I want my son to go to the Library without being afraid. Right now he does. My middle child, 7-year-old Henry, loves books. He is a great reader and the library is one of our favorite places. We go every week.
Also, in the stories we read and see in cartoons, the police are the good guys. They catch the bad guys and put them in jail. For a 7-year-old, it is pretty straight forward. There are good guys and bad guys. In the stories, the police are the good guys. So, in real life, the police are the good guys. And this has held true in my own experience of ‘real life.’ In my encounters with the police, they have been good guys.
Have I mentioned that I am a white, middle class, educated, American male?
Black males in America have had considerably different experiences with police officers. In my whiteness, I spent most of my life ignoring the truth that black males are harassed and even beaten by police without cause. It happens all the time. The statistics of abuse of power by white officers on black males are staggering.
Have I mentioned that my son, adopted from Ethiopia, is black? I have blogged previously about this. One glaring observation that has stuck with me is white people think little black boys are cute. However, to middle class white people, black young men are scary. My cute little boy is going to become a black young man. What will people – white people, my people – do when he walks through our neighborhood in a hoodie?
The Trayvon Martin story scared me. This Michael Brown story is scaring me even more.
When my wife and I discussed all of this the other night, I wasn’t ready to face up to how insulated I have made my own life. I wasn’t ready to own up to the protection white privilege affords me. I don’t have to worry that what happened to Trayvon or Michael will ever happen to me or to my older boy, Igor, adopted from Russia and very white. But, I need to wake up!
I was irritated with Candy’s (my wife) fascination with the story. She wanted to discuss it. I didn’t. It was Saturday night and I had to be ready for Sunday. I complained that I have read all this stuff. I didn’t to hear it or think about it anymore. I was tired of the story. The truth is I was hiding under the covers hoping the whole hullabaloo would go away.
I was fooling myself.
As Candy and I discussed the situation in Ferguson, MO, we recalled another story, the case of Neli Latson (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/10/AR2010071002633.html). He is African American and has Asperger’s Syndrome. He was guilty of being a black person at a library. That should not be a crime, but someone reported him, a needless confrontation with the police ensued, and he has been locked up ever since (first in jail, then in a mental hospital). His story is heartbreaking and rather than just accept responsibility for thoroughly traumatizing a young man, the Stafford police are defending their actions.
The entire time Candy and I talked, Henry was listening. Michael Brown (shot) … Neli Latson (outside the library); Henry was putting the words his parent said together in his 7-year-old mind. Suddenly he blurted out in the most confused of voices, “He was shot while he waiting for the library to open?”
He was shot while he was waiting for the library to open?
I had to try to explain to my black son that what he always thought (policemen are the good guys) is not true in every case. My explanation was lame and he was as confused as ever. A while later, he was in another room and I over hear him. His voice showed he was as confused as ever. He was shot while he was waiting for the library to open?
Henry knows that he and his sister are black and that his mother and I are white. He knows that. We have tried to talk about race. He played the role of Nelson Mandela in a school drama. But, he does not understand that being black means in your life you won’t be treated the same way as white people. He does not get that at all. He cannot even imagine it. From age two (when he was adopted) until now he has enjoyed all the benefits of white privilege. The day will come when he won’t.
It makes me heartsick to realize that my son will have to fear the police. I will have to try to coach him on how to act around the police. It will be the blind leading the blind. I have to equip him with coping skills I have never needed. How do I do that?
If this doesn’t break me for the indignities all people of color in America have suffered, what will? If this doesn’t awaken me to how I have benefited from the unjust realities that exist in America, then what will?
The vast majority of my writing is sermon-writing. That usually ends with a call to action or is punctuated with a profound truth. Even when I am not writing a sermon, I end up writing as if I were.
I have nothing here. No brilliant insight. I feel wasted.
I feel like Neo in The Matrix. He was in a world of color and comfort until he took that red pill. Then he woke up. He realized that the world he thought he knew was simply an illusion generated by computers. Reality was a world of threats and pain, a world in which necessities of life were scarce and powerful forces actively worked to control him and use him.
I have anesthetized myself, content to remain in the relative ease of white privilege. The truth is I could continue to do that the rest of my life. I am still white. I can continue to hide in my privilege.
But I cannot if I want to truly follow Christ. The Holy Spirit began tearing at my heart on Saturday night, speaking through my wife’s words. Underneath her persistence in facing the issue and her insistence on confronting me, the Holy Spirit shook me awake. I repeatedly shushed her because I did not want to hear it. I knew then that more was in play than just a husband and wife discussing the news.
This morning – a Monday morning, time when preachers like me exhale – God has gone to work on my spirit. This time the shaking has not been as gentle as it was Saturday night. I have wanted to be defensive. I want to shout at everyone who quotes James Cone or Cornel West, “I am not a racist.” But who am I kidding? I live a life full of benefits that are the results of generations of systemic racism.
So, what do I do? How do I change it?
How can my son go to the library without fear?
I don’t know.