The Day My Son Asked If The Police Were At Our House To Kill Him

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Rachel Garlinghouse/Instagram

It started with a toy bubble gun. My son, thrilled that it was finally monthly allowance day, had been begging his dad to take him to the store. They arrived home with several items, including a purple bubble gun. Normally, we have a no-toy-guns rule outside of foam-bullet guns they are allowed to play with in our basement. I wasn’t thrilled, but it was a cheap toy that I knew would lose it’s thrill and use quickly.

My son was shooting bubbles into the air for his little sister the day the mail carrier drove up to hand me a package. I thanked him and as he was zipping away, my son playfully aimed his toy gun toward the truck. I almost flipped. I got down on my knee, below my son’s eye level, and I sternly told him that he may never, ever aim a gun toward anyone or anything. I proceeded to remind him that this is not only dangerous, but could get a Black male in America killed. Police and the public often can’t tell if a gun is real or fake, and playing with a toy gun could, like in the case of Tamir Rice, get my son harmed or killed.

My son was very solemn and listened to every word I said. With my heart racing, I sat in a lawn chair and wondered if I responded the correct way. After all, I’m a white woman. I’ve long been conditioned to believe that the police exist to help me and keep me safe from the “bad guys.” I am always, because of white privilege, trusted, respected, and listened to—by police and by the general public. My skin color, my socioeconomic class, and my gender award me such privilege.

However, my four children, all of whom are Black, do not have the same privilege that I do. How could I have so easily forgotten this when, just a few weeks later, I summoned the police to my house?

I had my youngest two kids outside when we heard two distinct shotgun sounds. I grew up in the country, so I’m familiar with such noises, though I hadn’t heard them in a long time. We live in middle class suburbia, and hearing a shotgun in the middle of the day just doesn’t happen. My husband, who was working in our home office, ran outside and asked if we were okay. He heard the noise, too. We agreed we should notify the police.

Within two minutes of calling 911, a young, white officer arrived at my house and asked me to repeat what we had observed. He was here and gone in just a few minutes, off to drive around and see if he spotted or heard anything suspicious. As he was pulling out of our driveway, my son asked me, “Mom, is the officer here to kill me?”

My son is eight-years-old, and he is already well-aware of what some officers have been accused of doing to people who look like him. Despite never having the news on our television, it’s everywhere, infiltrating social media, the radio, and, because we prepare our kids, “the talk” that parents have with their Black children, preparing them for police encounters.

I knelt beside my son, put my hand in his, and told him that no, the officer was there because I called him after hearing the gun shots. My son didn’t believe me. He repeated his question again, and I assured him that things were okay.

But are they? Are things really okay? They usually are if you’re white like I am. We believe one narrative about the police, yet I have to teach my children another narrative, preparing them for the reality of being Black in America. It’s about how to speak to officers and where to put (and keep) their hands. It’s about raising my children to enter into public spaces without their hoods up or hands in their pockets. It’s about not running or yelling in public spaces, either. In stores, they need to keep their hands to themselves (not touching all the merchandise) and always getting a receipt and a store-issued bag for purchases, even if the cashier says that it’s only one item and a bag isn’t necessary.

It’s about supervising outdoor play and playdates when other parents, parents of white children, do not. It’s about not subscribing to free range parenting, because free range for Black children can equal danger from a Permit Patty or a BBQ Becky who are quick to summon the police when they spot any Black person joy. It’s about getting to know other parents very, very well, before my child is permitted to visit their friend’s home.

Even with every precaution in place, brown skin is a weapon to those who have been conditioned by white supremacy. Sometimes they don’t even know it, supremacy sneaking in through unconscious biases. It’s the way they clutch their purse when a Black man gets on the elevator or tries to enter his own apartment building. It’s the way they preach colorblindness, diversity, and equality, without doing the real anti-racist work that actually creates real and lasting change. It’s about tokenizing the Black neighbor, friend, co-worker, or family member without actually doing any authentic work on oneself.

Racism is relentless, and even in our own driveway, by our own home, on our own property, my children are not safe from it.

I have messed up many times, and I have spent a lot of restless nights wondering if I did the right thing. I lean heavily on the advice from Black adults to raise my children. I am always, always learning how to be more anti-racist while also implementing parenting skills that raise my children to become confident Black adults who will hopefully remain safe.

I refuse to teach my children a fairy tale, because that doesn’t keep them from being harmed. White niceties are just that. They don’t protect Black bodies. Whiteness always upholds itself, which is downright dangerous for my children. I have told my children, there are police who do their job well, that love the people they serve, and who are anti-racist, but there are also many police who aren’t. And all police are unfortunately part of a system that over-criminalizes Black people. We don’t know when we encounter a police officer which category they fall into, but we do know that the system doesn’t work in my children’s favor. Therefore, we have to err on the side of caution.


Getty Images/iStockphoto

For many white, suburban kids, police are respectable community servants who run DARE programs, hand out stickers, and participate in holiday parades. For my kids, the police are just one more entity that might inflict systemic racism upon them. So it’s my job as their mom to teach them the skills that ultimately will keep them alive.