The Perkins Perspective | Features | Autumn 2013
“What Do We Tell Our Kids?”
By Sharon Van Epps
This summer, our family of five relocated from a quiet California suburb to the bustle one of Seattle’s oldest neighborhoods. An unusual and punishing heat wave hit the Pacific Northwest as we began to unpack, and we threw open the windows of our old Craftsman as we worked, trying to claim some cool air. That’s why, when my 11-year-old son found himself locked out of the house one afternoon, and no one heard him knocking, he opted to climb back in through the open front window, in full view of the busy street.
“You can’t do that!” I screeched at him when I found out.
“But I made sure no one was watching!” he said.
“Honey!” I answered. “You can never be sure!”
My son is black. My husband and I are white. And here’s what I thought, but did not say out loud, on that July afternoon: Oh, my dear 5’4”, 120 pound black son, if you think it is ever safe for you to climb through an open window in broad daylight, then I am failing you.
When my husband and I adopted our son and his younger sister from Ethiopia, as well as our eldest daughter from India, we understood we’d have to prepare the children for daunting racial challenges that we’d never experienced ourselves. We accepted the responsibility earnestly, but like many well-intentioned white people, deep down we believed, then, that the world was better than it is.
We underestimated the frustrations, hurdles, and dangers that people of color still deal with in this country every day. We had no idea, as new parents, that a sixth grade boy who loves soccer and kittens and excels at math could ever be mistaken for a criminal. A few years, a handful of racial epithets, and a few thousand micro-aggressions later, and we started to get it, at least intellectually ― but I confess, it took the tragic death of Trayvon Martin to compel my heart to truly understand.
My son isn’t much younger than the 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was when he was shot and killed by a neighborhood watchman in the gated community where his father lived. After Trayvon’s death, much was made in the media of what journalist Jesse Washington calls the “Black Male Code,” the unwritten rules of self-defense and self-preservation that African-Americans have been forced to impart to their sons for generations: Always be aware of your surroundings. Speak respectfully to authority. If stopped by police while driving, keep your hands on the wheel and don’t reach for your wallet until the officer asks for your license.
The existence of the Code was news to many outside the African-American community, and as the public conversation around racial profiling unfolded, I read every article I could find in order to better teach my son the art, and the burden, of appearing innocent to others while going about his day. Stated differently, we needed to instruct him on how to perform innocence in order to avoid personal harm.
I’m embarrassed to say that if not for this public discussion, it might never have occurred to me to chide my son for innocently climbing through an open window on a summer afternoon. As the white mother of black children, I can’t help but parent from a place of inadequacy on certain racial matters. Yet, I must try ― in full, conspicuous view of friends, acquaintances, and strangers of all races and perspectives who may, or may not understand or approve of my family. I must try to do my best, always, even when I’m not sure what to do.
Perhaps that’s why I felt so torn up by the anguished statement made by Trayvon Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, after a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman of the second-degree murder of her son.
“What do we tell our kids?” she asked. “Do we tell them to walk fast, do we tell them to walk slow, do we tell them to take a friend with them, or do we tell them just to stay in the house? We have no clue what to tell our kids to prevent them from going to the store and not ever coming home.”
What do we tell our kids? We have no clue.
Those words, infused with sorrow and injustice, brought tears to my eyes. Trayvon Martin was just walking home from the corner store when a self-appointed watchman deemed him a threat and came after him with a gun. George Zimmerman’s acquittal arrived just days after I’d warned my son to avoid doing anything that could make him look like a housebreaker in the eyes of our new neighbors.
Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin made sure their son Trayvon knew the Black Male Code, but in the face of fear and hatred, it could not save him. And even if I, as a white mother, manage to learn and transmit all the survival strategies that my black son and his sisters would receive if they were being raised by parents of color, my children are still vulnerable every time they venture out into the world. But at least I understand now that the problem lies not in me, or in my husband, or in our clumsy white fumbling with the Code.
Of course, the problem has nothing to do with my beautiful, dark-skinned children, good kids who will sometimes make mistakes or forget the rules. No, like Norman Rockwell’s iconic painting of Ruby Bridges, it’s called, “The Problem We All Live With.” And we cannot rest until we solve it.
All of us.
Sharon Van Epps writes about parenting, adoption and child welfare, and has published essays in The Sun Magazine and Adoptive Families. Be Bold or Go Home, her blog for Adoptive Families Circle (AFC), looks at the challenges of transracial adoptive parenting. She also publishes Whatever Things Are True: The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful in the World of International Adoption, a blog covering international adoption news, politics, and policy, and is a past contributor to Mama Manifesto. You can find her on Twitter @sharonvanepps.
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