On Trayvon Martin and Fear

14 Jul 2013

written by Carolyn


The acquittal of George Zimmerman leaves me fearful.

I fear for my friend’s 15-year-old son. He plays football for his suburban high school. He is already 6’ 2” and still growing. And despite his baby face, the Zimmerman trial reminds us that, despite his age, his combination of race and size render him a threat.

I fear for my daughter’s friends – African, Jamaican, Vietnamese, and African-American. I love having these young men in my house, loose-limbed and full of teenage boy confidence and cockiness. They’re good kids. Smart kids. I fear for them because some in America apparently find these attributes threatening when evident in young men of color.

I fear for my daughter.  Beautiful, strong-willed, brilliant – and oppositional, argumentative, challenging. She is more outspoken, more defiant, more . . . more of everything that I was at 16, and have been ever since. The world does not like outspoken, oppositional, argumentative, challenging women. When such women have the gall to be black, it hates them even more.

And I am fearful for my son.

My son has ADHD, which gives him poor impulse control. He is very bright, although he is disinclined to apply that intelligence towards his studies. He is a quick thinker and quite sarcastic. He would be an excellent debater, a great politician, and a terrible person to find in an encounter with the police.

My son takes the subway to and from school alone every day. During the past school year, he had to take a hamper to school for a project. He was not stopped, but a cop in the subway station asked him as he passed why he was carrying a hamper.

“Dude, this is New York,” was his response, not breaking stride.

I’m retelling you his retelling of the story. He was 11 at the time, and looks 11.

According to him, the cop laughed.

In a couple of years, I can see my boy being thrown against a wall, his glasses smashed, for such a response.

I’ve read lots of articles, Facebook statuses and tweets today addressing how black people should talk to their sons following the Zimmerman verdict. Some have suggested that everything would be great if only black kids would stop sagging their pants, stop cursing, stop being “disrespectful” (whatever that requires) – to stop being those loose-limbed, arrogant, cocky, wonderful young men my daughter has befriended.

My good friend Issa Mas posted on Facebook that a friend of hers who lives in the South, the mother of a 17-year old black boy, worried that the solution was teaching our sons “how to behave like the slavery/Jim Crow eras. Stop when stalked. Cooperate, don’t talk back, keep eyes downcast, keep hands visible, apologize, carry ID, never ever state your right to do what you had the right to do.”

I categorically reject that we have to teach our sons to act like slaves to keep them safe. Besides, even when black men have done all of these things, they have been shot.

Another friend’s Facebook post read, in part:

“My little guys who are sleeping right now think they are the same as all the other children. That they can go anywhere, wear anything, stand up for themselves and other people, look anyone in the eye. That they can trust the police. I hope I have not done them a disservice by raising them to believe they are little kings with equal rights and a duty to stand up for themselves.

Her post ended with the ominous words,

“Big son is now under no such illusion.”

I think the second friend’s teachings to her sons is the better approach. We parents of black and brown children should teach our children that they are the same as all other children – because they are. We should teach our children than they can go anywhere, wear anything, stand up for themselves and other people, and look anyone in the eye – because they should be able to do so. Maybe some parents of children of color will have a hard time teaching their children that they should trust the police, but they should at least teach their children that the police are supposed to be there to protect them, not to persecute them – and that we must hold the police accountable for this responsibility they have all but abdicated.

Writer and television personality Touré offered one approach for talking to our sons about the Zimmerman verdict. But that’s not the approach I took with my son.

I told my son about the verdict about an hour after I heard it.

“What the – how – I mean, he followed Trayvon! Trayvon didn’t do anything wrong, did he?”

I took a deep breath. “No. Honestly, in that situation, under those circumstances, I’m not sure there’s anything Trayvon could have done to have avoided what happened to him. But this is why I tell you that your performance in school matters. Why I tell you that your behavior, in treating people with respect in hopes that they’ll treat you in kind, but really whether they treat you with respect, or not – that’s why that matters. Do you see the connection between performing up to your ability in school and being treated with respect? I hope so.

“This is why I talk to you about dealing with the police – that you should always be respectful of them and answer questions, but I don’t want you out here acting afraid to be yourself, because the police might not like it. You have a right to be where you are, in this city. And as long as you answer questions respectfully and truthfully, as long as you aren’t doing something you shouldn’t be doing anyway, you are within your rights to be where you are.

“This is why I tell you that honesty matters. That integrity – matters. That owning up to your mistakes and being trustworthy, they all matter. And I can’t promise that any of these things will keep something from happening, but it’s much easier to deal with when you’re coming from a place where you’re honest and you can call me and tell me what is happening and you’re not afraid of what I might say, what I might do. Know that I will always do everything I can – which sometimes may not be much – to keep you safe.

“And finally – this is why every time you leave this house, I say a prayer, and why every time you call me to tell me you’re home, or when you ring the doorbell and I know you’re back home safely, I thank God. Every time you come home, and you’re safe, and nothing has happened to you, is why – this is why I believe there is a God.”

This was not a one-time talk. This is part of an ongoing conversation I have with my kids – with both kids – about race, social justice, politics, gender identity, sexual orientation, community, current events, and social issues. It is part an ongoing conversation our country desperately needs to have about all of the above.

But as my mother once said with regards to charity, I truly believe it begins at home.

16 Comments on On Trayvon Martin and Fear

  1. Andrea

    This is such a awesome piece. Your fear is legitimate. My fear is legitimate. This piece has been the only one that I’ve read that has offered reasonable action beyond just “blacking out” our profile pictures and wearing hoodies.

  2. Hawaii

    I have the same fear, witness this fearful reality and wrote a letter to my future children.

  3. Powerful!

    I feel the same way. But, we can’t let fear stifle our lives or the lives of our children.

  4. Melissa Chapman

    This post- your words are so heartfelt- they could be any mother’s words to her son- Thank gd your son has you- has you in his corner. Your advice resonates on so many levels and feels like it can be achieved- I am honored to know someone of your caliber – both in heart and mind.

  5. Roxanne

    Great piece. I was the friend who talked about the Jim Crow/Slavery way of dealing with being stopped or stalked. Let me clarify. I did not mean to suggest that such second-class behavior is the answer, rather that it seems to be the teachings one could glean from the acquittal based on the fact that the jury bought into Zimmerman’s defense. The defense basically relied on the suggestion that if approached, by anyone for whatever reason, even when threatened, if you fight back or stand up for yourself and consequently scare (or surprise) your attacker, then he can use deadly force to protect himself. Or conversely, if Trayvon hadn’t spoken or moved or defended himself than Zimmerman’s shooting him would not been legally justified as self defense (not that it wouldn’t have happened anyway, mind you).

    Makes no sense. What if an armed man followed a woman, stalks her and taunts her and she, for whatever reason doesn’t feel like taking it and turns around, kicks him in the balls and says get the eff away from me or I will kill you. It would probably scare the stalker/coward to death. She didn’t act scared. She didn’t play the victim. Under Zimmerman law he’d be justified in shooting her. She did, after all, threaten and hurt him.

    It’s simply bad law. It’s bad law if the races or genders were different. It’s bad.

    I do have a 17 year old black son who is 6’2″ and who walks around a lot, and likes Skittles. I don’t teach him to cast his eyes downward. I do teach him to cooperate with authorities and I do teach him to ask if he can call his mother, who is an attorney. I taught him (before this trial) that he can go where he wants to (if I say so) but that there may be some who may question him. I’m not going to keep him home. I can’t keep him completely safe any more than those Sandy Hook parents could. But having a plan and more importantly knowing your rights is key. So no, I’m not advocating for the Jim Crow shuffling apologetic Negro, though it seems like that’s what people want or expected of Trayvon. And also, I’m not from the South. I’m a Northern woman, born and bred.

    My son, like many 17 year olds, is fearless. But he’s also smart, well spoken and he probably knows much more law than he should for his age. I also know that at 17 he’s already tired, tired that he doesn’t get the presumption of academic excellence by some, tired that people are surprised by his intellect and manner of speaking, tired of people assuming, well a lot of stuff. He and some white friends have been stopped by the police for being out after curfew, coming home.

    Anyway, again, great piece. I just wanted to clarify. As a lawyer and mother of a 17 year old black boy who like skittles I have a lot of thoughts, some emotional, some analytical. A kid, very much like my own, is dead (emotional) and the verdict makes for bad, nonsensical law, very much like the Jim Crow/slavery era (analytical). Both my emotional and analytical sides have been assaulted by this case.

  6. Lana

    Great piece about the complications of it all when you have to explain it to your children.

  7. Denene Millner

    This post—what you said to your son—is perfect in every way. THANK YOU for giving parents the words to share with our children. Absolutely stunning.

  8. Francesca

    Thank you for this. I am going to save it to share with my son when he is a little older. As the single, White mom of a Black son, I fear that I am not adequately preparing him for the realities of being a young black man. OK, he is only 3 years and 8 months old, but I know his education on being a Black man must strat very early. This helps me help him. Thank you again.

  9. CaliGirlED

    Carolyn the conversation you had with your son needs to be shared with parents as at least a starting point with which to talk to their sons, and daughters. I will definitely use it to discuss somethings with my daughter about her conduct as well as the conduct of boys that she should be associating with. Because the reality is that our daughters can easily get caught up in awful situations by simply “hanging out” with a young man.

  10. Whitney

    I appreciate your post and so understand. I have this talk with my girls everyday. My youngest daughter reacted the same way. The response that your friend said, wondering if she did the right thing in raising her children to believe they were equal. This is the way I have raised my girls, they also understand to respect authority, register to vote when they are of age and I have taught them to be aware of their surroundings at all times. I know they probably get sick of our talks, but I’m about to step up and have them every week. Expecting law enforcement to be responsible, yes as well as being registered voters, voting in local elections and when it’s your turn for jury duty, show up and be prepared.

  11. Bené

    I don’t have kids and think this was so poignant and necessary. Thank you for writing this.

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