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I can’t stop looking at this photo of an unarmed man with his hands up confronted by police in Ferguson, Missouri. It’s come across my Twitter feed a hundred times in the last twelve hours.
This is the caption that stops me short: America. America.
But this isn’t my America. It doesn’t have to be, because I’m white. I will never be shot while crossing the street, while holding a toy gun at Walmart, while knocking on a stranger’s door after I crash my car and need help, while wearing a hoodie, while sitting on my front steps.
This is my son.
I read about Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, John Crawford. I read that every 36 hours, a black man in America is killed by a security officer (police officer or security guard). I read that 50% of murder victims are black men. I read that 1 in 3 black men will go to jail.
And I wonder, will that happen to my son? And is the more accurate question, when will that happen to my son? How am I supposed to protect my son from the crime of being black in America?
I can’t tear myself away from the hashtag, #IfTheyGunnedMeDown. I think of the photos of my son that the media would choose to publish. The one of him looking sullen with a hoodie pulled up over his head? Or the one of him grinning while he cuddles a kitten?
I can’t tear myself away from the hashtag, #IGottheTalk, either. I’ve always known that I’m going to have to have “the talk” with my son. Probably many times. But how do you explain to your child that strangers are going to fear him for the color of his skin? That his body in public spaces signifies differently from his white friends’ bodies? That to be safe he needs to behave at all times in ways that will put white people at ease? And even then he may not be safe.
I don’t want to frighten him. I don’t want to make him hate white people. I don’t want to make him think that white people hate him.
My son studies images like this in school:
His teachers tell him this happened a long time ago. The Civil Rights Movement succeeded. Now all people have equal rights.
And then he sees this on my Twitter feed:
And he sees this:
He is a black man walking on the streets of his own community.
When an unarmed black teen is shot multiple times by a police officer and his community demands justice, what they get instead is tear gassed and shot with rubber bullets by the police.
How am I supposed to explain that to my son?
How am I supposed to explain that to my students?
Because I am not only a mother to black boys. I am also a teacher to black boys and girls, Latino boys and girls, Native American boys and girls. I teach white boys and girls who need a social justice education too.
Black boys and men are not the only people profiled by police or disproportionately represented in juvenile detention programs and jail. In my state, Native Americans make up 9% of the population–unless you step into a jail. Then, you’ll find about 30% of inmates are Native. The racial disparity is even more striking in juvenile detention centers in South Dakota, where an unbelievable 40% of teens are Native.
I am a teacher, and Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, John Crawford, are also my students.
My Twitter feed, which is comprised mostly of educators, has been surprisingly quiet about #Ferguson and #MikeBrown.
Why aren’t we talking about this?
The children of Ferguson, Missouri, were supposed to start school on Monday. But instead, schools had to be closed because the streets weren’t safe for them.
The police in Ferguson, Missouri, have made those streets unsafe for children going to school.
Why aren’t we talking about this?
Maybe we aren’t talking about it because it’s too horrible and we feel helpless.
Maybe we aren’t talking about it because we don’t know what to say.
I saw this tweet come across my feed too, thanks to Jose Vilson, who IS tweeting about #Ferguson and #MikeBrown:
Where do you begin? That’s a hard question.
Maybe we aren’t talking about it because we think it’s too political.
But teaching is an incredibly political act. What profession has a stronger impact on the lives of every American citizen?
And why do most of us teach? Because we believe in social justice. Because we believe in change. Because we believe in possibilities and potential. Because we believe in saving lives.
Maybe we aren’t talking about it because we think it doesn’t impact us or our students.
But these are our nation’s children. This impacts every one of us. This is us.
I don’t have answers. Of course I don’t have answers. I don’t even know how to talk to my own son about Mike Brown and Ferguson.
And so I begin where I always begin when I am trying to understand: I read voraciously, and I share what I am reading.
And I try to write.
Note: except for the photo of my son, all the photos in this post were screen-captured from Twitter.