We have a problem.
A continuing, lingering, painful problem.
Black moms and dads and grandparents throughout this country are looking at the sweet faces of their black boys with fear in their hearts. Today, black moms and dads and grandparents are looking at the black boys entrusted to their care and wondering how others will perceive their boys. Trayvon Martin, they know, is dead. So is Jordan Davis, another black teen who was shot by a white man who has not been found guilty of murder. Will their sons and grandsons be next?
Whether or not you believe George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn were within their rights when they shot Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, we have a problem. We live in a place and time when parents of black boys cannot be sure of their sons’ safety. We live in a place and time where parents of black boys feel obligated to give their sons very, very specific instructions in case the boys are ever stopped by cops. We live in a place and time — in the 21st century! — when some parents of black boys pressure their sons to be the BEST — not good enough, but the BEST — because they know that “good enough” won’t get a black male far in this society.
We have a problem. A big problem.
As a white mother of 4 white boys, I’ve said little about racism. I don’t know what it’s like to be black in America. I don’t fully understand the challenges of raising a black boy. But I know this: I have never, ever looked at any of my boys and wondered if he might someday be randomly gunned down by a stranger making assumptions based on the color of my son’s skin. I have never, ever felt the need to pressure my sons toward academic achievement in order to overcome other people’s perceptions of their abilities. I have always had the luxury of assuming my sons’ safety, of assuming that my sons will be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.
That is not true for parents of black boys, even today.
We need to worry about black boys, not because black boys are a threat but because black boys are threatened. Black boys are growing up in a society that still reflexively assumes the worst. In a society that wants to ignore institutional racism, yet jails and disciplines young black men at a disproportional rate.
During the first week of February 2014, I watched American Promise, a documentary that follows two families’ attempts to get top-notch educations for their sons. The boys are black. The families are well-to-do and well-spoken. The boys’ paths through school, though, are anything but easy.
Are the boys’ challenges because they are black? Because they are boys? Because they are black boys? It’s impossible to know, with any certainty, what lies behind the issues faced by the boys and their families, and it’s entirely possible that every issue they faced was multi-factorial. Life is rarely simple; it is almost always complex.
One thing that stood out to me (and many other viewers) was the amount of pressure one family seemed to be placing on their son. The pressure was relentless. The boy — a good, well-meaning boy — was trying. But even when he was tired, there was homework to do. And when he was applying to colleges, a college acceptance wasn’t good enough. His parents wanted him to apply and be accepted to the right college.
As a mom, I’ve always been kind of laid back about school achievement. Don’t get me wrong: I think education is extremely important. Learning can happen in all kinds of places, though, and I don’t personally believe that school grades are the best indicator of personal achievement or potential.
So I found myself wishing that the parents in the movie would stop pressuring their son. I wondered what the boy would do if he could do what he wanted. And then I realized: It may not be so simple.
Since we were chatting about the movie, real-time, on Twitter, I posed a question:
— BuildingBoys (@BuildingBoys) February 4, 2014
The answer I received was instantaneous: YES.
And I realized, for the very first time, the luxury of freedom from assumptions. I have never pushed my boys to do well because I’ve never been concerned with how other people will perceive them. Because my boys’ skin is white, I’ve always been comfortable in my assumption that people will accept my boys for who and what they are.
Mind you: I never realized that my confidence in that conviction had anything to do with skin color. I never thought about my boys or their future in terms of skin color at all. And that, right there, is white privilege. I’ve never pondered the relationship between my boys’ futures and their skin color because I don’t have to. Were they black — you bet I’d be worrying.
If I knew that my son, every single day, faced people who would assume he was dumb or dealing drugs or running with a gang… you bet I’d be on him, hard, about his behavior. If I knew that my son, in his future, would likely have to prove to someone that he was exceptionally qualified just to get a seat at the metaphoric table, you bet I’d stress the importance of school and grades and the right college. And if I knew that my son was more likely than other boys to land in jail or prison for a minor offense, you bet I’d tell my boys to be extra polite to police officers.
That’s a lot of pressure. And it’s not right. Black boys should not face additional obstacles due to the color of their skin. But they do, and that’s why we need to worry about black boys.
We all need to pay attention to the issues affecting our black boys, and we need to work together to ensure that ALL BOYS have an equal shot at life.