By Lowry Manders
I’m white and most of my readers are, too. So nobody should really care what I have to say about the Trayvon Martin case and George Zimmerman verdict. I get that…I’m not even really entitled to an opinion on this matter….EXCEPT…I’m a mom, too. And I’m an American citizen….And I DO see this as a “teachable moment” not just for our children, but for ALL of us. I hope my thoughts on this topic open you up to a perspective you haven’t considered when it comes to discussing, reflecting, and modeling race relations in your own life, for all of our children. Here is what I wrote last year when I became aware of the tragic incident called “Should White People Have ‘The Talk’?”
What I know for sure….every mother, no matter what color, race, religion, or creed has the right, the desire, the painful yearning to watch her child grow up. This morning, I was in the shower before the kids awoke, and Michael James wandered into the bathroom crying, upset that I wasn’t still in bed so he could snuggle with me. I reassured him that he could go ahead and climb in Mommy’s bed and I’d join him in a few minutes. This is how he likes to start the day – me, too. After he got all settled with his Beffa blanket and Nala, we were face to face, nose to nose, hand in hand. And he always leans over to kiss me before closing his eyes with a peaceful grin. As we snoozed and snuggled together, I thought about how this is the best feeling in the world: to be loved and adored by one’s own children. I thought about how thankful I am that, though he’ll be turning 5 in a few weeks, he’s still my little sunshine boy, my little snuggle-buddy, and thank God he hasn’t grown out of this yet! I thought about how he won’t likely wake up wanting this forever, like when he comes home from college at age 20, so I better enjoy it now.
Later this morning, kids dropped off, I was driving to teach music for the pre-schoool kids at Vogel Alcove (for homeless families) where I volunteer sporadically. On the Diane Rehm show, they were discussing the tragic details of the killing of Trayvon Martin, the poor 17-year-old kid whose only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time, seen by the wrong neighborhood “watch” guy. Hearing about how he had just gone to the store to buy a bag of Skittles…hearing that he was on his way to a relative’s house in the gated community….hearing about how he expressed fear about being followed to his girlfriend with whom he was on the phone…hearing how he was shot in the chest and killed for being “suspicious”…I had to shake off my tears and nausea before putting on my “happy” music teacher face for the kids. The kids. Many of them little black kids. Many of them little black boys. Four, five, six years old. With their wide grins and big hugs for me. Little Mason had at least 5 hugs for me today, with his discolored top tooth just like my affectionate son. He asked me if I had slept okay last night. Full of love, full of promise, full of curiosity and eagerness for learning and LIFE! Just like my kids. Just like your kids. Just like Trayvon. I closed each class with my favorite “I Love You” ritual, “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, What a Wonderful Child You Are!“(learn rhyme), giving each one a hug before leaving the room. How could I help but think of Trayvon as I hugged each one of those little boys? As I watched their fabulous black teacher, Mr. James, interact with them? Mr. James who got to grow up and make a difference, not much older than Trayvon. But Trayvon’s parents and community will never know what kind of difference Trayvon would have made, what he would have accomplished, how his life would have turned out.
I left thinking of Trayvon’s mother, aching for her, angry for her. I’m sure she has her own fond memories of early morning snuggles with her little boy, memories of a bright-eyed kid learning to love and believe in himself, blissfully naive to the harsh realities of race relations in his society. Not yet knowing that some people won’t like you, won’t trust you just because of your dark skin. Not yet knowing that he’ll have to be wary, be careful, be untrusting in humanity himself to survive in his world – not because of who he is, but because of how he looks. I’m sure, like most black American mothers, Trayvon’s mother had had “the talk” with him, when he started to grow into a man, started to lose the innocent look of a young boy and develop the “damning” features of a black man – wider shoulders, a faint mustache, gaining height and strength. Same features that all 12-15 -year-old boys start to develop, but covered in a darker shade that make them seem dangerous and threatening to many. I recently learned about “the talk” on NPR (listen to Mom and sons interview), and it made me so sad. To think that a mom has to damage her child’s worldview and threaten the health of his on self-view in order to do what she can to keep him safe. To tell him, “Look, I know it’s not fair, but some people will judge you. Some people will think you’re up to no good just because you’re a black man. You can’t act like everybody else. You have to be different, especially around cops. You can’t trust cops.” This is “the talk” that they have. And it made me wonder, will anything change in our society if the rest of us aren’t having our own “talks” with our sons and daughters?
Maybe we should sit them down and tell them how it is. Tell them that they are NOT to pre-judge a person just because they are black. Better yet, as white parents, we should start modeling this for them when they are younger. After all, research shows that, though white parents tend to be reluctant to talk to their children about race at a young age for fear of pointing out differences, children form their own racial prejudices and stereotypes by 1st grade if we don’t talk about it. So, we should acknowledge external differences while focusing on the internal similarities. We should model having friends, having role models, having teachers, having presidents of color (Check! But would your kids recognize a picture of the president, and respond with due respect?). When they are young, we can’t assume that children are color-blind. In fact, it is just the opposite. They are more aware of external differences than any grown-up because their little brains are wired to categorize, observe, and distinguish. When they are young, we need to acknowledge, even point out some of the differences, and then teach that it’s what’s inside a person that counts – the values, the love, the caring and friendship. But as they mature, the conversation needs to shift to acknowledge and address the brokenness of race relations in our country because they will see it, experience it, observe it, encounter it in their own lives and schools. As parents of any color, we must establish that “race” is an on-limits topic, that we are always open to discussing it with them and with one another. That together, we will “stand our ground” for our children philosophically, morally, with words and actions, not with guns. After all, Trayvon’s death is not just a tragedy and an “issue” for the black community in our country – it is on all Americans. Especially us mothers.
Now that the verdict is out, in light of such heated debate and raw emotions, we should all be “sentenced” to reflect, refrain, and respect. Reflect on our own personal and societal prejudices and systems that perpetuate distrust, discord and violence between races. Refrain from judging or using unkind words for others who have heartfelt reactions to this case and the issues it raises. Respect one another even more in light of the hurt it has caused by extending peace and kindness to neighbors and strangers around us. That’s how we can move past this and even become better because of it.
None of us know the real truth about the case, but we know that it raises difficult feelings and questions for our country, for race relations in our society. Like it or not, the case is BIGGER than itself, bigger than the specific ruling the jury was asked to make. All along, it has raised questions about racial inequalities in our justice system (like the fact that earlier in the year a black mother in Florida was sentenced to 20 years in prison after firing “warning shots” that did not injure her ex who was violating his retraining order). It has raised questions about the 2nd Amendment and wisdom of our gun laws, including Stand Your Ground laws. It has raised questions about our own inherent prejudices. One mother of 2 young black men states that “a verdict like this in my mind puts cross hairs in the backs of black men who look like my 17-year-old kid”. Zimmerman may have been cleared of murder, he may have in fact “gotten away” with murder (as many people see it), but the implications of the case are what we should all be concerned about and aware of, no matter the color of our skin. Many believe he did get away with racial profiling and harassment, and some will presume that these behaviors will be tolerated in our country and go unpunished by our systems….that young black men in our country and their families are feeling even more vulnerable now, even more afraid of the likely discrimination and possible violence that they will face by some of us who happen to have been born into white skin, privilege, and power. One black pastor said that as he cradled and comforted his 12-year-old son on Saturday evening after the verdict, his young son choked back tears and asked, “Daddy, am I gonna be next?” No matter how you feel about the verdict, this implication illustrates a harsh reality that should upset ALL of us.
This verdict came in the midst of my reading and learning about the horrors of our country’s Slave Trade in “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn…the awful, nightmarish details that were a reality for tens of millions of Africans at the “birth” of our country; a background that will forever be the “family history” of African-Americans. I never learned about these terrible truths in school, and I see now how this context changes everything for me. Look around our country: at our prisons, our schools, our inner cities, our hungry children. It is obvious that we do not live in a “post-racial” society, and the systemic injustices done over the centuries to subjugate an entire race of people must be acknowledged going forward if we are to make any authentic progress.
What would this progress look like? In my mind it would look like a place where George Zimmerman had simply rolled down his window and offered a ride to Trayvon. “He buddy, where you headed? Need a ride home?” The color of his skin and the outer garment he was wearing would be ignored, and young Trayvon would simply have been perceived as a “neighbor”. Didn’t Jesus teach us that we are all neighbors, and we are to help our neighbors, even those that don’t look the way we do? Our pastor pointed out on Sunday that the parable of “The Good Samaritan” is at its root a story about race. The Samaritan, the one who acted in love and kindness toward the injured man on the side of the road, was considered an “outsider” to the Jewish people in Jesus’ community. The story was meant to open the eyes and hearts of the listeners to the humanity of all people, regardless of race or nationality. Maybe we can honor the memory of Trayvon by allowing his story to open more eyes and hearts to the humanity of all of God’s children.We can honor Trayvon by seeking better ways to live out this humanity in our nation every day – in our interactions, in our systems, in our laws, in the voting booth. Amen.
Lowry Manders is a Dallas mom of 2 young children, a Kindermusik teacher, child development expert, creator and speaker for Parent with Purpose, seminars, and writer/ blogger on Mommy Manders.
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