On Raising Children of Color

Last night during Trysten’s basketball game I received a phone call from one of my babe’s teachers. I didn’t answer it as I didn’t recognize the number but she went on to leave a lengthy voice message about how bad of a day this babe of mine had had. She sounded frustrated and over him. The message was left at 6pm, it had been a long day for her.

Normally I get angry, we have consequences at home and it’s kind of over. But with this situation in particular the phone call hit me hard because there’s been a subtle boiling of rage within my cherub lately. I wasn’t sure if it was his way of dealing with impending puberty, his wrestling with the independence he feels a right to and the dependence on us that comes with being his young age-a fact for which he really dislikes-but I knew it was a matter of time before the bubbling brook became a river of rage. I could feel it more succinctly than Zach because often the rage that presents itself in signs of disrespect is directed at me. Women. It’s a thing for my guy. It was no surprise that the teacher calling was the female teacher and not the male teacher who takes up the other 50% of his day.

The truth is there was no big thing he did yesterday that warranted the phone call. I could hear in her voice that yesterday was the proverbial straw that broke her back. That 3 months of letting the small things go had led to this moment wherein she undoubtedly felt like she would do anything to get him out of her class and he felt like she hated him. I could feel the tension between the two of them at conferences and I did my best to build a bridge but the bridge was burning in my babe’s eyes and I had a feeling it was too late. When this sweet child of mine has decided he’s done with you there is no possible way to come back from that.

The male teacher of his ended up calling us last night to touch base and reassure us that we can all work together to get him back on the right track. This morning he sent a follow up text, “I just want to encourage you as well that I really do love having x in class. He has such a great sense of humor, he is so bright and does so well academically and his peers look at him as a leader. He has all the potential in the world. I know some of this can be discouraging but there is so much good here too.”

After a night tossing and turning and being equal parts overwhelmed and scared about my babe’s future that text was a salve to my soul. It still makes me cry just reading it.

The truth is I’m scared for my babe. I’m so scared that the parts in him that need to be right all of the time, that gets so personally offended when confronted with any reminder to behave better will get him killed. I’ve written before about how terrifying it can be to raise black sons and I wasn’t exaggerating. When raising a defiant, young, black man there are nights where you’ll lose sleep thinking about the ways in which he might use his obstinate nature on the wrong kind of person and the lights will be out. This is a very real possibility for my son and it sends me into a cold sweat every time I think about it.

There’s a phrase “School to prison pipeline” that surely haunts the night hours of anyone raising black youth. Children of color face harsher discipline than white children in schools and are more likely to be pushed out of school than their white peers. There is no doubt in my mind that my son did exactly what the teachers said he did, my fear is that when he gets into middle school and high school the teachers won’t know him as well as these teachers do and will punish him more harshly for doing exactly what he did yesterday-something his white peers have also done. (Go here for more information on the school to prison pipeline-the graph is all you need to see to understand the epidemic.) Though he has 2 parents who will have his back no matter what, the fact that he’s not as free to make mistakes as his oldest brother is infuriating.

Then there’s a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of our “great” country spouting lies and racist rhetoric about African-Americans. The educational system is a petri dish full of ways in which it will be a tougher road for 3 of my boys, there is no denying that. When I add one of my son’s inclination to disrespect in moments of tense conversation to the petri dish the narrow window for him to get into a great college and land a great job gets narrower. Land of opportunity my ass.

I am overwhelmed at raising my young, black sons because I have never been a boy and have never been black. Though I’m a woman, which can feel “other” in certain circles, there is no denying a good percentage of our country sees black not just as “other” but as a specific kind of threatening “other” so I’ve never felt the same weight my boys do/will. I don’t know if some of my son’s anger has to do with the heaviness of adoption related trauma or the burden of this country’s claim on his black body. Maybe it’s just pre-teen hormones or anger at a girl choosing a different boy. Odds are there’s a little bit of all of that pulsing through his beautiful veins.

What I do know is that though I can be immeasurably frustrated when he’s being disrespectful to me, his transgressions are not what I think of when I picture this boy in my mind. Because he’s also light and love. That teacher was right about all the ways in which he holds in his small body the ability to do big, beautiful things with his one big life. Even though he and I both went to bed crying last night, this morning he asked me if I needed help with anything before he went to get in the car before school. The way he treats his younger cousins is the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen from a boy his age and his tenderness with animals is truly something to behold. The list continues ad infinitum and yet…

I know if the worst happens and his disrespect gets him killed the news will focus on that time in elementary when he threw a paper at his teacher and not the time that he brought in a stray cat during winter and tried to hide it in the garage to nurse it back to health. They might focus on all of the pictures I have of him half frowning-a head full of emotion swirling behind his dark eyes rather than the ones I have of him in moments uninhibited where his head is cocked to the side and his eyes are almost closed because he’s laughing so hard.

I know for those not raising brown or black sons this may sound alarmist but it’s a reality for so many people in our country. Tamir Rice wasn’t just a 12-year-old boy gunned down in his youth, he represented how easily my boys could do everything right and still die at the hands of those meant to protect him. Just as the mass shooting at Sandy Hook had all of my white friends raising white babies terrified at the thought that it could’ve been their child; the names of Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Laquan McDonald and Michael Brown haunt our nightmares because they represent a daily occurrence of black bodies being taken for no reason and with no justice. I’m just getting around to feeling it now that my sons have turned from chubby cheeked little brown boys to man-boys with facial hair and sculpted deltoids.

I didn’t sleep last night because as I was washing his bedding yesterday I was overcome with love for my son. When I pushed his sheets into the wash the smell of his hair and stale coconut oil washed over me and I just sat and cried. We’ve come a long way he and I and I’m proud in so many ways of where we are. I just don’t want my failings as a mom to get in the way of his future. I don’t want our failings as a country to handicap him in any way and I don’t want his own personal failings to be anything other than what they are for the rest of us-a stepping stone to be better and do better the next day.

I don’t know what it’s like to be a person of color but I do know what it feels like to be a mom. I know there is no limit to what I will do to encourage him to be a better man and take ownership for the times in which he really messes up. But today the realization that it might not be enough is hitting just a little too hard. Raising a black son amidst so much fear mongering and anti-everything means that no matter how great of a kid he is-and dammit he’s one of the best-it just might not be enough. What a heartbreaking reality.

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5 thoughts on “On Raising Children of Color

  1. I can’t say that I understand what you’re going through because I’m not a mother of young black sons. But I can imagine that if I were I would feel exactly as you do.
    I don’t really know what to say more than this. There’s a lot I’m feeling helpless about these days and this situation in our country is definitely a large part of my frustration (and sadness).
    I hear you. I agree. I’m with you.
    xx

  2. LOVE prevails. What you said is all true. You have a right to worry, it comes with motherhood. Yours is an extra worry, because you are the extra special woman who choose to Mother others. I really believe the parenting you and that wonderful husband of yours give, is above and beyond. Keep up your positive attitude and your wonderful family will make it through all life bumps in the road. Love your life

  3. I also have similar concerns about my bi-racial boys who are identified by others as black. It seems like now that my son is in middle school this is happening more and more often and subtle even subconscious instincts can truly set our sons back. If you haven’t read this book you might find it very interesting: Swagger: 10 Urgent Rules for Raising Boys in an Era of Failing Schools, Mass Joblessness, and Thug Culture by Lisa Bloom

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