Opinion: Raising a black son
With the fatal shooting of Michael Brown and the ensuing unrest in Ferguson, Mo., and the shooting of Ezell Ford here in Los Angeles, I cried remembering the three words that challenged me three years ago.
“It’s a boy!”
As those words made their way from my ears to my brain, my heart was simultaneously filled with so much joy and frozen with so much terror.
You see, the beautiful baby then growing inside me — my innocent, impossibly adorable, bright, promising, curly-haired brown-skinned boy — would become a “black man.” And it would be incumbent on his father and me to explain why that is a relevant distinction.
My husband and I, both biracial, determinedly choose not to approach the world solely on racial terms. Within us, racial harmony coexists. But there is cold reality: Regardless of the man facing the mirror, it is his own reflection that threatens him. Black boys face different dangers.
As mommy blogger Erin Human wrote on her site, “The E Is for Erin,” while she frets about her kids and their futures, the “million and one worries” are different.
“Not one of them is about them saying one wrong word to a police officer, saying one smart-ass remark because that’s what teenage boys do sometimes, and dying. DYING. I don’t worry that they could be murdered one ordinary day and the whole world would just keep turning like no one even cared. I don’t worry about that. I don’t have to. Because my two kids are white.”
Whether black or brown, we all have or know the stories.
My Angeleno husband was stopped in Beverly Hills when he was 14 for having the temerity to run to meet his mom after visiting a friend nearby. The officer, questioning his story, returned him to the friend’s house to prove his innocence. His crime? He was just a kid with a backpack — no hoodie, no gang tattoos, no rump-revealing pants, no intimidation, no threat.
When I was growing up two hours away in the desert, it was my shy, bookish older cousin who was pulled over and made to lie face down on the searing asphalt in Indio with a shotgun trained on him because he supposedly matched the description of a criminal in the area. The only thing that matched was that he was a black man — not the car or his height. Now a doctor with his own grown son and daughters, my cousin has never forgotten the lessons of that day.
Such a bitter stew of emotion is set to simmer internally after experiences like this. It’s a blend of shock, disbelief, anger, vulnerability, humiliation, sadness and resolve.
For this mother whose body was nourishing and then soon to bear a perfect being — free from the blemishes, burdens and bitterness of generations before him — the idea of having to prepare him for a country that hasn’t caught up with his promise presented a quandary.
For no matter how determined I am to affirm and embrace the racial progress here in America — and there has been progress, however incremental — I would be negligent to not equip him to face an America that itself has much maturing yet to do. Rather than wait for experience to color our children, my husband and I are determined to shape their experience and response.
Even as we are discussing how to teach our now-3-year-old son how to be a black man, my husband and I refuse to treat law enforcement as if they are the enemy. We appreciate and respect the incredibly difficult task before them. Officers regularly face life-threatening scenes to keep us safe.
As a result, we teach our son (and our daughter, for that matter) to respect authority, to comport themselves always with self-respect and pride.
But in the coming years, we will also teach one of the keys to survival: Authority won’t always respect you. Those who are armed with authority — the kind that can pierce the flesh and mortally wound — are also on occasion armed with bias, whether based on one-sided experience or misshapen exposure.
We will reluctantly repeat the lessons passed down from our parents: If you are stopped by the police, keep both hands in plain sight on the wheel, respond respectfully and make no sudden moves. Remember to tell the officer what you’re doing before reaching for your documents.
We will convey this to our kids: Just as we are teaching you, ultimately, to fear law enforcement officers, they will also fear you. They don’t know you; they won’t always see you. And though you have the right to do something or to be somewhere, it doesn’t mean that everyone in authority will respect that.
So amid the unrest whose repercussions are still unveiling themselves, I wept as I did that day in the doctor’s office. Yes, I have a boy, and I have the task of teaching him how to live to be a man.
Are you also trying to raise the next generation of gentlemen? Join me on the journey: @mmaltaisla
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