I grew up in the lower middle class. In my early years, we lived in racially diverse cities. I was the only white girl in my second grade class in Little Rock, Arkansas, a fact I was oblivious to, because you get the luxury of being oblivious when you’re seven. I lived in south Louisiana, where there is every shade of skin color under God’s yellow sun. But I logged my formative middle and high school years in Wichita, Kansas…Haysville, Kansas to be exact. Pretty much total white bread.
I nonchalantly enjoyed my white privileges my entire adult life, one of those people who said “racism is dying” and “things are different now” and “we’re colorblind” and casual ignorance like that. I gushed and over-loved any black people in my life, of which there were very few; none in a real relationship with me that wasn’t exaggerated and a little contrived and over-zealous.
But then we decided to adopt two children from Ethiopia, and in November 2010, as I was shopping for their very first care package to send over, I was standing in the middle of the Target toy aisle, and I sent out this SOS text:
Where are all the black baby dolls?
I sat down in the middle of Target and cried my eyes out.
How did I never notice this? How was this my first sense of outrage over this discrepancy? How could I have yammered about the end of racism and “a fair system” when evidence to the contrary was staring me in the face every single day?
Sybrina, please envision me getting down on my knees in front of you, this white mama, and asking you to forgive me. I never understood the systemic racism that persists in this country, because I didn’t have to. The system is structured to grant me privileges and power through no merit of my own; simply by virtue of my skin color. This same system denies and protects this oppressive hierarchy, conditioning white people to not even see it.
We don’t get followed around in the store by suspicious security.
We don’t get singled out or searched by policemen.
The bandaids in Walmart all match our skin color.
The children’s section in the bookstore is full of covers with white kids.
If I ask to speak to a manager, he or she is usually white, like me.
And our sons don’t get murdered walking down our own street holding Skittles.
So because these things didn’t happen to me, I ignorantly assumed they were not happening to you. I casually consumed my white privileges – these unearned assets that granted me the benefit of the doubt and free passes and guaranteed security and permanent insider status – assuming that anyone else, anyone, could enjoy these same advantages by making good choices and working hard.
But it is simply not true, because the same system that keeps me on top keeps you on bottom. If anyone is automatically granted insider status, by definition that means someone has outsider status. We see this when a black student or man or woman accomplishes something extraordinary, and they are called “a credit to their race.” If a white person pulled off the same thing, he would just be called awesome. You have to work harder for acknowledgment, and then singling it out as an exception to the rule diminishes and demeans your merit.
I didn’t know about the Black Male Code, because I didn’t have to. I had the luxury of knowing my sons would breeze through applications and security lines and entrance exams and interviews, receiving unmerited approval at the first glance.
But then I got this son.
And I watched in horror as this son was cut down in the prime of his life.
And my heart was seized in terror. Because everyone loves my Ben right now. Who wouldn’t? He’s eight and the size of a first grader. He’s adorable and silly. His Ethiopian accent is the cutest thing that has ever entered your ears. He’s writing stories about “A Dog as the President” and he wears and a helmet and kneepads when he skates. He watches Power Rangers.
But I’m learning what is going to happen six years from now, Sybrina. People will start to suspect him for no reason, or train a watchful eye on him at the mall, or fear him. He may ask a white girl to prom, one he has gone to school with since these innocent years, and get his heart crushed when her daddy forbids it. He will have to be careful in public with his friends, as the most innocent activity will likely be interpreted as threatening…like walking down the street with candy and tea in his own neighborhood.
I have grieved endlessly for your son. I just keep trying to make sense of it, and sense won’t come. There is simply no sense in this injustice. You don’t get to murder a teenage boy because you’re paranoid and suspicious of him. You don’t get to do that. Would this have happened if Trayvon was a white kid named Troy? Would he have been viewed with the same fear? Will our black sons ever escape this treacherous plight and just be free to be children?
I’m ashamed that I haven’t seen or cared about this inequity until I had black kids under my roof, Sybrina. I’m so sorry. I would completely understand if you dismissed my solidarity here, because just two years ago I claimed America was a post-racial country, and that is a sorry state of willful ignorance. Neglecting the hard, important conversations about race, justice, ignorance, and inequity until I literally had skin in the game is appalling, and if you reject my concern now, I wouldn’t blame you.
But if you’ll have me, I’d like to stand with you.
I’d like to link arms and stand up for our black sons and daughters, calling the system so wrought with disparities to reform. I want to engage these challenging discussions with respect and commitment to one another, because I can no longer be complicit in the battle against equity.
We’re going to have to work hard here, because it’s tempting to make sweeping statements and unfair generalities. It’s easy to say things are all bad or all good or never this or always that, and that’s not true and won’t get us far. Both of our races are wrought with fools and charlatans and bigots; none of us are perfect and this is complicated. It’s going to take respect and humility to navigate this well, to begin pulling the threads to unravel such an entrenched system. But I want to start here, with you:
I see Trayvon.
I know he wasn’t a perfect kid. He probably opened up a sassy mouth to you and whined about chores. His room might have been a pigsty no matter how much you fussed at him (but with a face like that, I’m sure he got away with it). Like all seventeen-year-old sons, he probably drove you crazy sometimes, pushing against the boundaries barely holding him back from young adulthood, anxious to spread his wings. But he was the son of your heart and he mattered and he deserved life.
I am devastated it was stolen.
Please know that as for me, I promise to do the hard work and ask the hard questions and enter the difficult places to turn the tides for my son and all the black sons, and I grieve that it is too late for yours. I hope the national outcry for Trayvon has comforted you; so many of us see him. We are hungry for a better world where our boys can walk down the street unafraid and unfeared.
Please accept my hand; I stand with you, two moms demanding more for our sons. I am sorry you’ve lost Trayvon, my sister. I’m so very sorry. May his legacy help us move into a wider space together, tearing down walls and stereotypes and fear and building communities where we truly love our neighbor once again.
All my love to you.