In Today's America, My Black Son Is In Danger

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
We're Raising A Big Black Boy, And We're Continuously Having The Talk With Him
Rachel Garlinghouse/Instagram

Last week, a post came across my newsfeed, one of those that makes your heart feel like it could pound right out of your chest. With each passing sentence, I felt more and more anxious, overwhelmed, and sad. I kept reading, because I knew I had to. As a mom of a big, black boy, I can’t afford to look the other way. The reality is that my son, no matter how kind, respectful, well-dressed, educated, friendly, and loving he is, isn’t safe.

My son is seven years old right now. (Well, if you ask him, almost seven and a half, because when you’re a kid, half-birthdays count for something.) He was born on MLK’s birthday, and we brought him home from the hospital after swearing before a judge to love and care for him forever. Six months after his birth, we finalized his adoption, making him the third black child in our family. His little sister would be born and adopted four years later. We consider ourselves to be a large, multiracial, adoptive family. My husband and I are white, and all four of our children are black.

Adopting our son was a wake-up call. Yes, we’d had the experience of thus far raising two black daughters. We had begun to see the shift in the way strangers would treat our girls as they got older. When they were infants and toddlers, they received lots of attention, strangers calling them “adorable” and “cute.” As they became preschoolers, we began to notice how white people would react to our girls. Some assumed they liked hip hop. Others called them “sassy,” and some would repeatedly call them “girlfriend” or change their intonation and say, “Gurllll.” There were also many, many white women who attempted to touch my girls’ hair—a classic microaggression.

However, when we had our son, we noticed how much more quickly strangers went from calling him “handsome” to perceiving him as criminal. When he was a toddler, if there was a scuffle among a group of kids in a public space, like the park or local children’s museum, oftentimes white moms would stare down my son or usher their children away—even though the disruption wasn’t my son’s fault. I would catch women whispering among themselves, their eyes darting over to my toddler, who was in the ninetieth percentile for height and weight. He was (and still is) what a lot of white America fears: a big, black boy.

It didn’t matter that he was in diapers and learning to string words together into sentences. It didn’t matter that he was incredibly affectionate. He would drop everything to offer sweet words and gentle touches to a nearby baby. He was (and still is) deeply empathetic. His best friend has special needs. When his friend could not yet walk, his development lagging by a year or so, my son would plop on the floor, get on eye level with his friend, and play. He automatically committed to not abandoning his friend.

Though I often sensed that white strangers, most often white parents, would draw back when my son was near, there was a defining moment that made me realize what it means to be a melanin-rich boy in a society that fears blackness. One day while his big sisters were at school, I was taking my son to an appointment when we ran into an acquaintance. She hadn’t seen my son in about a year and gushed how much he had grown. I smiled and said, “Yes, he is a big boy!” She replied, “What a cute little thug.”

Her comment came just a few months after Michael Brown, a black teen, was killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, a town located just a half-hour drive from us. St. Louis was the center of 24/7 news coverage, sparking heated debates on what happened and who was the guilty. This was nothing new, but it was close to home and felt suffocating. The great divide was clear: either black lives mattered, or they didn’t.

One evening a few days after Brown was killed, I flipped on the television to turn on an episode of Doc McStuffins for the kids while I made dinner. Immediately, the news popped up, and Michael Brown’s photo filled the screen. “Who is that, Mommy?” my oldest asked, sensing the seriousness of the reporter’s voice. My eyes filled with tears, and I said, “A boy who was getting ready to go to college.” I quickly flipped the channel, not sure what to say or do next. How could I look at my children, all age six and under, and tell them that the world would treat them as less-than by default? How would I prepare them for life as a person of color in a society that has racism woven into the fabric of its existence?

My husband and I have taken transracial adoption seriously. Since we are not black and didn’t grow up in a black household, we’ve had many, many learning experiences. We’ve made plenty of mistakes, but we are committed. Our kids have racial mirrors and role models, including a mentor, their barber and braider, our church family, and friends. We lean heavily on our village to help us raise our children and show us how to prepare our kids for the racism they will continue to face throughout their lifetime.

This includes talking to all of our kids, and especially our son, about the rules they must follow when encountering police, when shopping in a store, and when being in any public space. Rules like no hoods up, no running, no hands in pockets, and always get a receipt and bag for purchases. My children are never allowed to play outdoors with toy guns—not even in our own yard. Yes, it’s been heartbreaking to explain to our children why we have these rules. Yet, it’s 100% necessary.

When my son was four, I went to his school for a parent-teacher conference. I was a bit anxious, as some parents tend to be, hoping for a good report. As I sat across from his teacher in a tiny chair built for my son, I leaned forward and listened as she described his academic progress. Then she said to me, “I probably shouldn’t ask you this, but, was your son born drug addicted?” I was stunned, just as I was when another white woman called my son a thug. Her question oozed racism, based on stereotypes surrounding black people and birth parents. This was the woman who had been caring for my son, five half-days a week, for months. What was going through her mind each time she interacted with him?

It’s hard for me to trust white people, if I’m being honest. Sometimes what they believe comes out of their mouths: what you see is what you get. But oftentimes, I just don’t know who I’m dealing with. And just because a white person is nice to my son, it doesn’t mean that person is woke. Some people believe that merely tolerating my children or claiming to be colorblind means they are somehow non-racist. They aren’t fooling me, or any other mother of a black child.

Before quarantine, we went to the park right down the street from our house. As my son and three other boys scaled their way to the top of a rock-climbing tower and started a giddy game of pretending to be dinosaurs, a father who had previously been consumed by his cell phone dashed over and implored his son to come down. His son was the sole white child in the group. There was no indication of aggression or escalation among the boys. In fact, it was quite the opposite. These stranger-boys were thoroughly enjoying one another. I knew immediately why the father didn’t want his son playing on the rock tower. His white fragility danger-radar went off–and it might as well have been audible.

When Ahmaud Arbery was jogging through a Georgia neighborhood, was swarmed and videoed, then murdered by white men, I was heartbroken—but I wasn’t surprised. When Christian Cooper was birdwatching in Central Park and asked a white woman to leash her dog, she called the police and made tears into weapons. Black males can be doing the most ordinary of things and be stereotyped as criminal, angry, unpredictable, and dangerous. They have got to be guilty of something, otherwise why would they be in trouble? I’ve seen it time and time again with my own son. The stories of Arbery and Cooper, and a shamefully long list of others like them, could happen to any black boy in America.

White people have been conditioned to believe a twisted, inaccurate narrative about black males. This readily happens through media, policies, statistics, and upbringing. It’s disturbing and terrifying, because black boys like my own son are often not given the chance to be happy and free, enjoying their childhoods. They are, as anti-racism author Ibram X. Kendi shares, stamped from the beginning.

My own white privilege cannot protect my son. He will continue to get older and bigger, venturing places without me. I am his chosen mom, and I’m honored to be the one who gets to prepare him for adulthood. But since he is a big black boy, I know I cannot raise him on my own. We don’t have the experiences to fully prepare him to be a black man. We are thankful that so many people have chosen to invest in our family, especially our son, and help us teach him that though he is loved and adored by us, there are certain rules he needs to follow that will hopefully help keep him safe. So, we have the talk, and we will keep having the talk, because my son deserves to grow up and see where his life takes him.

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