I Shouldn't Feel Lucky That My Son Doesn't 'Look Black'

by Sa'iyda Shabazz
Sa'iyda Shabazz

My son is black. Well, half black. His father is white. My son looks like me, but he has his father’s skin color. He’s incredibly fair-skinned, unless he gets a lot of sun, and even then he looks like a tan white kid. People try to tell me that he looks mixed race, but trust me, if you see him with just his dad, he does not look black.

When he was first born, I was a little disappointed that he didn’t look more black, but now, there are so many times where I’m actually relieved. And you know why? Because it’s dangerous for black men to simply exist in America right now.

When the story broke recently that a teenage boy had been shot at when he knocked on a neighbor’s door to ask for directions, my heart was in my throat. Thankfully he wasn’t wounded, but when a teenage boy gets shot at because he asked for directions, I can’t help but be fearful.

This is the country we’re living in right now. A black boy can’t ask for directions without being assumed to be a thief.

I had always known that my son was in a fairly unique situation, but that story really drove the point home to me. It was further confirmed when only a week or so later, two black men were arrested because they were waiting for their friend in a Starbucks and hadn’t ordered anything. I realized my son’s fair skin and curly hair will possibly save his life if he’s ever caught in a situation that could turn deadly. If he has an encounter with police, I can almost guarantee that he’ll walk away from it, scared but alive.

Ever since he was a baby, I have been very aware of how he is perceived by strangers. He wasn’t quite a year old when Eric Garner was strangled to death by police officers about five minutes from our home. When we went to Missouri right after Michael Brown was shot to death by police in Ferguson, I felt the stares. We were with his father’s family, which meant he blended right in, but I stuck out like a sore thumb. No one ever said anything, but I knew they were thinking, “How did this black woman end up with this little white kid?”

Even when we lived in New York City, we weren’t immune to the stares and questions. When we were out with my family, people would look at us strangely, like we’d kidnapped this kid, even though he’d climb up in my lap to nurse and called me “Mommy.”

Once, a woman told me that I was “lucky” to have a son who looked white. I was dumbstruck, but maybe she was speaking to something deeper than what I had originally assumed.

Because the truth is, I don’t fear that my son will be shot dead by police officers because he’s outside playing with a toy gun. If he gets pulled over by a cop, he won’t be shot to death while reaching for his identification. If he’s waiting for a friend at a Starbucks, and doesn’t buy anything, no one will call the cops on him. They probably wouldn’t even look at him twice, and if they did, he certainly wouldn’t get arrested. Of course, I will always worry about him because I’m his mom, but I will not sit, wringing my hands and waiting until he gets home so I know he’s still alive. I hope to never be on the receiving end of the call where someone tells me my son is dead or in jail simply because of the color of his skin.

There is not a minute that goes by when I’m not thinking of all the black men I know and love. Like I said, I lived with my parents minutes from where Eric Garner was murdered. My dad likes to sit outside to get fresh air during the day, or wait for my mom to come home from work. Do I worry that the cops will harass him just for sitting outside and waiting for my mom at the bus stop? That my mom will call me and tell me he’s been shot to death because of it? Absolutely.

My brother and nephew live in a small town in the Midwest. I fear that one of them will get pulled over and shot by police on the side of the road with no witnesses. I fear that one of my black male friends will be turned into a hashtag because someone decided that they didn’t like the way they acted or looked.

But I don’t have those same fears for my son. If he’s lost and knocks on someone’s door for directions, they will invite him in, or even offer to give him a ride. He will never be considered a threat simply because of the color of his skin. He will likely never know the realities of living in America as a black man. He may face his share of challenges because of the fact that he’s mixed race and he has a black mom, but he will not live in the same state of fear that his grandfather, uncles, cousins and friends live in every day.

I don’t have to have “the talk” with him, the inevitable talk all black parents have to have with their children. I’m teaching him how to be an ally to his future black friends, and protect and stand up for them because he will have the privilege, even though he’s just as black as they are.

I’m teaching him about a world that will perceive him one way, when he stands on both sides of the fence. If this is “lucky,” then I don’t want to be lucky at all.