Four hours before a grand jury would decide not to indict officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., my water broke. This was a surprise. My due date was still a solid two weeks away, and it just so happened that – at the time my water broke – my husband was sitting in Phoenix, Ariz., waiting on a plane to bring him back to the Midwest. Given this reality, I was in no hurry to jump start contractions, so I agreed with my midwife that I would rest easy until the hubs made it home, and we’d talk about next steps then.
This meant that – when Robert McCulloch began giving his speech – which signaled from its opening lines that what many had feared would, in fact, come true – I was sitting on my couch, staring at Twitter, and knowing that the birth of my own son was imminent. As I read words from Michael Brown’s parents, mourning the loss of their son and urging people to peacefully protest for change, I was preparing to meet my own son face-to-face for the first time.
For some reason, this collusion of events – a juxtaposition of new beginnings and painful endings that felt undone, unjust and profoundly unfair – made the tragedy of this news sit even heavier.
It also made me profoundly aware of the difference in the world that my son would enter and inhabit from the “get go”, as a young white male, and the world that Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Kimani Gray and other black men and boys experience on a day-to-day basis. In a recent editorial, Tim Wise, a long-time worker for anti-racism in both the United States and South Africa, wrote:
Can we [white people] just put aside all we think we know about black communities (most of which could fit in a thimble, truth be told) and imagine what it must feel like to walk through life as the embodiment of other people’s fear… To go through life, every day, having to think about how to behave so as not to scare white people, or so as not to trigger our contempt—thinking about how to dress, and how to walk and how to talk and how to respond to a cop (not because you’re wanting to be polite, but because you’d like to see your mother again)—is work; and it’s harder than any job that any white person has ever had in this country… It is in these moments—moments like those provided by events in Ferguson—that the limits of our commitment to that aspirational America are laid bare. It is in moments like these when the chasm between our respective understandings of the world—itself opened up by the equally cavernous differences in the way we’ve experienced it—seems almost impossible to bridge. But bridge them we must, before the strain of our repetitive motion disorder does permanent and untreatable damage to our collective national body.
There will be things that I will never have to teach my son; like how to speak respectfully to police officers, how to dress to avoid suspicion; how to be not just good enough, but better than expected in order to avoid fitting into someone’s narrow-minded stereotype.
There are assumptions I can make with my son. I can assume that the police are “on his side,” and that their role will to be protect, not bait and trap him. I can assume that people will think he is smart and nice and good, unless he proves them otherwise.
Truth be told, I am grateful for these things. But it breaks my heart to realize that – for other parents –the reality of what knowledge they must impart to their children in order for them to survive is much, much different.
Soon after the Ferguson decision, Glen Guyton, wrote,
When I see the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, I ponder, ‘Really?’ Yeah this is big news on Twitter, but ironically enough, before the nine-hour-long press conference to tell us what many in the black community already suspected (Surprise! The officer was going to get off scot-free), my 13-year-old son and I were having a very frank discussion about his behavior. He is a great kid, but I had to explain to him that as a black teenager he could not afford to make mistakes at school. He could not afford to be average, but he had to be better just to be looked upon as equal. I told him that the system would look for any opportunity to bring him down. Why? Because race still matters in this country. Why? Because the black male is still seen as a threat. So my message to my son was, even though things have gotten better in this country, you can never, ever give the system an excuse to bring you down.
As the high profile decisions in the Michael Brown and Evan Garner cases have illustrated to us over the course of the past weeks, we cannot certainly claim to be living in a “post-racial society.” As comedian Jon Stewart mused yesterday, “Some people might even be wondering if we are living in a society at all.” For white people to claim “colorblindness” or to suggest that either of these two decisions (and the slew of other decisions and situations like them that haven’t garnered national press attention) had nothing to do with racism, is a travesty. For those of us who are white to deny and ignore the presence of white privilege is not only false, but it’s deadly.
This is not just something “outside the church,” but is a worldview that has woven itself actively into Christian theology for hundreds of years. And racism’s insidiousness harms not only people of color, but those of us who appear to reap benefits from it as well.
In a blog written last April, Drew Hart wrote,
Given the longevity of western Christianity’s tradition of exalting the ‘White Male Figure’ as the standard of perfection and the model for citizenship and discipleship, it becomes the norm to see the White Male Figure at the center. Once people are accustomed to that norm, it is no longer seen as a violent practice…It is the irony of people becoming mal-adjusted to injustice and white supremacy. In fact, to even call out white supremacy in relation to mythic ‘White Male Figure’ is in itself seen as heretical and anti-Christian. However, what must be understood is that as long as the ‘White Male Figure,’ in its mythic and legendary glory, stands at the center, then that inevitably means that the Jewish Messiah and Lord over all creation, Jesus the Victorious One, does not stand in the center. The Jesus that has been manipulated to look like, think like, and bolster the agenda of “the White Male Figure” is not the Jesus found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but is an impostor and enemy of Jesus. The Living and Resurrected One does not take the mode or disposition of the oppressor, but rather his disposition is found in his being crucified by earthly authorities that found him to be a threat to the status quo…
So given all of this, how does one go about raising young white children who are both aware of their privilege and not stymied by guilt? Children who are not just nice or friendly, but who are actively engaged in creating just communities from early on? How does our whole family unpack our own baggage, so that we can avoid continuing to offload it onto others? I wish I had easy answers to these questions. I’ve been reading and pondering a lot.
Glen’s suggestion is to begin where you are. He writes, “My son matters every single day. The kids he interacts with matter each and every day. Don’t acknowledge the need for reform because some event is trending on Twitter. Let’s put programs in place that teach and groom young African-American men each and every day. Heck, just mentor one or two kids who just need someone to love them. The Ferguson decision did not make me sad, it just confirmed that I, Glen Guyton, am the best chance of keeping young black men alive, starting with my son.”
White parents have a responsibility to educate their children, too. So I’ll start with my son, and, for that matter, my daughter, too. A new birth always brings with it a myriad of new possibilities. We rejoiced when our son arrived after what felt like hours and hours of labor! He, like all babies, is beloved child of God, knit together in my womb over the course of the past nine months. As I hold him in these first tender days, I am highly aware of both the gift and the responsibility that lies in my arms.