I wrote this post nearly 3 years ago, but never published it. I didn’t post it because I still had (and have) so much to learn. I didn’t post it for fear of the criticism. Keeping quiet for fear of not saying something perfectly may stop your critics, but it is not always noble. Waiting to speak up until every word is perfect, means never speaking up at all. Today is the 3rd anniversary of Trayvon’s death. May we learn something, change and start talking about racism in America. In the past 3 years, I have learned so much about race in America. I have learned that who we are greatly affects how we view the world and how the world views us. I have learned that I haven’t had to think about these things for the vast majority of my life because I am white. Mostly, I have learned that I have so much more to learn. May we all come to the very basic understanding that our view of the world, it that – our view. Not the right view or the only view, but one perspective. May we learn to listen more, to hear the voices around us calling out for justice. May their voices continue to rise.
For the past several days, I have been reading post like this and this. Discussions about the tragic loss of beautiful Trayvon Martin, a 17 year old boy shot down in his own neighborhood because he “looked suspicious.” What is even more tragic than the man who did the shooting is the fact that this man has not been arrested. He is still free. This is Trayvon. My heart is broken for his family and for our country. (Edited to update, he was not convicted.)
I remember the first time I realized that things like this happen to innocent people simply because of the color of their skin. I was in my early twenties, my boyfriend called me frustrated and angry. I tried to calm him down. He had been stopped by a police officer and his car was searched. I don’t mean the doors and trunk were opened to look inside. I mean all of the contents of his car were thrown outside the car and when the officer was finished, my boyfriend was left to return them to their place, on the side of a busy highway while other cars sped by watching. What was his crime? Being young, Black and male. I guess I knew that this happened to people, but this time it was to someone close to me. Someone I knew. Someone sweet, funny, loving and hardworking. I couldn’t wrap my brain around it. How could it be ok for the people who were supposed to protect us to be so disrespectful of someone I loved? It was the first time I realized that young, Black men have to be careful how they act, what they say, how fast they walk and how they talk for fear that someone will think they “look suspicious.” He was innocent. They had no reason to stop him. In the end, he was free to go, not even a speeding ticket. Left on the side of the road to pick up his belongings without even an apology. I found myself telling him that he should remain calm, even though he had every right to respond with frustration. I was worried that the next time the outcome would be worse. I had to admit to myself that it was a possibility. That wasn’t the first time he had stopped and searched. I’m sure it wasn’t the last.
Fast forward to now. This is my nearly 17 year old boy.
Since Alain has been home, I often wonder what those outside of our family think of him. Judging on appearances alone, you would never know that he has been in America for less than 3 months. If he was in a store alone in his new red, flat-brimmed baseball hat and white Nikes, I’m not convinced that he wouldn’t be followed closely. I knew that we would have to talk about racism – someday. But I wanted to do it later. Trayvon’s murder has made the necessity of this conversation blatantly obvious. Inevitably, Alain will ask “Why?” My smart boy is constantly curious. Intelligence will do that to you. You want to know how and why things work the way they do. And I will be speechless…
…Alain, just walked through the room as I was talking on the phone to Chris about this very post, about Trayvon. I didn’t think he was listening. He was in the room for less than 30 seconds. A few minutes later, he returned and said, “Who was killed?” I couldn’t avoid the conversation forever. I felt so inadequate to explain. How do to speak truth, but to tell the story without completely petrifying my child? To tell him it is ok, when clearly it is not ok.
Before arriving in Texas, he had no idea that America is not always safe, that we have to lock our cars or our houses. He laughed the first time we told him to hide his iPod before leaving it in the car. Every American he met was kind and compassionate to him. How could it be that there are people who shoot children? And people who may suspect him simply because of his beautiful brown skin? Alain is not from America. He didn’t know our history. Slavery. Civil Rights. Until today, he didn’t know that it was legal in America to carry a gun. It breaks my heart to have to explain to him that this country, the country he loves, the country that he dreamed about, the country said to give opportunity and education, is also a country where the man who killed a 17 year boy runs free. That this America is far from perfect.
Hesitantly, I decided to tell him the story. I tried to find the words, and I failed miserably. I showed him the photos of Trayvon. I told him that there are people who do not like other people because they are different from them. There are people who may think that he looks suspicious because of the color of his race. There are people who make grave mistakes. He cried. We cried together. Then we cried some more. I literally just watched my boy’s heart break. And I was the messenger.
Somehow, I have to teach my beautiful, sweet, smart, kind boy about the Black Male Code. We have to protect him, while trying to retain his confidence. Balance safety with fear. If I teach him to be careful, I will be accused of giving him a “chip on his shoulder.” If I do not, I fear that he will find himself in a situation that he doesn’t know how to navigate. According to many who want to deny that racism exists, it is the very people brave enough to speak up about how they have been treated who are perpetuating racism. What? We live in a world filled with imperfect humans, many so very misguided.
I believe every teenager should know about Trayvon Martin, to protect themselves and to protect others. Let us raise a generation better than ours and the ones before us. As parents, let us not buy into the lie that our world is colorblind. Until no parent hesitates when their white daughter brings my son home for dinner, we are not colorblind. We have “come a long way” as they say, but sometimes I think we have just become better at concealing. Let us celebrate our differences. It is what makes the world a beautiful place. If you are wondering, Alain did ask “Why?” And I was and still am speechless…