In the days following the recent violence between black Americans and police, I started to see the same posts on social media and blogs that always come up after these incidents. Letters from mothers to their sons. Letters about how scared and worried we are for our children to grow up in this world, with this uncertainty abounding, and with the apparent knowledge that you’re not safe in this country — especially if you’re black. Especially if you will grow up to be a “big, scary black man.” But I don’t want to write that kind of letter to my son, who is half black and will therefore often be considered a black man by many people who want to categorize him.
I know that growing up white, and living in the world as a white woman, puts me in a very different position than many mothers of black and brown sons. I know the fact that my son is and will be lighter than most of his black friends, and that it might be obvious that he has a white parent, will put him in a different position than other black boys. I know he might talk differently, he might be more comfortable around white people, he will have grown up sharing in the collective memory of my whole white family. I know this is all considered “privilege.” I’m not downplaying this. Maybe that’s the only reason I am able to say I will not write about being scared for him. I’m not sure.
What I know is that I don’t want to raise my son in fear. I don’t want him to know if I worry about his safety more than any mother would worry about the safety of her child. That’s not for him to be preoccupied with. I don’t want him to think I am scared that police could hurt him just because he looks black. I don’t want to reinforce the “us against them” narrative he will inevitably hear way too much already. And who is the “us” and “them” in this situation, anyway? If I tell him I’m afraid of what police may do to him, I’m giving him reason to be afraid of police. And it’s the fear that most often results in tragedy.
Instead, I want to raise my son to be a smart, kind man. I want to raise him to know right from wrong, and to know how to treat people. I want him to trust police officers and recognize them as people who are there to help others. I don’t want his first thought to be fear when he sees a police officer. I want him to comport himself intelligently and be respectful and capable of having a conversation with anyone, including a police officer, so that they will also treat him with respect. I want him to know I have every hope in the world for him, and I’m not expecting his skin color to be a burden, change his prospects in life, or hold him back — and I certainly don’t want him to think it will be a focus of worry for me.
I know this doesn’t always work. I’m not saying the mothers of the black men who have been killed didn’t do these exact same things and didn’t teach their sons exactly the same lessons and thoughts. I know there are some people who might be scared no matter what and shoot before they even see how kind and innocent someone is. But I’m not going to teach my son to live in fear of that by writing a letter to him about how scared I am for him. Fear is not productive. Instead, I’m going to teach him not to be scared, but to enjoy the life he has and to be a positive force in the lives of those he encounters. I’m not saying it will save his life, but I don’t want him to live the life he has in fear.