My son could be Philandro Castile, the Minnesota cafeteria manager who was shot by police in July 2016 as he simply reached for his license during a traffic stop. I am a white woman in the South, raising a black son. I have grown used to the stares of surprise and barely-hidden shock. This is often an exercise in adjusting expectations for people and accepting slights. But it is sometimes more sinister than that. Lately, I am filled with a sense of ominous foreboding, one that I simply cannot explain to my friends with non-minority children, without being dismissed as a paranoiac or a police-hater. I have to spend the next 60 years worried that some crackpot like George Zimmerman will think my son is a criminal because he’s wearing a hoodie.
Watching my child grow up and interact with the world has opened my eyes. Perhaps explaining some of my experiences here will help bridge the gap for some. I still have the same hopes, love, and optimism for America, but my belief in the need for reform is dramatically heightened because I know now that we are not colorblind or post-racial. Not even close.
The bittersweet irony is that I currently have a much higher level of interest and support in the Black Lives Matter movement than my son. A movement aimed at eradicating all violence against the African-American community, Black Lives Matter had its inception after the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of unarmed African-American teenager Trayvon Martin. While BLM activists often protest issues of police brutality or shootings, their focus is not myopic and broader social issues of racial inequality are also considered at rallies.
As my son grows to adulthood, inevitably the goals of BLM will take on a greater relevancy and immediacy to his life. If BLM is successful in pressuring politicians to make the necessary types of public policy changes in terms of civilian oversight of police, body cameras nationwide, and other safety measures, maybe I won’t need to have the same level of dread when my son turns 16, starts driving, and becomes a potential quota-target for officers. The statistics do not lie. According to an extensive Washington Post analysis, in 2016 African-Americans were 2.5 times more likely to be shot by police. Unarmed African-Americans were five times more likely to be shot by police. Quoting one of the report’s authors:
My son is only 12 now, but he is already 5’2”. His father called him the “mocha-colored baby” at birth. Born in the early hours of the morning during the spring, I was happy and excited to have a child. I realize now, years later, that not everyone sees the birth of a biracial boy in such optimistic terms. His father and I met as college students. I was barely 21 and he was 22. He had dated interracially before; I never had. Our son was not planned but was wanted. Because our school has students from all over the world and diverse relationships are so common, it functioned as a sort of oasis, one that sheltered me from any sort of actual judgments. I didn’t take into account that not everyone in the outside world is as open-minded. Even though the relationship did not last, our child combines the best of both of us.
My boy has grown into a typical American kid. He plays travel hockey, is an altar server at our church, and dreams of attending the Naval Academy. But he also has been treated differently because of the color of his skin. Hockey in my town is lily-white, and openly racist talk is common amongst some parents and players. While my son’s coach and his wife have been amazing mentors, other people have been less welcoming. A parent suggested that I should overdose him with Benadryl before a game, presumably so that Connor would fall asleep in the goal as pucks rained down on his head and her child’s team would easily score. Her husband then sent me a series of unwanted Facebook messages insisting that this was “humor.” Another parent, after meeting me and my son, made faces as I spoke and ridiculed me on social media. They posted derogatory images on shared acquaintances’ pages of “ratchet” black men. Not aware of the term, I looked it up online and apparently it means “mind-numbingly stupid,” among other insults. I was excluded from the team email list. My son was harassed constantly by a couple of current and former teammates, with no disciplinary action from the top-level coaches.
There have been other slights. While out to dinner, another friend’s husband complained about his black waitress being “uppity.” I let the wife know this was offensive. My friend replied that her husband couldn’t possibly be a racist because he had once picked up and carried my son in the rain through a thunderstorm. To my humiliation, my child was now the conveniently-cited “black friend” to turn to in times of trouble.
How do I respond and teach my son to deal with these circumstances? This is especially vexing because I retain my white privilege, while my son, with his dark skin, does not.
One strategy I’ve used is to encourage him to rise above and work within the system in a conventional way, preaching God and country, almost in the mode of the conservative 1950’s black parent. But this is also a double-edged sword. When he was younger, he was fine with being dressed like a little Brooks Brothers’ doll. Now he is older and wants to dress like his sports teammates and listen to hip-hop. This obviously concerns me because the last thing I want is for him to appear as a “thug” in the eyes of an unenlightened world. Most of our arguments revolve around music. Research has confirmed that hip-hop music plays a reinforcing attitude in permeating negative racial stereotypes towards African-Americans in the eyes of the white community.1 I am beginning to see that so much of the life I live is in a defensive posture, worried how others may misperceive him.
In many ways, I feel that I have failed my child because I have not let him live, according to one of my favorite adages, “the life he was born to live.” Yes, it is out of fear. Fear because of Tamir Rice, the young African-American boy shot by Cleveland officers while playing with a toy gun. Fear because of Eric Garner, the African-American dad choked to death by the NYPD in Staten Island while selling loose cigarettes in 2014. Fear because of Sandra Bland, the young motorist from Illinois who died under shadowy circumstances in a Texas jail cell after an improper arrest in 2015. Fear because of Alton Sterling, the convenience store CD salesman whose death at the hands of the Baton Rouge police in July 2016 galvanized the country. Fear because of so many other martyrs and angels.
We owe it to every Philandro and Sandra to keep safe not just my son, but all our black children, whether they get PhDs or sell CDs. My support of BLM may be selfish, yes, because my son could be a potential beneficiary of their good work. But as a patriotic American watching the haunting Philandro and Alton videos, I am also reminded of the famous Albert Einstein quote: “The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”
My child has experienced nothing but soft racism so far. It is my fervent wish that that is all he endures: just ignorant jerks at hockey, rather than the fear of an unenlightened bigot with a badge and gun.
- W. Hart, The Culture Industry, Hip-Hop Music, and the White Perspective: How One-Dimensional Representation of Hip-Hop Music Has Influenced White Racial Attitudes Master’s thesis (2009). Return to text.