As a white woman in a relationship with a black man and the mother to three stunning and intelligent multi-racial children, I pride myself on being an ally for people of color. I speak up on behalf of the injustice of personal and systemic racism, and have tried to open naive, white-washed eyes to the plight that an entire community in our society has dealt with for centuries due to the ignorance of the majority of the population. Which is why I feel compelled to share the following story.
Because, after leaving this encounter, I felt an immediate pit in my stomach. That growing feeling of guilt for not speaking up on a topic that needs to be discussed. In not taking the opportunity to educate someone who has probably never even thought about these things, I felt as if I missed a chance, and therefore failed all that I believe in and stand for. So in hopes that this reaches at least one person who does not have to view the world under these conditions … open your minds and hearts. Take some advice from one of my favorite literary characters, Atticus Finch: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.”
It was finally the last day of school after a long year. A group of kids, with their moms, decided to go for ice cream to celebrate the end of the school year, and the beginning of summer. As we sat, happily eating our ice cream, I listened to a fellow mother whom I had just met joking around with our mutual friend. The mother began to tell a story that is more detailed than what I will go into here, but which I will summarize. The mother was recapping an incident where she had told her adolescent children to behave or else the police would come and they would be taken to jail. The mother joked that luckily for her kids, the family has connections to deputies in both county jails, so if they misbehaved at least they would have people looking out for them in the slammer. Although I am aware that using police as a scare tactic for children to behave in situations that would clearly never be severe enough for law enforcement to become involved has been used by parents for decades, a small shiver went down my spine as I listened.
While the conversation continued, I politely turned my body away from them and began to tend to my son. As I wiped away chocolate sprinkles from my two year old’s face, I envisioned the man he will soon become. I imagined him tall like his daddy, with the same broad nose. I saw him with big masculine hands and a deep, strong voice. And then in the next minute I was flashing back to a couple years prior. Standing in tears, in our townhouse parking lot, watching the hard-working father of my children surrounded by five police cruisers, handcuffed, put in the back of a car and questioned for a minor traffic violation — when in reality he was just caught in the suburbs DWB (driving while black).
I looked back at my son and once again all of the worries that parents of brown and black children face hit me with a ton of bricks. And then despite myself, I let out a small sigh as I realized, once again, that hopefully my son will be luckier than most because of his lighter complexion. I began to contemplate all the things we will have to prepare our children for. I wondered at what age will it no longer be acceptable for my son to run through the park with a toy gun aimed at trees. I wondered at what age our children will have their first negative encounter with the police. Because as a person of color in America, it is not a question of whether or not it will happen, it is how long it will take before it happens. I worried at all of the situations my children might find themselves in in the future, that I, as a white girl, never even considered.
I thought back on my first real personal encounter with police. I was 18 years old, driving a black sports car through the suburbs at three in the morning on the way home from a party. My passenger (also a young, white female) and I shook in fear as we were pulled over. We were stupid that night, embarrassingly stupid, reckless and dangerous. We had been drinking, we had open containers in the backseat, there were marijuana and rolling papers in the car and we were sure we were going to be arrested — we deserved to be arrested. During the traffic stop, we were both kindly asked to exit the vehicle. I watched as the officer placed all of the illegal paraphernalia on top of my car. My friend and I looked at each other with tears in our eyes as he began to pour out the remaining beer, empty our baggy of marijuana and stomp it on the ground. We thought for sure we would be calling our parents to come pick us up from the jail.
And then in the next instant, the officer, knowing that we were both impaired, handed me the keys to my car and said, “Now drive home safe and don’t do this crazy stuff again.” And just like that we were let go. No ticket, no handcuffs, barely even a warning. Now, over a decade later, my cheeks burn with the sting of what I now know to be my own white privilege.
Because suddenly I am thinking of another night when I watched as one of my black friends was handcuffed and detained merely for asking an officer a question. I think back to all the stories we see on the news of yet another black man shot and killed at the hands of law enforcement, of another black female left to die in a cell with no medical attention. Of a boy shot for having his hood up. A man pleading with police officers while they choked him to death. Five young boys incarcerated for a crime they never committed solely because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and happened to be black while being there.
Maybe it was the fact that I just began to watch the Netflix series “When They See Us” (the story of the Central Park Five) that made this woman’s silly joke about calling the police on her own, privileged, white children just a little bit less bearable. But my heart felt like it was on fire as I looked back and forth between all the children at the ice cream shop that day, all white (except my own). And the heaviness set in once again that unfortunately ignorance is not always malicious, but sometimes just uneducated.
Because although all humans live in the same world, white people will never fully understand what it’s like to live in this world as a POC. They will never understand why a mother would envision her 2 year old son in his first interaction with law enforcement, and the feeling of dread knowing that she will never be able to protect him against the people who are paid to be protecting him. These people will not feel like they need to make themselves known to local law enforcement as contributing members of society so they are not harassed on their drive home to the suburbs.
So next time you decide to tell your child to behave, or else the police are coming for him, think of all the people who unjustly died at the hands of an officer. Think of them, say their names, remember their stories, and then reconsider if it’s really something to be joking about.
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