My five-year-old son is ridonculously adorable, even more so when he’s mad. He crosses his arms and frowns and does everything he can to convey to us his discontent, but all we can do is smile. People constantly comment on how cute he is when he’s angry. And he’s definitely one to get angry. He’s stubborn and strong-willed and insanely smart, all of which lead him to heightened states of anxiety when he doesn’t get his way.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about the shelf life on this sweet anger. I’m not sure when it will happen though; it’s like having a carton of milk with no expiration. It tastes good now, but at any point it will spoil. My son isn’t black, but he’s a dark skinned Latino with kinky hair. I’ve done the reading about the implicit assumptions we make about young black men with dark skin; I’ve talked to people that live the experience. This summer when a Florida jury refused to convict Trayvon Martin’s murderer George Zimmerman, I was reminded in an excellent essay by Tim Wise that the verdict once again proved the irrational fear of black men is a justifiable reason for murder. For families with boys who will grow up to be dark skinned men, I have to wonder about something a colleague once pointed out to me, “He’s cute now, but at what point does he become something to fear? At 10 years old? 12? 16?”
Last night, this came crashing down on me with even more startling clarity. My husband and I went to see Fruitvale Station, the recent film starring Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant, the twenty-two year old black man murdered by police at a BART station in Oakland, CA, in 2009. The moment the gun went off in the film, I began crying, and I didn’t stop for a long time after it ended. While I’m well aware that this is a dramatized version of real events and that the filmmakers took certain liberties to elicit an emotional response at precisely that moment in the film, I couldn’t even speak afterward, and when I composed myself enough on the drive home to try discussing the film with my husband, the tears returned. This story keeps repeating again and again and again. Trayvon Martin wasn’t the first and he sadly won’t be the last. In ten years, will my son be the next victim? He lives in an affluent white community. How long after he gets his driver’s license will one of the white police officers in this town pull him over because he doesn’t look like the other kids? How will this heighten his awareness of his difference? Will that manifest itself as aggression–real or perceived–that will lead to him getting hurt, maybe fatally?
When I talk with my high school students about the responsibility parents with dark skinned children feel they have to teach their children to be docile and pliant with police officers, to keep their hands where the police can see them, my mostly white students are reluctant to believe that that isn’t good advice for all kids, regardless of race. I valiantly try–sometimes successful, often not so much–to show them the way we are socialized to fear blacks in this country. Tim Wise does a great job explaining this in this short clip that I often use in class:
I do my best to use my sphere of influence to make things better. Luckily, my sphere directly impacts my children’s educational environment since I teach in the school system they attend. How do I prepare them for the world beyond? How do I teach them that this is a world where people who look like them regularly pay with their lives for other people’s ignorance? As Trayvon Martin’s mother knows, as Oscar Grant’s mother knows, as every parent of a dark skinned child in this country knows, sometimes all you can do is hope that your child won’t be in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong person.