It’s nearly 11 P.M. I’m sitting upstairs in my recliner typing away on my laptop, trying to figure out which words will follow the next. What I really want to be doing is holding my 4-year old son. I want to rest his head against my shoulders and cling to his innocence before it slips away. I used to believe that by providing a middle class suburban life for my son, complete with the best public schools and services that my state has to offer, that somehow I could keep him safe. Since the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the gunning down of Trayvon Martin, that illusion is now gone.
My son is black and I am white.
This is what I dread telling him when he becomes a teenager.
Isaac, when you were 18 months old, you left your native country of Ethiopia and you became our son. Your mother and I love you. Your grandma and grandpa, aunts and uncles, cousins, and friends: we all love you and want the best for you. But Isaac, you’re not the cute little boy anymore that looks like he can be on the Disney Channel. Now that you’re a teenager, there are some in our society who will make assumptions about you based solely on how you look. And if you’re ever in a situation where you feel threatened by someone who has made assumptions about you, even if you’re walking home unarmed in the dark of night and some creepy guy is following you, you don’t have the right to defend yourself. Because mark my words son, if there’s a confrontation, society will not side with the guy who looks like you, they’ll side with the guy who looks like me.
I know that when you were a little boy you used to look up to police officers. When you saw a police officer, you used to tell them that you wanted to be a police officer too when you grow up. And the police officers adored you right back. But now that you’re older, if you’re ever confronted by a police officer and you do the wrong thing, I’m not going to be there to protect you. So, please, respect their authority and know that they’re there to help you and protect you. But if they ever stop you for any reason and you run—they just might shoot you. So, please, don’t run!
I imagine there are some who might be shocked at the prospect of me telling my son to be cautious with police officers, lest he be shot. But let me tell you about millions of people who wouldn’t be shocked. Black people.
Growing up I was never taught to be cautious or afraid of police officers because police officers were the good guys that could protect me from the bad guys. Racial profiling wasn’t real because nobody that I knew had ever experienced it. Part of me wishes that I could still live with that worldview, the one that says that racism is a thing of the past, that anyone who says otherwise is simply trying to further an agenda to fatten their pockets, that racial profiling is something that black people made up so that they can keep prejudice alive and our nation divided. As wrongheaded as it is, it can be very comforting when you reflexively attribute morality to people who look like you and menace to people who look like them. Now that I’m a white father with a black son, I don’t have the luxury of that kind of delusion anymore.
So to my fellow white adoptive parents with minority children, when the white establishment tries to deflect the subject away from civil rights for black men by talking about “black on black crime” (as if the vast majority of white people aren’t killed by other white people), we can’t let the establishment get away with it. They can change the subject. We can’t.
When a black male teenager is shot and killed and the white establishment goes on a smear campaign against that teenager, digging into his school records and sniffing for drugs, let’s remind the establishment how many troubled white teenagers smoke pot and yet we assume that they simply need more love and nurture, not that they deserved to die because they wore the wrong piece of clothing on a dark, rainy night.
Let’s remind them.
Because at the end of the day, these are our sons that they’re talking about.