If you are a white parent of an older child or teen, have you discussed the Trayvon Martin tragedy with them? When the verdict came in over the weekend, I realized that I had not.
For a moment, I was shocked and then ashamed. I realized, as I have many times before, that my experience as a white parent raising a white son is a very different experience than it is for black parents raising a black son. I was reminded yet again, of what race “privilege” as a parent really is: the freedom to believe your child will be seen as a person, not reduced to a reflection of people’s fears and biases.
About six months before Trayvon’s death, I had a conversation with a group of high school boys about when and how they sneak out after their parents go to bed. At first the conversation was light and revolved around the boys comparing funny stories. But everything got quiet when one of the boys said:
You guys have no idea how different it is for me as a black man. So my parents don’t get suspicious, I wear sweats and a hoody so if they see me it looks like I’m in my pajamas. But what if someone on the street sees me trying to get in or out of the house like that? They immediately will think I’m robbing the place. Or if I do sneak out, then I have to walk down the street…a black man wearing sweats is not a good thing late at night in a suburban neighborhood. You know it’s only a matter of minutes before the police stop me and ask me if I live here. I could be wearing my school sweatshirt and they’d still question me.
As he related all the complexities of sneaking out his white friends were speechless. He was a good friend of theirs and they had no idea how walking through the world was so different for him. I remember one of the other boys saying, “If I ever get stopped by the police, all they assume is I’m high or drunk.” Another boy said, “I had no idea it was like that for you. I got caught in exactly that same situation last weekend but the police gave me a little lecture and then drove me home.”
If you’re a white parent and you haven’t talked to your children about Trayvon, please ask yourself why not? Does it seem too ugly and violent? Are you not sure what to say? Do we not see this as our issue?
It is our issue. Not only because we probably have friends of other races and/or our children do but because we need to teach our children to empathize—that there are people in our country who feel like their children are first seen as a problem and threat rather than a kid walking down the street.
Yesterday, I asked my boys what they knew about the case and they did know the basic facts. Then, we listened to the radio and read some of the newspaper accounts and opposing op-eds that followed the verdict as in USA Today or Wall Street Journal. We talked about racial stereotyping and fears that we all develop; whether we are aware of them or not.
But like much of parenting, the teaching moment came in an instant when I wasn’t expecting it. Not an hour later I was in the car with my boys when a guy in another car honked his horn and obviously cursed me out. Immediately my older son said, “Mom, that guy just swore at you, can I middle finger him?”
“No.” I replied. “We have gone over this a thousand times. No.”
“Why? He was cursing you. Come on, just one time,” my son said.
Then it hit me how to connect our conversations about Trayvon with this seemingly unrelated and ridiculous request. This is what I said:
Here’s one difference between you and Trayvon. As a young white man, you have the luxury of being foolishly rude without the other person assuming that you’re violent. Boys like Trayvon don’t have that luxury. They can’t middle finger someone without being seen as an angry black man. Now imagine that the guy who you get into the argument with, the one who just cursed me out thinks all young black men are punks who need to be taught respect. And you, as a young black man have had enough experience to know this. Sometimes you’re so mad about it you want to scream. Sometimes you’re scared and want to defend yourself. Do you see how easy it is for you to want to flip off that guy and not think anything of it? Can you see how different it is for other boys? Just think about it.
It got very quiet in the car and then my son said, “I get it.”
Have you talked to your child about Trayvon? What did you say? Post a comment and tell me.
Rosalind Wiseman is the author of the best-selling Queen Bee Moms & Kingpin Dads. For more info, go to www.rosalindwiseman.com. Do you have a parenting question? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.