...never judge a book by its movie

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Another talk to have with my son, who could easily find himself in Trayvon Martin's shoes

This is a book blog.  It didn't start out that way, but that's what it evolved into, and I love it.  Sometimes I will relate stories about my children or things that we do (see Prom and Earth Day).  Sometimes I will do a product review and/or giveaway; sometimes I will post an article about a cause or event that I think is worth drawing more attention to. 

NEVER have I posted any sort of political or societal piece; I firmly believe that those types of writings belong on a different sort of blog. But the shooting of Trayvon Martin:

Trayvon Martin
has caused me to search my soul and has revealed fears that I wasn't fully aware that I harbored for my own Bebe Boy James:

Bebe Boy James

I am cross-posting an article that I first wrote as a diary on Daily Kos (link to original diary), because I think that it's important for everyone to get some sort of understanding of the visceral fear that has been stirred up by Trayvon's killing for those of us who are parents of young black males.

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In the wake of the shooting of Trayvon Martin, a young teen who was shot while walking back to his father's girlfriend's house from the store in Sanford, Florida, I must now figure out how to have "that talk" with my own son.

I first heard about Trayvon Martin when an acquaintance on Facebook put up a video link to a televised interview.  The woman being interviewed was Sybrina Fulton.  Her son Trayvon was visiting his father in Sanford, FL when he was shot and killed on his way home from the store.  In the interview, Ms. Fulton was describing her son as a "regular kid" who liked to play sports, eat ... the female interviewer interrupted with "chicken?".  The male interviewer tried to clean it up with "anything and everything", but the racial overtones were insensitive at best.  I rolled my eyes at yet another person showing their ignorant side.

But I decided to read up on the incident that led to this interview.  I Googled, I listened closely to the 911 calls - the one made by the shooter himself as well as the ones made by people who heard some sort of altercation and those who only heard someone calling for help, then whimpering, then a shot.  I listened to the background noise on those tapes.  I wasn't there, but it definitely SOUNDS as though a child is calling for help and then whimpering in the background.  After the shot, that voice is silenced.

My youngest brother was murdered four years ago on his way home from a club (he was 38).  He was giving a girl he didn't know a ride home because one of his friends asked him to (apparently, her boyfriend was very intoxicated and she didn't want to ride home with him).  While he was stopped at a red light, another car pulled up behind him. Four people got out and they pulled my brother out of the car.  There was a fight, one of the guys pulled a knife, and my brother was stabbed.  He managed to get back into his car and drive for almost two blocks before he had to pull over.  He died and we still don't know who his killers were.  We DO know that, according to witnesses,  his killers were white.

I relate the story of my brother's murder only because I want to emphasize that not every white person who kills a black person is someone I would consider a racist.  I have my own suspicions about what happened, but nowhere in my suspicions does race play a part (my brothers are both brown- ... well ... caramel-skinned). He was killed by bad guys who happened to be white.

This is NOT, however, a diary detailing what I think happened and what reason leads me to believe happened in the Trayvon Martin case.  My strong hope is that the shooter is charged and brought to justice.  The heartbreak of these parents demands it.

I'm bi-racial, but fair-skinned, so I have managed to escape many of the assumptions that certain people make on sight about black people.  This also means that I've borne personal witness to the kind of statements that certain people make when they don't realize there's a black person in the room.

I'm also a parent.   I have three girls - 28, 23, and 18, and a boy who is 11.

We parents have many talks with our children - the "birds and the bees" talk, the "people who do drugs are stupid" talk, the "guys who wear pants down to their knees are stupid" talk, the "kids who walk around saying 'mf', 'ho', 'n', and 'b' sound stupid" talk (well, maybe those last two talks are just me).

There are some talks that only parents of black children have.  For me, those talks have been "you can't have C's, because you have to be better than average to get ahead" talk, the "no, you CAN'T walk around talking like that because people will think you're uneducated and ghetto" talk.  My girls used to tell their friends that if they called the house, they had to speak "proper" or I would tell them, "Call back when you learn to speak English" and hang up (yes, I AM that kind of parent).  Right or wrong, I think that there's a certain way to speak to authority and grownups.

If I manage to find another job anytime soon, we'll move right back out of our current neighborhood into a better one, but right now, I live where I can afford to live, and the neighborhood is not the greatest.  I keep my son close to home, and my worries for his safety are easily explained by "we live in the city; I want him safely in sight or calling distance".

All of that aside, I now have to debate whether or not to add another talk to my retinue:  the "how to properly walk through white neighborhoods without being shot" talk or maybe simply the "how to not look suspicious" talk.

I've canvassed with different groups and in GOTV efforts in various areas and suburbs, and I know from personal experience that my brown-skinned co-workers have had the police called on them for walking around the neighborhood going from door-to-door; they've had people call them the "n" word while being told to go away; they've been stopped and even frisked by the police simply for walking around these neighborhoods.  They weren't doing anything wrong; we weren't selling anything, so we weren't violating any type of "no soliciting" laws, but they were still stopped by the police and made to submit to a search, even though the police are always notified ahead of time that we will be in the area door-knocking.  This hasn't happened to me or to our white co-workers (although, to be fair, an elderly person DID call the police saying someone was knocking on their door at dusk and when the policeman responded, he told me "just be careful; we have a lot of older people who worry about strangers at their door when it's not full daylight" before he moved on). Common sense says that this equals racial profiling.  It has its own injustice and is, in its own way, very disheartening.

Trayvon's case now highlights another concern that I have for my young son.  How do I talk to him about this without making him think that ALL white people are going to look at him as suspicious if he's in certain neighborhoods?  What do I say to him to keep him aware without making him dislike people who, to be fair, are half of my own racial makeup?  What do I say?

I keep mulling this over and over in my own head.  Do I tell him, "if someone you don't know is following you, run?".  In Trayvon's case, running made the shooter backtrack, get out of his SUV, run after him, confront him, and then shoot him.   Do I tell him, "call 911 and keep them on the phone as you're trying to get home?"  Do I tell him, "Always keep your hands in plain sight?".  I don't know; I don't know; I don't know.  What do I tell him?

When my daughter was 17, she was walking home from about 10 blocks away when someone in a car started following her for a different reason, catcalling and asking her if she wanted to "party" with him.  She called me and stayed on the phone with me as I ran down to where she was.

Do I tell my son, "Call me and I'll call 911 as I'm on my way there?"

What kind of world is this where I even have to ask myself these kinds of questions?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

I just had to share this with you; it's so hard to articulate the "wrongness" I feel when trying to figure out how to warn my son of the dangers inherent in the color of his skin.  I don't know if I'm looking for advice so much as looking for some "reasoning" to give Bebe Boy James that won't make him feel "other" or "worth less".

What a sad state of affairs this is.



  1. This makes me so sad that we even have to think about having these conversations with our kids. But, its almost scarier not to. My heart breaks for his family, and his killer has to be brought to justice.

  2. Julie, I have been following this case and I've signed the petition created by his mother. I keep sharing the issue on Facebook and Twitter, trying to get people to step up and sign. This is a true tragedy and I think of that phrase, proud to be an American. How can we be proud of that when this kind of stuff continues to happen in our country. It sickens me that this man has not been arrested. And I hadn't even heard about the 911 tape and now knowing that he called for help and whimpered (because I'm sure at that point he knew what was going to happen), I am in tears and even more horrified. No, you shouldn't have to be having this kind of talk with your son, but sadly because of certain people who are closed minded and bigoted, there are just way too many cases where black children are victims solely because of their skin color. It makes me so damn mad and I just want to scream in frustration. And my children are not black or mixed. I know for parents like you the frustration and anger are many times worse.

    I wish that people would learn from this, but they won't. Until suspicion toward other races disappears, we will never be rid of hate. So sad...

  3. I heard about this murder on the news, I CANNOT BELIEVE that the shooter hasn't been arrested yet. That poor young boy. This is exactly why I tell my friends that I don't trust our legal system to do anything correctly - it's so one-sided and racist that it's sickening.

    Unfortunately, I have no advice on how to talk to your son about this. No matter what approach you take, there's a risk, a downside. I'm so sorry that you have to deal with how to have this conversation with him, but I wish you guys all the best.

  4. Oh Julie, we have sooo much in common. I'm heartsick by the Trayvon Martin shooting. I'm also raising black sons (two of which are 11). We have the conversations only parents of black children have too..."You need to work harder than your friends."

    I don't know what advice to give my boys about this. (And sorry Geraldo, "don't wear hoodies" just isn't going to cut it). Maybe there is no advice. Maybe we just cover them with prayers and send them out in the world and hope that God protects them from random racists and senseless acts of violence.

  5. Rhonda G FursteinMarch 28, 2012 at 2:32 PM

    I have a friend that I see about once a month and always our conversation turns to our children. She has told me on more than one occasion how very hard it is to raise black men in this country. Unfortunately and sadly this confirms what she always tells me.

  6. Julie,
    Fantastic piece. It made me cry, both for you as a sister who has lost a brother and as a mom who has to have a hard conversation (series of them more likely) with a beautiful boy, who shouldn't have to worry about a thing. Just tragic. This entire situation is tragic.

  7. The Trayvon Martin case is one of those that I always hope will change the tone in this country, but just looking at some of the reactions already, I'm afraid once the media attention strays most in this country won't even think about it much.

    That young man should not have died and for anyone to say race was not directly involved in his killing, is fooling themselves.

    I can't imagine the fear other mothers and fathers must face when sending their young men out into the world. I'm a single dad and I'm scared for my son everyday, I can't fathom having the added pressure of having to worry about somebody harming him over the color of his skin. It's senseless and heartbraking.

  8. I have children, boys and girls and we are a white family. We don't live in a great neighborhood but its also not the worst. And our street is a little mixed with different races. Honestly I did not even see race as a factor in any of this, not when it happened. To me a child was shot. Regardless of that kids background or what he was doing and saying online or to his friends and family, etc he was still a child. I found myself questioning what my kids were wearing found it more as a warning to watch what my kids do more than anything else. Who is to say one of mine won't be outside after dark in a few years, walking back from a corner store or a friends, and someone decides to follow them for whatever reason. If they choose to ignore that person they could be hurt...if they choose to speak with that person they could be hurt, if they choose to run or walk or stop they could be hurt. It is not about them but more so about whoever might be following them. I understand things happen all the time, everyday, and the reality is that you can not do much of anything about any of it. That is the problem in my opinion. I remember going out and wandering the streets with my friends till the street lights were on and no one bothered us, now that cant happen.

    1. Bernadette: You're absolutely right. There is danger for our children no matter what their skin color. I DO, however, believe that there are different dangers young brown-skinned males face.

      I think the reason race comes in in THIS situation is twofold: I don't think it's likely that George Zimmerman would have singled Trayvon Martin out as "suspicious" if he weren't black. All of his calls about "suspicious people" were linked to young black men in the neighborhood. Two: The Sanford PD did NOTHING when this happened. They took George Zimmerman in, questioned him, and let him go. It's hard to think this would have been the case if the shoe were on the other foot and the races of the people involved were reversed. This boy's father reported him missing that night, and it took TWO days for detectives to notify him (by showing him a picture) that his son had been killed right around the corner. They didn't even TRY to identify the victim in this case. There was no investigation and no follow up. THAT is the reason that any of us even know about this case.

      I honestly think that if they'd done their job and pressed charges that night (involuntary manslaughter, definitely not murder - I don't think the shooter MEANT to go out and shoot someone that night), it would have been just a private tragedy instead of the public spectacle that it's become.


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