Note: For context of time, I wrote this post Thursday of last week, after the death of Alton Sterling. The news of Philando Castile’s death broke while I was in the middle of writing it.
(This post originally referenced a photo of my family at the top that I’ve since removed. I’ve also changed my son’s name. Trolls = privacy concerns.)
This is my family. The white guy is me. That’s my beautiful wife next to me, and probably the most incredible child to ever live, *Nick.
Nick loves superheroes. Every day when I come home, without fail, he asks if we can play superheroes. He puts on a cape, or his Captain America jacket, and prepares swords and wings out of cardboard. Some days we’re real superheroes–his favorites are Captain America and Iron Man–and some days he makes up superheroes based on things he’s seen in Dora or Wild Kratts, superheroes like “Cheetah Man” and, my favorite, “Super Nick.”
Nick brings joy into every room he enters. He’s creative, loving, and sensitive–more likely to give away a toy than to fight over it. There is so much good in that boy it brings me to tears just to consider it.
Nick is going to be 13. Not today, or tomorrow, or next year. But soon enough, this boy will blossom–awkwardly but beautifully–into a young man. He’s going to be tall. I’m 6’2″, and he’ll likely be close to six foot. But his skin will be darker than mine, his hair curlier. He’ll be raised knowing and loving his African-American heritage and family.
What I’m saying is this: I’m a White guy from the suburbs, and my son will be a young Black man. Soon. And I’m scared to death.
I’m scared to death that he’ll be in a hoodie on his way home from a friend’s house and a vigilante will shoot him.
I’m scared to death he’ll have a silly toy and an anonymous caller will bring the police down on him, and they will shoot him.
I’m scared to death he’ll get frustrated by cops pulling him over too often and he’ll talk back to them once, and they will shoot him.
I’m scared to death his tall, dark body will scare some neighbor and they’ll “fear for their lives” and they’ll shoot him.
I’m scared to death that, once someone shoots him, the media and the shooters will start pulling together a story that paints him as a criminal who deserves death.
And here’s the most important thing: I’m not alone. I haven’t talked to a single Black parent ever who doesn’t have these concerns for their kids. And their families. And their friends.
If you’ve never heard about “The Talk” that parents have to give their Black kids, you might assume it’s the classic “The Birds and the Bees” talk. It’s not. It’s the “How to Avoid Being Shot By the Cops” talk. “Don’t talk back.” “Keep your hands where they can see them.” “Don’t make any sudden moves.” This is necessary because we fear for our children’s lives. Regularly. Actively. Painfully.
Every new publicized instance of violence against Black bodies brings us new fear. “It feels like the world is trying to get rid of us,” my wife told me last night as we lamented another hash-tagged Black body. “It’s like our only options are either assimilation or extinction. They’re killing us and they’re killing our culture.”
When I was in middle school, I sagged my pants. When I was in high school, I dyed my hair and wore ripped clothing and wallet chains. I was a teenager! I was finding myself. And at no point did I or my parents worry for my safety as a result.
Nick will likely not be allowed to wear ripped clothing. He will not be allowed to sag his pants. He will not dye his hair. We will carefully guide what he wears and how he presents himself. Why? Because we want to protect him. We don’t want cops or neighbors to look at him and decide he’s a threat, and then shoot him.
A few of my Black friends shared on Twitter today about the precautions they take to try to avoid a bad police encounter.
My friends didn’t understand why I take off my hat when riding around at night and the police are around. It makes sense to them now.
— Steve Patton (@StevenPatton) July 7, 2016
@StevenPatton Once the sun goes down I’m in a shirt with a collar. No hat, no hood.
— Lucas Wright (@lucasandstuff) July 7, 2016
I don’t worry about what I wear at night. My parents never had to teach me how to act to keep from getting shot by the cops. I’ve heard Black parents describe “The Talk” but I’ve never given or received it. It’s something I’ll have to figure out how to do–like how I’ll have to learn how to do my daughter’s hair.
When I was younger, I didn’t respond to Black pain the way I do now. I remember distinctly the moment when my perspective shifted. It didn’t come during an impassioned argument or a careful reflection on my life. It came when I met Tamika.
Tamika was a leader in a group I joined in college. She was outgoing, kind, and the first Black person who ever opened up to me about the pains of being Black in America. She told me how many of her family members had served jail time for small offenses, and how it felt to interact with the police. Another friend in the room told me about being pulled over for Driving While Black (when you’re pulled over for absolutely no reason, or because you’re a Black person in a White neighborhood, always because the police are suspicious without cause). Tamika and my other friend told me their stories and the stories of their family members, individually and personally. She invited me in, just a little bit, to her family and her experience.
Something in me changed. This was before cell phone cameras became ubiquitous, so there were no Trayvon Martins or Mike Browns yet. But there were constant opportunities for my worldview to butt up against that of my Black classmates and acquaintances. “It can’t be that bad.” “You have to look at it from every perspective.” Today, it would have been, “I’m going to wait until I see all the information.”
Hidden beneath those statements, however, is this (conscious or subconscious) implication: “Why are you making such a big deal about this? White people don’t respond like this. When something bad happens, we have a clear line of reasoning pointing to why. That person was a criminal. That person didn’t work hard enough. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”
After talking with Tamika, I saw everything in a different light. When we talked about a policy that would have a negative impact on Black kids in the city, I didn’t hold contesting ideas about poverty and blame and race. I thought about little babies in Tamika’s family, beautiful little brown-skinned babies who wouldn’t be safe because of this policy. And later, when I saw Tamir and Eric and Walter and so many others gunned down, I didn’t see some poor Black person who had no connection to me–I saw sons, daughters, cousins, friends.
When I saw how poorly much of the White community responded to some of these more recently publicized deaths–Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Sandra Bland–I originally thought our problem was that we are too reserved as a people, too slow to respond, too fact-driven and not emotional enough. That’s the justification we so often give for not engaging: “I need more information.” “Wait for all the facts.”
But then I watched how we engage with the things we do care about. Gun rights, Target bathrooms, Chick-fil-A, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton; we are loud, and emotional, and quick to speak when we want. That’s not our problem.
Our problem is that we don’t empathize with Black people.
When Philando Castile’s death showed up on Facebook while I was writing this, my wife and I cried together. We didn’t need more information. We didn’t need to see his criminal record. Because who we saw, his life bleeding out of him, was each of her brothers. Her dad. Our son. Our friends. We saw the day, God forbid, when we’re watching the video when the people we love are taken away from us because they look threatening. We saw the day when she has Nick in the back seat and, like Sandra Bland, is pulled over for a broken tail light. We knew that that day could happen, and it ruined us.
What the White community needs more than anything is to see each new story of violence against Black bodies and to have the same sort of emotional response every Black mother has.
Remember Nick? The most incredible, amazing, brilliant child on the planet? I literally cannot find the words to describe how earth-shatteringly bad it would be if something were to happen to him. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the loss of that child would be a deep, deep loss for the future of humanity. Yes, I’m a crazy parent, but if you knew him you’d love him nearly as much as I do–believe me.
White readers, I want you to see the next Tamir Rice case and think about my boy. I want you to mourn with me the fact that this beautiful, incredible child might be taken away from me by the insecurity of a White man with a gun. I want you to see the next Sandra Bland and imagine it’s my wife. Imagine this incredible, insightful, hilarious woman being taken away.
But don’t stop there. Move past me. Learn to put your own kids in there. Imagine how it would feel if each news story made you fear more and more for your own children’s safety, or your brothers’ safety, or your parents’. Develop meaningful relationships with people of color so you no longer empathize with “Matt’s kid I read about in an article,” but “my dear friend Danielle’s baby who’s like a second child to me.” I want you to see the news that Philando Castile has passed and feel the punch in your gut that makes you fear for your child’s Black fifth grade teacher.
I want our hearts, as a community, to break when the Black community’s hearts break. I want us to learn how to empathize with and have compassion for our sisters and brothers. I want us to learn how to mourn with those who mourn.
- My children are multiracial. When I refer to them as Black, I mean it. They are Black. They are also White. They are also multiracial. This is how I think of their racial identities. But further, unless they have loose curls and very light skin, multiracial kids are more likely to be seen as Black then they are to be seen as White when it comes to the type of confrontations we’re talking about here.
- I have written this article as Black & White. These situations impact every race and ethnicity in different ways, but Black/White is the primary racial dynamic in the U.S., and it’s the primary place this problem is happening. Further, I’m White and my wife is Black, so this is what I know best.
- Most–not all–of what I’ve said here has been said before, better, more eloquently, more powerfully, by Black writers. I’m not a public speaker or an author trying to make sales, and I’m not trying to build a platform for myself on the back of the pain of Black people. I’ve written several articles like this that don’t center on my experience, and was content to leave it that way. But I’ve started to understand recently that White teachers have an opportunity to impact White people in the way that Black teachers don’t. If I’m afraid to use that power because I don’t want someone to criticize the way I’m centering myself in the story, I’m letting my fear keep me from having a positive impact, and I can’t do that.