I wept when the Zimmerman verdict was announced. I sobbed as s a mother weeps when her heart is broken: in loud, uncontrollable, hiccupping hysteria.
But let me tell you the truth: I didn’t follow the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman story closely. I couldn’t. You see, I’m the mother of boys. They’re big, threatening, refrigerator-sized boys. This big. And one of my biggest challenges – especially as a feminist – is raising boys that understand their strength and how and when to use it. In short, I’m fighting NOT to raise George Zimmermans or Daniel Toshes or just your quiet office corner sexist/racist/what-have-you.
But that is nothing compared to the challenges of my African-American girlfriends with their sons, or my white and Latina girlfriends raising multi-racial boys. Because these friends are raising children who live with the real possibility of being followed, pulled over, arrested, or even killed simply for being a shade of brown.
I had no idea about the horrifying challenge my girlfriends faced. I assumed that the simple fact of being well-educated and upper middle class insulated them from this madness.
My white privilege blinders started to slip out of place the day a child I’d known since infancy was arrested. His crime? Standing next to his own car in the parking lot of the high school he attended. His real crime? Standing next to his BMW in his private school parking lot while being black. He wasn’t given the chance to show his license or his registration. He was cuffed and taken to jail. Yes, you can believe my friend and her husband raised a firestorm that the police department and the school will not soon forget. But why did they have to?
This was an outrage, but I thought it was an isolated incident. I’m a white woman and thought the world moved in my same bubble of race protection. My first son was a baby when my friend’s teenager was arrested. But as my first, and then my second, son started toddling and racing around and simply being active, boundary-bending little boys, I noticed how differently my friends were raising their brown sons.
“Why are you so tough on Ali*?” I asked my friend Aisha during one play date when our children were wrestling like a pile of puppies through every room in the house. Her response? “He’s going to be a really big guy so I’ve got to shut him down now. He’s got to know how to act when he’s out of my house.”
Or there’s the example of my friend Cynthia, whose tolerance for misbehavior is non-existent with her two boys. We’d be strolling through IKEA, our rambunctious four sons would start some boy nonsense that barely registered my on my mommy radar when she’d yank her children back, dress them down, and keep them trotting quietly beside us for the duration of the visit.
I just thought Aisha and Cynthia were better, stricter mothers than I was. I didn’t realize they were trying to teach their boys not to call attention to themselves, to fly below the radar screen. I didn’t realize they were teaching their boys skills that they desperately needed to survive as black men in a white world.
And now Trayvon Martin is dead and the laws of this land allow his killer to go free. Not in the Jim Crow era, but in my lifetime and in my world.
Then I knew. My boys had the privilege of being able to be wise guys, to be rough housing little boys. My friend’s sons did not. It was not just good manners my friends were demanding, they were training their sons to survive.
Recently there was quite a kerfluffle in the femisphere about a presentation that excluded black women’s contribution to online feminism. Many women of color feel – with great merit – that mainstream white feminism doesn’t represent their interests. I followed that conversation closely, and was saddened by the defensiveness and tone deafness with which it was received by many of my white colleagues.
When our culture discourages truthful, inter-racial conversations about issues that shape the very core of who we are with our closest friends; when we, as white people, don’t even have the context in which to ask, or even know, these fundamental, life-and-death differences — how do we have honest larger and fully inclusive conversations about how to change our world?
We live in a time when people CAN tell their stories. And they are horrifying. Let me ask you, white friends – did anyone in your family ever get killed just for trying to vote? Does your husband get pulled over for daring to drive while black? Was your grandfather hanged in front of a jeering crowd for “disrespecting” a white man? Do you get erased and ignored simply for being a black woman? Until we can read and absorb and understand these truths, we are doomed to keeping our blinders of privilege firmly in place, and our friendships with our dearest friends will not be authentic.
And until we can all understand and own these truths, how do we live and move in a world where beloved little boys whom we’ve known since infancy could be killed – just for looking like Trayvon Martin?
*Although all stories are used with permission, names are changed to protect privacy.
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