because. Eden is … um, never mind. I don't think I can say that."

"No, go 'head," I calmly insisted.

"Well, OK, Daddy. Eden said he's white and that his daddy taught him that white people don't like Black people. And one more thing, Daddy, did you know Donald Trump was the president? Eden told me that also," Waylon went on and on. 

And instantly our living room became a boxing ring and I was Mike Tyson, the young or old version, in a twelve-round heavyweight bout. Or Malcolm X peeking through my window with the chopper. Because that's what racism does to Black fathers. It impels you to want to fight. And it doesn't matter against who. I knew exactly where this was going. And I knew what time it was. My time to have that talk with Waylon had arrived. 

* * *

The thing that kills me about racists is how they forget that they too are traumatized. That burden I imagine is heavy. Because to wake up every day and choose hate seems quite exhausting. Denial then becomes the only relief of that exhaustion, a shield or immunity in some way. So when I say I'm tired of racism, I actually mean it; racists will never address their racist actions until they address the hate they have for themselves. And that's what racist white people are unwilling to do. I have enough personal trauma as a Black man; addressing a racist's privilege and personal trauma is not on my agenda. 

"Remember what I taught you about being a Black man in America last summer? What does that make you?" I asked Waylon as we made our way to his room for bedtime. 

"A target!" my restless, tucked-in son replied. 

"Eden's father is a bad person and is the reason why Eden says things he doesn't understand," I said. "I don't want you playing with Eden anymore because I don't ever want anyone to treat you unfairly. Do you understand?" 

"Aww man, how can I win in Battle Royale now, Daddy?"

"And besides, Eden's dad is a traumatized racist," I said as I piled pillows onto his bed. "Repeat after me: trau-ma-tized."

"Daddy, can I eat my pizza cold in the morning when you wake me up?

"Goodnight, son," I said as I turned on his nightlight.

* * *

Passive aggressive racism may be the most dangerous racism of them all. It's the type of racism Eden's dad taught him, which then caused Eden to proclaim it ignorantly on Fortnite.

This type of racism dresses well and hides equally better. It has sustained Fox News. It's the racism that is heard in the ubiquitous undertones of a cowardly, fed-up white person saying "you people." It dubbed the Blue Lives Matter moment as a counter-response after Black Lives Matter gained mass notoriety. But more than any other kind of racism, passive aggressive racism is often swept under the rug because it's not loud and belligerent. It's divisive, deliberate, yet subtle enough often to go unnoticed. My growing fear as a Black parent is becoming desensitized to it, then unprepared to combat this type of racism. It should not ever be taken lightly and must be confronted at a moment's notice. My Fridays with Waylon are not only a time to unwind and bond, but also an opportunity for me to share teachable moments about the racial trauma we face.

I was not surprised that ignorant, racist language made its way to my child via Fortnite. The places where racism rears its head do not and probably won't ever surprise me. We live in a world where cowardice uses technology to amplify its voice. The problem was not even that a young white child repeated what he had heard, because as angry as I should have been at Eden, I could never be angry at a child because I'm wise enough to know that a child's ignorance — and in this case, his racism — is not his own, no more than it was his parents' when they were children. Racism is a taught trait, just like any other life skill. But if anything, my problem with what my son told me is that it made me feel what I felt when I witnessed the unrest of 2020 and all its modern injustices, from the public slayings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, to the insurgency and unrest that occurred at the U.S. Capitol in January. I felt hopeless.

What I always come back to with racism is what I attempt to teach Waylon with every life lesson, which is also what torments and baffles me most in my pursuit in addressing the effects of racial trauma in my life. The country we call home is anti-Black male. Anti-Black-maleness, if it were classified as a mental disorder, is what Eden's father is suffering from. It's a disorder of blindness. It induces racist white men to believe that their masculinity and all its mischief triumphs any other male of different culture or hue. It's hereditary if untreated, too, passed along through the impressionable minds of that racist white man's children, resulting in them spreading the same hate. My grandmother used to say that a young Black boy in America is born with two strikes against him and those strikes are being Black and being a Black boy; Black manhood and all that its masculinity encompasses deems us a target, and disposable. 

America's unresolved trauma is located in how it attempts to shatter the egos of young Black boys, thus continuing a generation of unhealed racism. I recall Toni Morrison's iconic 1993 interview with PBS's Charlie Rose, when she was asked her views on the problem with whiteness and the effects of racism on white identity:

"People who practice racism are bereft, there is something distorted about the psyche."

"The racist white person doesn't understand that they are also a race, it's also constructed, it's also made."

"If you take your race away, and there you are, all strung out. And all you got is your little self, and what is that? What are you without racism? Are you any good? Are you still strong? Are you still smart? Do you still like yourself? I mean, these are the questions."

What Morrison was hinting at is ultimately what I think we forget in the moral condemnation of racism: The racist's denial to confront his or her racism is a form of personal trauma. And I imagine trauma for the racist is just as layered as the one who is the target of that racism, experienced as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience that overwhelms their thoughts, emotions and/or body. Trauma affects how we feel, behave, learn and interact with others. I used to think trauma only mauled the inflicted, but it's just as damaging to the one imposing. It is trauma that Eden's dad deflected upon his own son, his own flesh and blood, by telling him that white people don't like Black people. His personal trauma, the trauma I imagine he is oblivious to because it apparently continues unchecked, is now the trauma of his son, and if unresolved will be the trauma of a whole network of young Fortnite players.

But the most American thing a racist can do is ignore his privilege and his trauma. Racial trauma is deceiving like that. It's as sneaky as the serpent in the garden, tempting an innocent Black boy playing a video game to believe he is inferior, had I not interjected. 

2021 is a year of reminded trauma. My son's video game reminded me of mine. And I'm reminded of that every time I think about COVID-19 and all the life it has taken in this country, and how the majority of that blood belongs to my people who are disproportionately affected through poverty and the pre-existing health conditions it causes. 

Racial trauma is the uphill journey I'm climbing as a Black father, too. I know that by working through my own adversity I can maybe be of assistance to other Black fathers who are raising and loving their children while fighting a racist and corrupt child support and child custody system whose purpose is to emasculate the Black male from his role to properly provide and protect his children, but also his community, culture and identity. Racial trauma can also taint Black love. I know this all too well because I'm currently dealing with its consequences. So for me, my quality bonding time with my son — every other weekend until a racist court system grants my request for more — is sacred, because I know I'm not only up against racism but the trauma that accompanies it. 

I want to teach my son that it's called racial trauma for a reason. It stings and it may even leave a scar. It's daunting and discouraging. But it's something we both will overcome, even in the face of those who espouse anti-Black male poison. But that means I have to take preventative measures against racism even in my own home, however that looks. 

An hour or so after I tucked Waylon in and turned off his lights, I finally figured out how to open the menu settings on his Nintendo Switch to report a player for using inappropriate language. Eden was blocked instantly and removed from his friends list permanently. But this is an anomaly. There's no setting I can apply to America to protect him forever. 

By Wallace Lane

Wallace Lane is a poet, writer, and author from Baltimore, Maryland. He received his MFA Degree in Creative Writing and Publishing Arts from the University of Baltimore in May 2017. His debut collection of poetry, Jordan Year, released May 2017, encapsulates what it means to live and survive in Baltimore City. Wallace also works as an English and Creative Writing teacher with Baltimore City Public Schools.

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