We all live inside various circles on a huge Venn diagram. I’m at the intersection of a white circle, a suburban circle, a straight circle, a North American circle, a middle class circle, and a female circle, which mostly puts me in quite the cushiony spot on the world diagram.
So I’ve felt my role these days is to listen thoughtfully and respectfully to people outside my tiny privileged circle. To read words written by people of color AND by people in law enforcement. To do my best to suspend my judgments and hear from those inhabiting other circles, and thereby weaken the walls between us just a little. But there comes a point when quiet might be construed instead of intense listening as complacence or complicity. And I’m feeling anything but complacent about a boy named Tamir.
Last week I flew with my kids to Georgia to celebrate Thanksgiving with relatives there. On Thanksgiving Day, as we prepared to eat our meal, my 13-year-old son approached with a realistic toy gun in his hands and made shooting gestures at me. I was annoyed, told him to stop, and shooed him away. And then I forgot about the incident.
We don’t have realistic toy guns in our house. We haven’t progressed past Nerf guns and the occasional paintball outing. This isn’t so much because of a parenting philosophy (I gave up on my no-violent toys-ever ideal the day my then 2-year-old son built a gun out of Lego) but simply because I don’t like them. I hate that clicking sound, and I hate seeing a gun, even a fake one, waved around. But kids are kids. They will play with all concepts and facts of the adult world, including violence, and as long as it remains play, I believe it’s best to leave them to it, even when I find it distasteful.
But back to the important point from above: I forgot about the incident. Because it was only an incident. Because all those Venn circles – suburban, middle-class, white – mean I got to forget. At least until I heard about Tamir Rice.
Tamir Rice, a year younger than my son, was acting just like him: ie, being a jackass. Because adolescent boys are excellent jackasses, one and all. My son takes obvious pleasure in getting my goat. After I told him to quit with the clicking, he got off a couple more potshots at me before disappearing. No doubt Tamir was enjoying bugging people with that toy gun. Or maybe not. Because adolescent boys are also precious, caught right at the fragile cusp of childhood’s end. Maybe he was just a kid lost in a kids’ world, playing some imaginary game that involved waving that thing around. Regardless, he made the tragic mistake of waving it outside, around people who didn’t know him. But more importantly, he did it as a black boy. (An aside: I’m still struggling with how anyone mistook him for a 20-year-old. I’ve walked the middle school hallways. I couldn’t mistake a one of them, not even the biggest and hairiest, for 20.)
My relative’s house on Thanksgiving was stuffed with people, food, and conversation. My son and his cousin, also 13, also white, could have slipped out with that gun, and had I noticed, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to stop them. I would have watched them walk out with relief. “Get outside with that outside toy,” I can hear myself saying. I might have thought to add, “Don’t wave that thing at people.” I might have forgotten to say that because it simply doesn’t occur to me that anyone could perceive my little 13-year-old, barely pubescent, son as threatening, with or without a toy gun in his hand. Is that because I’m his mother? Probably in part. It’s also because I have the luxury of that innocence regarding him. His white skin protects him – as it does me – from assumptions of him as dangerous.
Now I’ve had to have some painful conversations with my sons over the years. When kids join Cub Scouts it’s required that parents discuss child molestation with them. I had to hold back tears as I did so. I didn’t want to take away my six-year-old darling’s sweet innocence with ugly knowledge of sexual violence against children. And more recently I’ve had conversations with them about their role and responsibility as young men towards girls and women. But I’ve never had to have The Conversation. I haven’t had to tell them that, by virtue of the color of their skin, they are in danger and will be perceived as dangerous by some people. Always, all the time, no matter what, so don’t act in this list of ways, and for the love of God, never be seen with a something that might be mistaken as a weapon in your hands.
Instead I have taught them since they were small that if they’re ever in trouble, the police will help them, because that is our truth. Had my white son gone outside with that toy gun, waved it about in front of some jumpy neighbor who then called the police, I fully expect they would have driven up and seen the situation for what it was: Not dangerous. Had it gone differently, had the police perceived my son as threatening and shot him dead for holding a toy gun, I can’t even comprehend the level of shock and outrage I would feel. Had that happened, though, it would be a grievous but freakishly rare event. Tamir, on the other hand, has joined a long, tragic list of young black boys shot to death. The outrage and shock over his shooting death are there, but so are the people blaming him for waving that toy gun. For doing exactly what my son did.
I believe most police are well-meaning people doing a very hard job, but the fact is there is no equivalent long list of whites shot by the police to that of people of color. I’ll never forget something my high school history teacher, who had been a cop before becoming a teacher, said. He told us that he had never thought of himself as a racist, and then he became a cop, and his job made him racist. I get this. It’s easy to be compassionate when you’re not dealing with criminals. When your life is not at risk by the nature of your job. When you’re a suburban white person at the centre of all these cushiony circles.
As a former military wife, I know that every time there was a spate of some unwanted behavior – or negative publicity about said behavior – in the military community, it would lead to a self-reckoning within the hierarchy, which in turn meant my husband would soon attend several hours of mandatory training. Suicide prevention, anti-sexual harrassment training, domestic violence prevention, and so on. New rules would be put in place and attempts to enforce them made. I sincerely hope the same self-reckoning and retraining is now going on within police forces across the country.
I did have The Conversation with my son, but it went very differently than it must for black parents. I talked to him about that incident with the toy gun at Thanksgiving and how it’s best that he never plays in public with such a toy. But I also talked about his white skin and what it gains him in terms of safety, innocence, and privilege. And I told him about Tamir, kid being a kid, who will never have the chance to turn 13.