What It Feels Like to be the White Mother of Black Sons

Rikki

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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yes, I’m a Christan. No, I’m Not Like That.

snowflakes

Yesterday, my boys and I played a very small role in a very big project that involved three hundred volunteers from our church packing 60,000 meals for Haitians in need.  Each meal could feed a family of six, and we calculated that my little boys’ hands helped to pack somewhere around 1,500 meals.

As I looked around the room during our shift, with groups of eighteen people at twelve stations, many of whom had never met before, working in unison for the good of thousands of people we will never know, I thought about how generous and kind my Christian family is.  I thought about the people overseeing the project who had volunteered to be trained, to organize the supplies and the shipping, and to prepare to make the service project as efficient as possible.  I thought about their patience in letting our kids, who weren’t always as quick or as coordinated as the grownups, experience the rewards of service, too.  And I thought about how much I wish THIS were the stereotype of Christians that was accepted as reality.

Christians certainly aren’t the only group of people who are stereotyped, manipulated, and portrayed unfavorably, especially in political news, but if you are not a Christian, you may not realize just how ridiculous the caricatures of us really are.  It’s no wonder that people who have no experience with our faith have cool feelings toward religion if they spend any time watching the Christians in the news or if they listen to so many of our politicians talk.  The negative stereotypes are a barrier to meaningful relationships and relevant conversations between people who have much more in common than they don’t.  Plus, being misunderstood just plain hurts.  We’ve all been there before, right?

I certainly can’t speak on behalf of all Christians, but I can speak on behalf of the ones who are similar to me, and here are a few things that we want you to know about us.

  1. We are smart.

From what you have seen on television, you may think that we are religious because we just don’t know any better.  We are often portrayed as being foolish and gullible, sending our money off to any televangelist who claims God told him that he needs a personal jet with jewel-encrusted head rests to fulfill the great commission.  We are dismissed as uneducated people who are easily manipulated by right-wing politicians and who live in a bubble that shields us from the problems that everyone else in the world understands.

The truth is that God doesn’t care if we dropped out of high school or if we have a Ph.D.  The party is BYOB (Bring Your Own Bible) and open to all, and if you can’t BYOB, we’ve got you covered.

However, we are weary of the stereotype that Christians just aren’t very smart.  We are all kinds of people with all levels of education. We are doctors and lawyers and teachers and engineers.  We are tradespeople.  We are stay-at-home moms.  We are college graduates.  We are innovators and business owners.  We read books.  We watch the news.  We are interested in the events happening in the world around us.  We are seeking solutions to the same problems as everyone else.

We even believe that global warming is real.  We love science.

I know.  That one just blew your mind!

  1. We are not weird.

Okay, some of us are weird.  Some of us are really weird.  But we aren’t any weirder than the rest of the population, so please just let that stereotype die.  And, really, we think Jesus might have used the word “quirky” instead.

  1. You work and play and go to school with us, and you don’t even realize it.

When you first meet a Christian, she probably won’t be wearing a t-shirt that says, “I heart Jesus,” but kudos to her if she is.  Most likely, you will meet her diligently working in her cubicle at the office, not marching in a picket line or shouting Bible verses in front of the courthouse.  The truth is that most Christians don’t necessarily stand out in a crowd – at least not right away.  That’s because we enjoy many of the same things that you do.  We like social media and know about pop culture.  We follow sports and go to the movies and work out at the gym.  We love to have fun, and we know a good joke when we hear one.  Over time, I hope that the Christians you know will stand out because they are consistently generous and patient and kind.  I hope they model joy and compassion and grace.  I hope they apologize for their mistakes and exemplify Christian values.  But the idea that you know one when you see one, well, it just doesn’t work that way.

  1. We care about people.

All people.  It doesn’t depend on your race or your gender or your age.  It doesn’t depend on your income or your appearance or your religion.  It doesn’t even depend on the decisions you have made in the past.  We are called to love one another.  Love is not the message that you hear when many politicians’ lips are moving, but it is the truth of our religion.

Ice Cream

  1. We want you to have freedom of religion, too.

Really, we do.  Your freedom of religion guarantees our freedom of religion.  We get that.

  1. We can and do look at both sides of an issue.

We not only enjoy a good debate, but we want to understand an opposing argument – and not just so that we can challenge it.  We want to understand the complexities of an issue.  We want to know how ideas affect different groups of people.  We can even be swayed to think differently about an issue once in a while.  We don’t have to “win” every argument.  Most importantly, we don’t have to agree with you to care about what you think.

  1. We are not perfect – and we know that.

The big idea of Christianity is that God extends us grace and forgiveness through his son.  If we thought we were perfect, then we wouldn’t need that, would we?  This one just doesn’t make any sense.

8. We aren’t judging you.

Really, we’re not.  We try to leave this to the big guy upstairs.  We have to figure out what we are cooking for dinner and when we can pick up the prescription at the pharmacy and who will take off work to wait for the repairman tomorrow and how to get two kids to basketball practice in two different places at the same time tonight.  We don’t have time for this.  Please stop worrying about it.

  1. We aren’t all Republicans.

We also do not trust people just because they say they are Christians or quote Bible verses.

And while we’re at it, we don’t all watch FOX News.

  1. We don’t understand the political obsession with “moral issues.”

Any issue that is up for political debate impacts people.  Any issue that impacts people is a moral issue to us.  That does not mean there are easy answers.  It just means that our morals should influence all of our decisions – both personal and political.  There aren’t just one or two moral issues.  There are lots of them.

  1. We are not perfect – and we know that.

That just seems worth repeating.

  1. We would love to share our faith with you, but we can be friends regardless.

Even Jesus did not exclusively spend time with Christian people.  We don’t either.

As Christians, political seasons are difficult because, like so many other groups of people, we often feel unfairly categorized and misunderstood.  We don’t like being characterized as immoral, anti-Christian, or not-Christian-enough if we lean toward the left on an issue, and we don’t like being portrayed as narrow-minded, uneducated schmucks if we lean toward the right.  We definitely don’t like being associated with any extremist who will dance for the camera and drive up the network’s ratings.

In reality, we are individuals, similar in some ways yet as different as two snowflakes tumbling from the sky, human beings with messy lives who are just trying to do the best that we can with the comfort of God’s grace when we fail.  If you feel overwhelmed or misunderstood, there is a good chance that we have some idea of where you are coming from.  Please do not judge us all by what you have seen on the news or even by your experiences in the past. You may be surprised by just how much we have in common – even if our religious views aren’t on that list.