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At seven years of age, my son was buckling up in the car from after-school when he said to me, voice wavering with guilt, “Mom, I promise I will try my hardest not to kill anyone when I grow up.” It took me two seconds to realize that this proclamation must have been prompted by an incident, but it took a good 10 minutes to coax it out of him. He saw the look on my face and in his innocence, didn’t want to get anyone into trouble. Apparently, a white boy at his after-school program had told him that he would grow up to kill people because “black men kill people.” He had already internalized what he now perceived to be his fate in life. And he was protecting the very person who fed him a racist lie, while pledging to his mother that he would resist himself.
Let that sink in.
A seven-year-old boy thought he was destined to be a killer when he grew up, simply because he was born with brown skin.
My son was traumatized.
I was 15 when I started my first job (on a work permit) at the local McDonald’s in town. It was while working there that I became exposed to more people of color than I had in my entire life, and it wasn’t long before the black Latino guy on the grill and I started flirting with each other. All the typical pheromone-induced behaviors between teenagers ensued. But there was something different about this crush. Something prompted my asking family members, namely my dad and stepmom, the question, “What if I were to bring home a black man?”
At the time, I didn’t have a clear understanding of why that question was even necessary, but inherently I knew to ask. I was, after all, in the heart of the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, where our sleepy little valley town had an extremely small population of color. Specifically, a few black families, and a number of hispanic immigrants, half of whom ran the local Mexican restaurant. Fourty-five minutes up the road was a Cherokee Indian reservation (Oconaluftee), but the only time we interacted with First Nations people was either by visiting the reservation, the casino, or during rival high school sporting events.
There had never been any overt lessons in racism taught in my house that I can remember, but I’m of the belief that it is impossible to grow up white in the U.S. without harboring some level of racial bias, whether obtained via media, the school system, friends, family members, even the church. Even if we grew up never seeing overt racism (though I did on a couple of occasions), we grew up with the privilege of normalcy. The privilege of whiteness. The privilege of having every textbook, every institution, every media outlet recognizing whiteness as normal, while everyone else was “the other”. Inherently, that other was caste as less than, to be feared, and not to be ‘unequally yoked with’. So I asked the question.
“What if I were to bring home a black man?”
“Emily, I don’t care what color person you bring home, as long as he loves you and you love him and he treats you right…”
I was feeling good until, “….but you should think about the children.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, you should just consider how your kids might be treated.”
So I considered. And considered. And I asked more people in the community that I respected who also gave me the same response. “I don’t really care who you love, but you should think about the children.”
Over the years, I’ve come back to this. I never quite understood what in particular was meant by ‘considering’ my potentially mixed-race children. I can, however, tell you what it means to me now, having birthed two half black African (Liberian), half white American boys in this day and age. My eldest is now nine years old and while incidents like the aforementioned occur from time to time, nothing has shook me to the extent as the incident where the white boy had convinced my son that he would grow up to be a murderer.
He is 9 years old and already standing at 5’1”, slated to surpass the height of his grandfather, who stands at 6’6”. His baby face doesn’t seem to mitigate how he is perceived as much, much older in years; strangers have commented how they saw him as at least 13 until his youthfully innocent thoughts came spilling out in conversation.
I ask myself, is this what they meant? When they said I should “think about the children” is this what they meant?
Did they mean I would find myself encouraging my boys to play in the backyard rather than the front because I’d read one too many stories and seen one too many videos of young, innocent brown and black boys ‘fitting the description’ of criminals, adult criminals, while playing in their own yards or neighborhood parks? Those same boys being held at gunpoint or even shot and murdered on sight.
Did they mean that I would be sitting in a parent-teacher conference asking what pieces of black history were being taught in my child’s classroom, and that I would be told they discuss MLKJr and that’s it…then upon feeling the inadequacy of the depth of her lesson, having his teacher then speak in circles and rather ineptly about racism, concluding that when it comes to raising children of color, “It’s like breeding pit bulls. If you teach them to be mean, they’ll be mean, if you train them to be friendly, they’ll be friendly.”
Did they mean that I would need to give my children “the talk” in an effort to keep them safe, knowing that in the end, it might not do anything to save them from a trigger happy police officer or neighborhood watchdog who has never been forced to face their biases?
Did they mean that should my child present any semblance of a behavioral problem, he will be almost 4 times as likely to be diverted into a judicial process than his white classmates? That there would be structural systems put in place that would rather see him go to prison than graduate high school?
In thinking about the children, did they mean that politicians would win elections by disparaging people who look like him or his non-white immigrant father?
Did they mean that they would suffer from an uptick in hateful incidents of bias in their schools as a result of those elected persons emboldening the most hateful fringe of our nation…emboldening them so far that they have grown in size and no longer can be called ‘fringe’ anymore? And that it’s their sons and daughters who will say things like “black men grow up to kill people”?
Is this what they meant….what YOU mean when you say I should “think about the children”?
I wish I felt compelled to write about the trial and errors of figuring out how to best moisturize my youngest son’s Corbin Bleu-like tresses, and our joyous discovery of silk pillowcases…or give you my running list of children’s books that highlight children and families of color or mixed heritage…or tell you how important it is to connect them with others who look like them, friends and role models alike…because that’s where most white parents of brown/black children stop. We stop when it becomes uncomfortable or hard to relate to or understand. We stop when we blindly feel that our children will walk through life with our white privilege, when at the end of the day, they are just another black life that doesn’t matter.
But we can’t stop there. Right now, it feels imperative that I share with you how our children’s innocence is being stolen from birth, how they’re being racially profiled from the time they set foot in a classroom, and that their health outcomes are negatively impacted by the racial trauma they experience.
But also, to tell you that this is nothing new. Black mothers have been telling the world of these realities for ages, most recently taking the podium to share with the press the realities of living while black…allowing us to watch the videos of their loved one’s murders and watch their babies cry for their slain fathers on national television in hopes that it will change a heart or encourage a conviction.
We (white parents of children of color, whether mixed race or through adoption) are uniquely posited to do something that black and brown mothers cannot. Unfortunately, because of the system of racism and privilege in our nation, we can speak and be heard in the predominantly white spaces of our world. It shouldn’t take more than our own empathic humanity to see ourselves in their experiences, but if it takes seeing what our children go through to relate, so be it. Perhaps then, a coalition effort might yield some change.
We must wield our privilege whenever and wherever possible to elevate the issues that our children experience together…think about the children, all of them. That is, unless, my fellow white parents have heard the coded words, “we don’t care who you love, but you should think about the children”, and not understood what they truly mean.
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