I write this as I wait for my train in the NYC subway. I have just seen the video of Alton Sterling being murdered. I swallow a lump in my throat, willing myself not to cry while people pass by going about their day, despite the fact that Alton will not. I am suddenly overwhelmed with the urge to talk to my brother. I have to tell him yet again what to do if the cops stop you. It's literally a matter of life and death. He is young and full of promise and potential, but I know none of that will matter if a cop feels threatened by his skin color. My son is 18 months old -- too young to understand what is happening around him -- but will my eventual conversations with him be any different, with his pale skin and blue eyes?
I struggle to identify my emotions. I identify my dominant emotion as anger. I am angry because the first video I saw of this story was the video of Alton's son struggling unsuccessfully to control his emotions on national TV. He, a child, now knows senseless loss. I think about the 4-year-old daughter of Philando Castile's girlfriend, who instinctively took on the responsibility of comforting her mother. My heart breaks at the burden of trauma these and so many other kids of color will carry with them throughout their lives. Trauma that will instinctively influence how they react to authority and to America, which has betrayed them yet again.
The train is here. I get on and take a seat opposite a black father with two sons. The boys are probably about 10 and 12. They talk about getting off at Times Square. The boys look to their father for approval and direction. He knows the way. They trust him to guide them, as fathers should. I glance at their innocence as the tears threaten to spill onto my phone.
I am scared to be black in America. The US manages to be arguably the most powerful country in the world, but black people are not safe here. I wonder if the father across from me has had to talk to his boys about what to do if the cops stop you. I've had that conversation with my brother. There is no gentle lead-in. There is no casually bringing it up over brunch.
It was an abrupt directive: I want him, for once, to do as I say and not question me. Don't ask me why black men can't walk safely in the streets of America. Don't ask me why it doesn't matter how you are dressed, what you do for a living, or how much money you make. Don't ask me why for him, a simple police question or a perceived inappropriate answer can result in death. Just say loudly over and over that you are unarmed. Put your hands up right away. Don't struggle.
I said this to him and couldn't finish my sentence because even if he obeys and is a model citizen, he could still be killed for no reason other than his skin color. The pain of that realization is hard to describe.
I think about my son. He is often mistaken for white. I get asked weekly whether I am the babysitter. He is 18 months old and it no longer bothers me. But I am scared. As a black woman in America, I am scared that one day, he will be having a tantrum in public and I will be trying to manage the situation. I am scared that a police officer will not believe that I am his mother and will only see my skin color and his. My darkest fear is that they will take him away from me because I am black and because he appears white.
I cannot allow myself to imagine the worst that can happen to me in that situation.
I told my husband this and he suggested that I carry around a copy of his birth certificate. Now, I pause writing and load a copy onto my phone, thinking that I have to do it now in case I forget -- until the next police shooting.
My son's skin color is different from my brother's, but I identify him as a person of color because he is half black. I hope to raise him with a strong pride in that side of his heritage. With that comes loads of pain. People of color in America have a deep history of systematic oppression. It is not possible to own the black experience without opening one's eyes to this. I want to save him from this trauma but I want him to know what we have come from and what we are struggling with.
When he gets of age, I wonder about the conversation I will have with him about being stopped by a cop. In my mind, it is the same as the conversation I have with my brother, but my son's experience will probably be different. That realization makes me cringe.
When I came to America, one of my most startling realizations was white privilege. Even my white friends who were socially conscious just couldn't own the black experience of not feeling safe and protected on a daily basis. I want to be mad at them but I can't blame them for their privilege. They didn't ask for it and most of them didn't accept it, but it's theirs to have when they need it. (If you would like to see real change, here are some things we can do.)
It took me a minute to see that my son will be privy to some of this. My conversation with him will be about a probable chance of discrimination, whereas for my brother, those chances are higher. I don't know what to do with that information and that makes me even angrier.
I get off the train, suppressing the urge to rush to my son and just hold him. I can only hope that the conversations I have with my son will be different because change is on the horizon -- not because his skin is lighter than mine, lighter than my brother's.
We are done sacrificing ourselves and traumatizing our children to compensate for that impulsive, deeply internalized fear of the black body. Change is coming ... but for Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, their children, and so many others, it will be too late.
Image via Tabitha St. Bernard