What does it mean to raise children of color in a world where their very skin is seen as criminal? As the father of two girls under the age of 4, I’m relatively new to this question. Yet in only a few short years, I’ve been forced to think of the many and heavy implications of this reality. How do I respond to my daughter’s innocent comment that “police are the good guys?” How do I explain to them why it’s so important that we do their hair before they leave the house? How do I convey the truth of racism without stealing their joy? Just in case I wasn’t thinking about these questions or challenges enough before, the experience of Brennan Walker has further emphasized this point.
For background, Brennan is the 14-year old child who was nearly murdered by a 53-year old white man simply for asking for directions while black. Brennan decided to walk to school after missing the bus but got lost on the way. In what should’ve been a perfectly safe and reasonable act, he stopped in a neighborhood to ask for directions. After seeing the “neighborhood watch” sign, he assumed it was a safe neighborhood. Unfortunately, he knocked on the door of a racist, one who allegedly believed that Brennan was trying to rob him… by knocking on the front door, unarmed, in the middle of the day… smh. The man responded by chasing Brennan down the street and firing a shotgun at him. Thankfully he missed.
As I heard this story I was both broken hearted and infuriated. Broken hearted at how devastatingly close this child came to losing his life for simply being black. And yes, being black was the reason for this. I don’t want to hear anything about needing to wait to know more “facts” or about how the shooter had a black roommate and thus can’t be racist. We have plenty of facts. We know this man lived in a predominantly white neighborhood. We can reasonably assume that unknown white people have from time to time approached his home without being fired upon. We know that the average white American is prejudiced against people of color. We know that black lives can be lawfully taken under the guise of “feared for my life” rhetoric. We know that black lives don’t matter in America. Those are facts too. If you want to lecture me on waiting for more facts, you better be considering those facts as well, instead of just the cherry-picked talking points from Fox.
So how do we respond to the inevitable argument that this man isn’t racist, whether it’s the “but you don’t know this man’s heart” or the “but he has a black friend/family member/etc. (I’ve addressed the latter point before)? The problem with that argument is that it excuses most forms of racism, no matter how deadly, so long as the individual doesn’t openly support the KKK. As David Platt recently explained in a teaching on race, the definition of racism held by most white people is only capable of identifying racism at the extremes. So let’s back up for a minute. If everything leading up to the shooting stayed the same except for the race of the child and that would change the outcome, then this is undoubtedly racism. So if the shooter claims that he was in fear of his life, not because this particular child was black, but because there have been a series of break-ins committed by black people, or because black people are allegedly “statistically” more violent, or even the seemingly race neutral excuse, “he looked suspicious,” then what he’s really saying is this decision was based on race. The only reason a black child “looks suspicious” by merely approaching someone’s door is if people just don’t expect black people to be in their neighborhood (and residential segregation is also a direct product of racism). And if criminal “statistics” about black people motivated his actions then why don’t criminal statistics about white people cause him to shoot as well? So I don’t care whether this man or his family think they are racist or not. I care that this man thought that it was ok to murder a child because of his skin color. Just imagine for a second how different society’s reaction would be if a 14-year old white boy was shot at for asking for directions in a predominantly black neighborhood. Think of the ways society would describe the shooter (thug, criminal, racist) or the black neighborhood (ghetto, crime infested, etc), regardless of facts. Can you honestly say the narrative wouldn’t sound different?
As you can probably already tell, I went from being heartbroken to furious pretty quick. Brennan reminds me of our other black children to have been gunned down. It reminds me of America’s tendency to deny black childhood and punish our children as adults. We see this in the courts when black youth are charged as adults for crimes allegedly committed. We see it when they are gunned down by police or neighborhood “vigilantes” who view black children as full grown threats despite an obvious child-like appearance and manner. We saw this with Tamir Rice, Renisha McBride, Trayvon Martin, and Mike Brown.
What’s both infuriating and depressing is that this child’s innocence was robbed from him. Brennan states that he saw the “neighborhood watch” sign and assumed that it meant the neighborhood was a safe place. I wish the world was a place where that was the right assumption. The terrible reality is that it was intended to be a safe place FROM him, not FOR him. I get angry every time I drive past a “neighborhood watch” sign because I know what Brennan just learned. It’s not for us. These signs go up in predominantly white neighborhoods where people “watch” for “suspicious” characters. It just so happens that people who look like me are inherently suspicious in these neighborhoods. It was the “neighborhood watch captain” George Zimmerman that thought young Trayvon Martin looked suspicious simply for being black in a hoodie. This is just one more lesson that I now have to teach my daughters.
Finally, I cannot end this piece without addressing the myth that these problems only or predominantly affect our black boys. As I said, I’m raising two girls. Too often, black girls are overlooked and ignored in these conversations as the theme of how hard it is to be a black man in this country dominates the narrative. And yes, it is hard being a black man in America. But it’s just as hard, if not harder being a black woman. Not only do they face similar discrimination as black men, but they face the added discrimination that comes along with being a woman. Notwithstanding their persecution, they are often excluded from the white dominated women’s rights groups and the black male dominated civil rights groups. In fact, a young black girl was murdered in nearly the same circumstances that Brennan survived. Renisha McBride, a 19-year old black girl, was in a car accident and went looking for help. Her phone was dead, so she knocked on the front door of a white man’s home for help. He responded by opening the door and shooting her to death. (In a very rare occasion, the man was actually convicted.) If you hadn’t heard of Renisha, now you should understand the importance and necessity of #SayHerName.
I still have friends and family who think that I make too much about race, that think things would be better if society didn’t talk about race so much. But parents raising children of color don’t have that luxury. In America, everything is impacted by race, and I’d literally be risking my daughters’ lives if I didn’t address that. Now if only white parents would start teaching their children about race as well, maybe things could change.
To Brennan, I’m sorry that the world put you through this. Your life matters and many of us are working to make sure the world understands that.