This is the second post in a series on police violence, race, safety and cities. See more at the end of this post.
Soon, I will need to warn my children that racism could kill them. It is this heartbreaking truth that made it impossible for me to watch the videos of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile being killed by police last week. Still, I’m glad we have cell phone cameras and social media to shine light on the endless series of African-American deaths. Because, just like rape on college campuses, there is nothing new here. African-Americans have always been killed by American institutions, from slavery to the police. What is new is the growing awareness of this injustice outside of the African-American community.
When people want to know what can be done to change centuries of institutional racism and socialized prejudice, I want them to know my experience as a White mom to Black kids. As Americans, we are all socialized toward bias. If you don’t believe that, take the Implicit Association Test (IAT) and then decide. Although I certainly don’t have the cure to racism, in my experience you can change your part in it, and it is critically important for White people to take responsibility for doing so. The way to change our prejudice is to first experience it, then acknowledge it and then replace it. And then repeat.
I believe our socialized prejudice is the reason Black people are being killed. I believe that the way our culture socializes White people to fear has led to the deaths of innumerable Black men and women. I also believe we can change this. If you’ve ever spent time with very young children, you know that they aren’t born afraid. Racism is taught. Not only can we teach something else, it is our moral imperative to do so. And we have to start with ourselves.
Sixteen years ago, I met the love of my life: a Canadian who won me over with his dance moves and big, generous personality. He is Black. I am White. In addition to marking the end of my “roaring twenties,” getting together with my now-husband marked the beginning of my orientation to Life as a Black Person in 21st-century America. It’s not that I wasn’t paying attention before we started dating, but I was focused on an idea, an understanding, and not on a lived experience.
Early in our relationship, my husband called me from a trip to tell me that “racism is alive and well in America” after spending 20 futile minutes trying to hail a cab. I remember thinking, “that’s awful” and then moving on. And then something weird happened. When we were next together, I stood there as he tried to hail a cab and kept getting passed up. And it felt different. It felt outrageous and wrong and infuriating. Being pragmatists, we developed a strategy in which he would stand about five feet away and I’d hail the cabs, successful every time. Now we take Uber.
So there was something in the lived experience for me as a White person that allowed me to start to understand Life as a Black Person differently. My husband is a grown man, and he has his own coping mechanisms for dealing with both the explicit and casual racism that is so prevalent in our country. My participation was largely as witness, sometimes as storyteller but never as protagonist.
And then, in 2010, we had twins. A boy and a girl. It almost broke us trying to take care of two infants as first-time parents and me at “advanced maternal age,” but those kids are the light of my life and the center of my universe. My daughter is the brightest spirit you will ever know. She loves Steph Curry, playing sports and winning, and eating anything with sugar, especially cupcakes. My son has an amazing sense of humor and the most infectious laugh. He is a warm and gentle soul who fights tears if he thinks someone’s mad at him and would love to live in a world where he really could train a dragon. Everyone who meets them loves them. And everyone tells me they’re beautiful.
But at some point not long from now, they won’t. Because my kids are Black. Technically, of course, they’re biracial, but this is 21st-century America and everyone sees them as Black. So when they’re a little bit older, people will see my gentle soul of a son walking down the street with his friends and think, “threat.” They’ll see my bright spirit of a daughter in the store and think, “shoplifter.” And they won’t want to admit it to themselves, because we are ashamed of our racism. But if you’re White, try this: The next time you see a Black man walking down the street, notice your very first, semi-conscious thought. Did you have a little startle, a quick thought that you should cross to the other side of the street? When you see those three Black girls laughing on the train, do you think, “I’ll stand a little further away”? Because if you do, you are experiencing America’s learned racism. And if you can catch yourself in it, you can change it. You can think to yourself, “That’s not my thought. That’s what I was socialized to believe. Is this person really a threat to me, or is he just a 10-year-old kid with a lot of energy and a loud voice? Okay, he’s just a kid. I don’t have to be afraid. I’m not afraid.” And then do that over and over and over, every time, until you have a different first thought.
Like many moms, I am fiercely protective of my kids. They are my heart, and seeing them in any kind of pain or under any kind of threat has always been hard for me. I’m sure lots of parents can relate to wanting to keep their kids safe and their spirits intact. As the mom of Black kids, I’m also tasked with protecting my kids’ spirits from the racism that is soon to come their way. Thinking about the confusion and hurt they will feel the first time someone tells them to “get away from here” — or starts following them around a store or ignores them in the classroom — causes the most profound pain I have ever felt. When I think about what will happen when someone pulls them over for driving while Black, or mistakes them for a criminal, I’m terrified. My gentle son, my bright daughter. Philando Castile, Sandra Bland.
That profound hurt that I feel in anticipation of what may come for my kids? That’s my “increased awareness” of injustice. It’s my lived experience of racism. And I wouldn’t wish it on anyone — except that I do wish it on everyone. I want everyone to feel what I feel. I want everyone to see my kids with the same love and reverence for their souls that I have, and I want everyone to feel how painful it is that they will experience racism, that they could just as easily as any other Black person be killed for no reason by the people who are supposed to protect us. Because if you felt what I feel, you’d practice. You’d practice replacing your prejudice with something new, something more whole and more true.
One of the reasons we live in Oakland is because its sizeable African-American population makes us feel safer, more comfortable, more accurately seen. Consider that when people raise concerns about gentrification and displacement, they may not be motivated by fear of change but rather by fear of being unsafe. Oakland is also a city that is consciously proud of its racial diversity. Its residents value the experience of interacting with people who do not look like them. To me, that is the promise of cities: They offer spaces where people of all backgrounds can learn to know each other in a way that is more true and accurate than our socialized bias. But that’s not an automatic byproduct of living in a city. As we've seen over and over again with police violence, it can just as easily go the other way. Each of us taking responsibility for our own part in America’s prejudice is, therefore, absolutely critical. If we do, we can deliver on the promise of cities. If we all truly erase our fear, I can let go of mine.
Read more from this series: