Videos, pictures and stories of police officers battering, assaulting and killing people of color. The memes and posts remind us that having dark skin automatically means you are a target for police brutality and unfair treatment under the law (and above it) So, clearly, as a white woman from a suburban town, I had no reason to fear for my children’s safety when it comes to police, educators or perfect strangers on the street, but I have recently discovered, my children don’t share my level of confidence...not even a little bit. Apparently, what’s happening in the world today, in the eyes of our children, has nothing to do with race or skin color, it has everything to do with distrust, fear and abuse of power.
My husband and I made this discovery while on a family trip recently. I was reading an article about the looting and rioting in Ferguson, Mo. and it made me curious about what kids might be thinking through all of this. I asked my boys if they had any idea what was going on there and initially, they both said no- which didn't surprise me, because kids don’t watch the news anymore. I started to give them a brief synopsis and my oldest interrupted; “Oh, yes! That unarmed kid was killed by a cop! I heard he stole candy or something and when he tried to get away, they shot him.” It took me a minute to process what I had just heard...and although the thought that he believed Swisher Sweets were candy, rather than cigars, was truly a proud “mommy moment”, the other thought that hit me was the fact that my son did not even think of Michael Brown as an unarmed “black man” as the media would have us believe...he simply knew him as “a kid”. Then he said something that took my breath away.
“Mom, I know that you always said that if we are in trouble, we should find a police officer, but I have to tell you, I really don’t trust the police anymore.”
I immediately went into protective mode. My mind was racing with all sorts of scenarios about stranger danger and not seeking help if he got lost or kidnapped...I wanted to yell at him and set him straight and take away his fears;
“But? Wait! You don’t have to worry, baby! We don’t live where they live. We don’t have the crime they have. We don’t have the gangs they have! It’s not like that for us.” And deep down...what I really wanted to say was “It’s different for you...you’re white.” But the truth is, even if I had said all of those things out loud, it wouldn't have mattered, because my kids don’t see it that way. They don’t see the color of the skin of the victims, they just see the color of the uniform attacking them. They don’t fear being confronted on the street by a “person of color”, they fear being confronted by a “cop”.
My heart sank as I realized that those who are focusing on the issue of color - and much of it is - are automatically assuming that suburban white kids aren't affected...that the actions and crimes they see on TV and the internet are not scaring the crap out of them...that they can’t possibly fear for their own safety or the safety of their families, because this is a “race issue” and they wouldn't understand. We think they believe they are immune from the danger. But the real, hard truth is, they DON’T believe that. They really are scared to death, but as parents, we don’t dare calm their fears, because that would involve a politically and morally incorrect conversation where we coach our children to not be afraid based on their status and race...so we do what we do with all uncomfortable/taboo conversations, we avoid it. The problem with that is, when we avoid conversations, we allow our kids to use their own experience and imaginations to come to their own - often incorrect - conclusions. In this case, the conclusion being “All Police Officers are bad, mean, control freaks and they attack kids”.
We spent a great deal of time on the rest of that drive, talking to our boys about fairness and equality, about “good people” and “bad people” in ANY line of work or life. We talked about how the police have an extremely difficult job of “keeping the peace” in a world where people are driven to fight. We reminded them that Police officers need to maintain a certain level of control if they are going to be able to uphold laws and keep us all safe...and some people get carried away with that control. But certainly not all of them. We reminded them of all the awesome people we know who are in law enforcement, some of them neighbors, family and parents of their friends. We discussed civility and kindness and the things we could do to make a difference. And we talked about how the color of a person’s skin should not ever determine their value or right to fair treatment and justice...but the truth is, it’s our kids who already know that.
Now, if only they could teach that to the “adults” in charge.