(Note: Most of these posts began as reflections during my first 10 years with the boys. Clearly, and sadly, there have been many incidents of racial violence towards black males—not to mention the Charleston massacre—that I could use as starting points for this topic. But the specific case of Trayvon Martin—who was guilty of nothing more than being a young black male wearing a hoodie walking in a neighborhood where he had a home—has a particular resonance for me.
At the same time, writing about a race-related topic makes me nervous. Although I have black sons, live in a black neighborhood, and count a number of black people among my closest friends, I never want to come across as if I know about the black experience. I don’t know. But these incidents touch me deeply, and I feel an emotional imperative to try to frame and process them for and with my sons. This post expresses one such meager attempt.)
It may be presumptuous for a Caucasian gay man to claim to feel terrified and heartsick at the shooting of Trayvon Martin. But upon hearing the news that day in 2012, this is exactly how I felt.
There is nothing fair about what happened in that situation, just as many would argue there is nothing fair about growing up black in America. Whatever the legalities of George Zimmerman using a gun to “stand his ground” if he felt his life was threatened, the simple truth is that he chose—against the direction of law enforcement, whom he contacted for support—to follow an African-American male who had every right to be walking those neighborhood streets, however “thug” he might appear.
When Daveon was in the fourth grade, he used to complain that his teacher—who was not black—used to discipline him for talking when “everyone else was talking just as much” as he was, without her saying anything.
We talked about what might be going on:
- Daveon actually was talking more than the other students, even though he thought he was not.
- He was talking the same as the other students, but maybe his voice was louder than theirs*, so the teacher heard him and not the others.
- The teacher was—consciously or unconsciously—targeting him because he is black.
(*An issue that has come up multiple times when either boy is the only African-American in a room full of other kids.)
From there, we discussed how he might respond:
- Talk to the teacher. Explain he felt he was being singled out unfairly, and see if they could work something out.
- Keep doing what he was doing, and accept the consequences.
- Try to be quieter than the other students in order to “appear” equal.
This specific conversation became a template for many others I’ve had with both Daveon and Mark about being young black men in America. In some people’s eyes, you are not going to be seen as “the same.” You will be assumed to be a potential troublemaker, a threat. There is nothing fair, or right, or just about this—it just is.
So, if you feel like you are being treated unfairly, you can:
- Try to speak to the person in question to address the situation.
- Keep doing what you are doing based on the principle of “I’m not doing anything wrong, so there’s nothing I need to change,” and let the chips fall where they might.
- Try to act “better” than the people around you to be seen as equal.
If this sounds like putting a lot of work on the shoulders of those who are the recipients, rather than the causes, of the problem, I would say, “Yes, it is.” And then I would repeat: There is nothing fair, or right, or just about this—it just is.
None of these approaches is the “right” answer, but I want to arm my kids with them anyway—along with all the standard tips about avoiding certain neighborhoods at certain times, not associating with people whose association can lead you to trouble, making smart choices if you are pursued by a stranger or stopped by the police, and so on—to at least give them the sense that they have some choice, some say, in how they respond to unjust profiling.
In a city where a black male is gunned down on average more than once per week, I can only hope these strategies will be enough to see my kids through.
Next: Warm, Cool