My heart has been hurting, friends. The world has been spinning out of control recently, and I keep thinking, “Why won’t all of us just listen to one another? Why don’t we seek understanding instead of taking sides when we all want the same things – to be respected, to be safe, and to be treated fairly? Why can’t we acknowledge the pain in another person’s heart and help to heal it?”
Then I read a Facebook post written by my friend and coworker, Rikki Johnson, and I was so moved that I asked her if she would adapt her post for our “What It Feels Like Series” here on Still Chasing Fireflies. I am incredibly thankful that she agreed to open her heart to us in this way. I know Rikki as an enthusiastic English teacher, but she and I have another thing in common: We are both moms of boys. Our boys don’t have the same racial heritage, but her essay reminds us that ALL mothers share the same heart, and this is a way that we can connect and understand one another, even when our life experiences may not be the same. As a mother of black children, Rikki worries about some things that I hadn’t even thought about before. Her essay challenged me.
PLEASE read Rikki’s story. Please read it with an open heart and mind and share it with your friends and family if you are moved, too. That is one small way that you can be a bright light in the darkness, just like a firefly, as we all seek to be understood.
I’ve remained pretty silent lately regarding the recent incidences of the two unarmed black men murdered at the hands of police officers, as well as the murders and shootings of the Dallas police officers. I’ll start with this: it is a difficult time in our country to be a police officer. The murders of those men protecting the crowd in Dallas is despicable and it only overshadows the message so many are trying to peacefully spread. Think of this though: the distrust, disrespect, and criticism of the police these days is very similar to the reality that black men have faced as a whole throughout our country’s history.
My recent silence on this issue mostly stems from fear. I’m afraid of being disappointed in the reactions to my feelings about this by those closest to me and my boys: my family and friends. I hold so many people to such high expectations that I usually set myself up to get my feelings hurt when they don’t live up to them. I’m begging you to see my perspective and try to understand where I’m coming from. I am a white woman married to a black man, and I’m raising black sons.
So many people hold my children and husband as a separate entity than my neighbors’ black husband and children because I am white. My family is an example that I know many of my friends and family members use to justify their perception that racism is no longer an issue. My husband is used as an example that “good” black men do exist. But if my husband were caught making the same mistakes as many of my white family and friends have done, would he still be one of the “good” ones? What if one of my boys were caught shoplifting a candy bar or some other youthful antic like toilet papering someone’s house or breaking curfew? Would you label him a thug behind our backs?
Why don’t you listen when my husband openly speaks about his personal experience being black in this country? Why don’t you listen to me when I try to explain that my husband and boys, yes, even the “good ones,” are statistically 2.5 times more likely to be murdered at the hands of police. And if they are, someone, somewhere, will try to find some past record, social media post, or picture to justify why they somehow deserved it. Heaven forbid, if my son were to ever make a mistake and be subjected to the legal system, he would be more likely to receive a stiffer penalty than a white man who made the same mistake. How many times do you get pulled over in a year? My husband was pulled over 6 times in the last 12 months while driving home through the predominantly white city where he works. Some of his driving infractions: failure to signal, failure to come to a complete stop at an empty intersection, and going 40 in a 35. Most of those times, he was sent on his way after they ran his license, insurance, and plates. Maybe it was his nursing scrubs that eased the officers’ minds that he was a “good one?” In cities across the country, black people are disproportionately pulled over for minor driving infractions compared to white people. They are also 2 times more likely to be subjected to being searched. These are facts, and my husband and boys are not any more immune to them than the next black man down the street.
If you love us, then listen please. Please stop trying to explain away our experience as a family or my fears for my husband or my boys because it makes you uncomfortable. This is our reality, and just because you don’t understand it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. These problems remain because people keep trying to explain them away or debate them or say that others are only trying to stir the pot. We all know that not talking about a problem doesn’t make it go away. Listen to what people are saying instead of just waiting for your turn to speak. Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and remember that just because something isn’t a part of your experience, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
I’m not sorry for being born white. I’m not ashamed of who I am at all. I’m comfortable being me around any person, and I always have been. But, as a white person, I recognize the privilege that comes with it. Growing up, I didn’t know fear in interacting with police. I never wondered if I were overlooked for a job because of my skin. I was never followed through stores by associates when I was out shopping with my friends. I’m mouthy and sarcastic, and I see how differently my demeanor could be perceived if I were a black woman exhibiting the same behavior. Recognizing this privilege doesn’t mean you are ashamed to be white. Acknowledging an issue is the first step in making changes.
It is scientifically proven that young black boys are perceived to be older than they actually are upon first glance than white boys. This means that higher expectations for their behavior are placed upon them at a younger age. When black boys play rough, their behavior is more likely to be deemed violent and malicious, whereas white boys are considered tough and masculine. Boys will be boys, you see. In a study testing even the subconscious perceptions of participants, adult black males were perceived as more of a threat than their white counterparts. My eldest is about to turn 12; day by day he is turning into a man and statistically is perceived as more threatening. Maybe his predicted short stature will protect him? These are the things that I think about that mothers of white children don’t.
As any good parent should, I’ve raised my children to address authority figures, such as police, with respect. But, as a mother of black boys, I have to go deeper than that. We have to practice what to say, how to say it, where to put your hands, never to move without explaining your actions, how to appear small and unthreatening. I have to remind my boys as they grow into men outside of my umbrella of protection that they shouldn’t run down the street, even if they’re in a hurry or running late. They shouldn’t wear a hoodie over their heads, or travel in large groups of other black boys. All of these actions could invoke suspicion or draw unwanted attention. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think any of my friends and family members with white boys ever had to go through training as extensive as this just to leave the house! And, yet, it could not even matter because last week a man did everything right when stopped and was still murdered right in front of his 4 year old and wife.
I know many of you will not have even read this far. Or, if you have, you may have been coming up with rebuttals to each of my points along the way. I’m not asking to debate. I’m trying to let you in on my reality as a wife and mother. My hopes and dreams for my babies and their futures are no different than any mother of any color. I dream that my children will lead successful, productive lives. I want them to become great fathers, husbands, friends, employees just the same as any mother wishes for her sons. However, these ongoing incidences of violence and injustice serve as constant reminders that nothing, not even my children’s lives, are promised.
To my family and friends, I beg you not to claim you love my boys and my husband, and yet still try to justify all these other men being killed for being black. My perspective–my husband’s perspective–my beautiful children’s perspectives are very similar to those of the people who are marching in the streets to end this violence on ALL sides. We’re not against police and we’re not calling anyone racist. We’re asking that you at least acknowledge the problem and find some understanding and support to help make this country better and safer for my family and yours.
Thanks again to my friend Rikki Johnson for sharing her “What It Feels Like” story with us. Speaking out in the midst of controversy is not easy. It is courageous, and it is important. Starting conversations and then listening with love, respect, and patience is important, too. Thanks, Rikki, for being loving and patient with me as we discussed some really hard things.
Do you have a life experience that you can help other people understand? It could be ANYTHING that is stirring your heart! You can write it yourself, or I can help! Please reach out to me to add to our “What It Feels Like” series!