You will never be him; please don’t be them

Dear Boychick,

Last week was your fifth birthday. We made carrot cake and sang you happy birthday just the once like you wanted and opened so many presents from family who love you fiercely despite being so far away. We bought you a bike and a raincoat and I cooked breakfast and lunch and dinner (and did I mention the cake?) just like you asked for and I marvelled at how very fast you are growing up.

There’s someone I’d like you to meet. I don’t know if you’d like him, or vice versa. He was born twelve years before you, which is too much of an age gap to be peers, but maybe he was the type to like kids. I don’t know, and we will never find out. I would like you to meet him, but you won’t, because eighteen days before your birthday, he was shot and killed by a man who looked at a black kid in a sweat shirt and saw a threat. He was killed by a man who is walking free still, nearly a month later — after your presents are losing their luster, after your bike is no longer quite so new — because of racist gun laws and racist police departments. He was killed by a man who mistook vigilantism for protection, violence for justice, and a kid walking with candy in his pocket for a no-good criminal.

Millions of parents across our country are holding their sons closer now, with this one thought echoing in their heads: that could have been my son.

You’ll forgive me I hope if I hold you tighter tonight, if I snuggle you just a little longer, kiss your hair just that bit stronger. But the thought in my head is: that will never be you.

You will never be seen as suspicious because of your skin color. You will never be coded as a violent criminal because of your race and your gender. You may one day know persecution, may one day be subject to epithets and violence simply walking down the street — you may be a fag or a tranny or a crip — but this, this will never be your fate.

But I am aware, I am so very, painfully aware that you might be on the other side of this. You might be the one wielding the gun1. You might be the one looking at the dead kid and seeing a corpse, a criminal, a cause for gunfire and “self-defense”. You might be the one letting the killer go without testing him for drugs or alcohol. You might be the one lobbying to pass laws that are disproportionately harmful to black and brown communities. You might be the one opining that it’s all so tragic but the kid did look like a thug after all and he shouldn’t have been out walking where he didn’t look like belonged.

When I hold you tight, I am thinking, praying, begging: don’t be them. Don’t be them, please, child, my beautiful boy: don’t be them. Don’t be the one that black mothers are afraid of tonight more than usual. Don’t be the one that lets this happen without trying to make it better. Don’t be the one that cracks a joke, that thinks of it as their problem, that doesn’t bother to care. Don’t. Be. Them.

You are, no matter how much I wish it otherwise or how much I work to prevent it, going to be infected by racism. It will — is, has already — pervert you, damage your ability to see others’ wholeness and humanity and (says your theist parent) holiness. You live in this society, in kyriarchy; it cannot not touch you and make you rougher.

But you don’t have to let it make you them. You don’t have to let it turn you into Trayvon’s murderer and his family’s misery. You have to not. You have to resist. You have to find a new way.

I’ll help you child, as much as I am able — how can I do else when there is a family without a son and without justice for their loss? — but as much as I want, I cannot shape you as I will, cannot fill your tabula with my anti-racist scripts (nor would I know the right things to write there, even if I could). I can only whisper in your hair, pray to whatever gods are there, write to a you I hope will be ready to listen: don’t be them. Don’t inflict this pain. Remember a boy you will never meet, and for him, for his family, for every family knowing it could be them: please, be better.

For Trayvon Martin. For so many others. Please.

Yours always,
Arwyn

  1. George Zimmerman — per Mother Jones — is Latino, but the point stands: white men might kill a black boy, but they will never be killed for being black.
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20 Responses to You will never be him; please don’t be them

  1. Wow. Wow, Arwyn. I have often, in this mess, thought how selfishly thankful I am that my boys are white and won’t have to worry about being deemed suspicious for no reason.

    It had not crossed my mind to put either of them in the place of any of the many oppressors in this situation.

    Reading this gave me chills. Thank you.

  2. YES.

  3. So amazing. So spot on. You gave me chills and tears tonight. Thank you.

  4. This is amazing! I am always fearful that my (white) sons will be on the ‘other’ side. They will not be seen as a threat because of their skin colour, that much is true. But I hold tight to the idea that years of living with myself and my husband will provide them a good and solid foundation of how to be a decent human being. This is so beautifully expressed. And leads me in to thinking about how my sons as grown men will treat women. They have a good example of how to do that (their father) but, I worry. Please don’t hurt women, please don’t rape. And please don’t be offended or take it personally when a woman is fearful of you.
    Sigh.

  5. “Why is her skin brown?” It was too soon for me to hear those words. “Why is your skin white, sweety?” I want to say so much more, I want to tell him about race, about othering, how he can ignore his whiteness for the rest of his life and never suffer on account of that. I want to gather him up and inoculate him against the evils of the world, to proclaim “but you, my child, you will be different”. Instead I face the woman my 2-year-old is addressing, and I say “her skin is brown, and yours is white, and her hair is dark, and yours is light, and her nails are purple, aren’t they pretty?”

    • My children are of mixed race and have all come out varying shades of pale to brown. I simply explained to them the entire world looks like our family, with different skin, eye, and hair colors. Why? Because our ancestors had to adjust to different climates and altitudes, but mostly because God loves a colorful world, the same way you love your little box of crayons.

  6. You have such beautiful, intense awareness, and a powerful way to put it into words. I have to hope and pray that this will inoculate your Boychick from becoming Them. I think you are right on to address these issues rather than ignoring them. Thank you for this beautiful post, which I hope the Boychick reads often in the next 10-40 years.

  7. I wanted to like this post but instead I am walking away disappointed and hurt. I think this in particular wounded me:

    I’ll help you child, as much as I am able — how can I do else when there is a family without a son and without justice for their loss? — but as much as I want, I cannot shape you as I will, cannot fill your tabula with my anti-racist scripts (nor would I know the right things to write there, even if I could). I can only whisper in your hair, pray to whatever gods are there, write to a you I hope will be ready to listen: don’t be them. Don’t inflict this pain. Remember a boy you will never meet, and for him, for his family, for every family knowing it could be them: please, be better.

    Good to know that you’re going to pray but that gets me and my sons absolutely nothing. Social justice parenting means actively daily engagement with children. It means having the hard conversations with them and installing the idea that all people matter. The fact that you used Trayvon for this just reeks of cause du jour rather than commitment. What happens when the media moves on and we are all talking about something else? My children cannot move on and they must live with this threat everyday of their lives and as their mother I have to live with the fact that this is the legacy of my womb.

    I normally love your work but this read like navel gazing. You took the murder of a young Black boy and re-centered the conversation to be about your son. It didn’t actively own privilege or acknowledge that it wasn’t just one person who pulled that trigger but White supremacy. It didn’t acknowledge that even if he is never violent with a person of colour that he will be guilty of racism and cause harm.

    All I can do at this point is shake my head and walk away. I don’t have the spoons to deal with how angry and hurt this post left me.

  8. Pingback: Racism and hate affect us all

  9. I actually just posted something similar in my own blog. Like you, I’m reading about this tragedy, stunned and saddened (and ashamed – but not surprised, I’ve met the Sanford police before – that it happened in a place I used to call home) and not sure how to even start addressing it. There’s lessons to be learned and messages hitting home and social ills highlighted and changes that need to be made, but right now I can’t seem to get past the immediate, sickening twin reactions of “oh god, his poor family” and “oh god, not my child.”

    To the above commenter – this is a parenting blog, first and foremost. (As is mine – at least, it’s a getting-ready-to-parent blog.) Of course the focus is going to be on her child. That’s what this blog is for.

  10. @WM, the things that you say were missing from this post were the exact things I read from it. I feel like there are multiple things happening in this post – one of which speaks to social justice parenting, and one of which just speaks to parenting in general.

    When I read the passage and the word “pray” that you excerpted, I read that as facing our lack of control over others, including children we may have. No matter how much influence we have over others, no matter how many hard conversations we have, no matter how many ways we try to impress ideas on others, we can never (no matter how much some people would like to try) control what others will do. I did not read it as praying for lack of trying. I read it as praying in acknowledgement of that which we cannot control, regardless of all our efforts to impact our world.

    And I read the acknowledgement of the system of White Supremacy in every position mentioned that the child might be involved with:

    “But I am aware, I am so very, painfully aware that you might be on the other side of this. You might be the one wielding the gun1. You might be the one looking at the dead kid and seeing a corpse, a criminal, a cause for gunfire and “self-defense”. You might be the one letting the killer go without testing him for drugs or alcohol. You might be the one lobbying to pass laws that are disproportionately harmful to black and brown communities. You might be the one opining that it’s all so tragic but the kid did look like a thug after all and he shouldn’t have been out walking where he didn’t look like belonged.”

    I read an acknowledgement of privilege:

    “You will never be seen as suspicious because of your skin color. You will never be coded as a violent criminal because of your race and your gender. You may one day know persecution, may one day be subject to epithets and violence simply walking down the street — you may be a fag or a tranny or a crip — but this, this will never be your fate.”

    And I don’t think this was written to her son, per se. I think it was written to the readers of this blog, and to any parents or people out there who see (often unwittingly) through the lens of the white supremacy that they were born into. People who might stop at “what if that was my son,” instead of realizing that it would never be their son and what their role in the system is.

    I am white, so I will never understand what it is like to read this through your experience. I do think though, reading it as a white person, read it as a step toward educating white people about white supremacy, our role in it, and how to challenge that in the world around us.

  11. I will respectfully point out that Womanist Musings is also a mommy blog.

  12. I’d really like us to stay away from taking issue with Renee (womanist musings)’s critique and statements of how this piece affected her. Arguing with her, a black woman, that her reading is “wrong” is a silencing tactic, and perpetuates the very racism and white privilege I was attempting to work against with this post, and in my blog and activism generally. I approved her comment because I respect her and her right to her response, not to have it be a point of debate. So let’s avoid that, please.

    Thank you all. <3

  13. fwiw, I never meant to imply that her reading was wrong, though I understand how it could be read that way.

  14. Thank you thank you thank for putting to words what I have struggled to express about this whole awful mess. I have been thinking about Treyvon’s family and all the families out there living in fear. Yesterday, I passed a small protest in from of the college that dominates the town I now live in. There were a handful of African-American students holding signs. Not one white person there, no shows of support. It depressed me to no end. I came from Oakland, CA (arguably one of the most diverse cities in the US) to Columbus, OH. I worry that my son will be less exposed to the diverse range of folks that he would have back home. You words remind me that I have work to do.

  15. Thank you for this, Arwyn. I can relate to where you’re coming from in this piece, and I deeply appreciate your willingness to share such difficult feelings.

  16. I’m torn about posts like these – like womanistmusings, I find them just a touch inauthentic, somehow, like Trayvon Martin is just a buzzword you can cash in for diversity points, even though I know from having read you that you are not setting out to do this. It’s better than trying to claim Trayvon as your son, which I’ve seen some white people doing: no.

    On the other hand … as a mama of colour to at least one child who will always, always pass for white, this also chills me to consider. I have never envisioned my children, specifically, as being on opposing sides in any given racial hostilities, but – it’s not a complete impossibility. I wonder, and I worry, and oh my god it’s going to be hard and I hope I don’t fuck up.

  17. Thoughtful Feminist

    This comment is in solidarity with womanistmusings. I was uncomfortable the first time I read this post, but I confess that I couldn’t put my finger on why it bothered me until I read her comment. Trayvon Martin was a person; he is not an object lesson. His name is not used until the 9th paragraph of an 11-paragraph post. He is rendered faceless and anonymous, another statistic of a Black male whose life ended too soon because of white supremacy, police [in]action, and the simple fact of existing as a youth of color. Trayvon is so much more than this. Like your son, he had birthday cakes, parents, people who whispered prayers in his ears. Where is your understanding of Trayvon’s individuality? Why is your white son given a sense of personal identity, but Trayvon is not even given a name until nearly the end of your post?

    That is why framing a post around the issues of how his death impacts the life of your white son is problematic. In this post, you do not hold yourself accountable for your role in the Boychick’s induction to white supremacy. Everyday acts of microaggression lead to enormous losses such as Trayvon’s death. It’s not as simple as “just don’t kill someone because they’re Black”; it’s “don’t participate in dehumanizing behavior that leads to and ultimately justifies this violence.” There is more to this issue than you wrote. As an ally, this piece falls too short of the soul-searching reflection and accountability that communities need to move forward in eradicating racism.

  18. Pingback: Tensegrities » Blog Archive » Remembering Trayvon Martin

  19. A painful but very necessary conversation.

    Anti racist and sexist parenting requires real skill, dedication and courage in the face of ridicule, resistance and sometimes danger. So does raising children of color. I will never discount the complexity of doing your best and having a child who despite it all still harbors racist, or oppressive leanings. But as a black woman, I have to weigh my choices very, very carefully.

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