I've been dreading this conversation. I knew we'd have to have it and it was becoming more clear every week. When I snip at you for wearing baggy sweatpants out of the house, for walking around in ripped up shoes and dirty clothes, when I remind you so often to take off your hoodie's hood that I just give up and put all the hoodies in the attic rather than let you wear them. It was coming.
A few weeks ago we were given a box of your dad's old toys from Grandma's basement. We didn't bother to take inventory--whatever was in there was yours to discover. You three little kids dug through them and added to their play kitchen, dress-up boxes, and more. Saturday afternoon here was unusually beautiful--upper 40's, sunny, and perfect--and you were puttering around the front yard grabbing fallen sticks while I tidied the porch. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed you were carrying something black--a piece of bark?--no, a toy gun. A very realistic toy gun. My heart stopped.
We have occasional toy guns in our house. We definitely have them for the GI Joes, and blasters for Star Wars play, and plenty of swords and light sabers and daggers. It wasn't the idea of violent play that stopped me, it was the sight of you--a brown skinned boy holding a very realistic toy gun while wearing your favorite sweatpants and a long sleeve tshirt. If you were just a few years older and a few inches taller, you could be Tamir Rice, the 12 year old boy shot by police in a playground for carrying a toy gun much like that one.
Funny how fast those same people that might want to argue "there's nothing wrong with letting a kid have a toy gun" are able to turn that to "no kid should have a toy gun at the park; probably up to no good." The fact is he was a twelve year old kid, with light brown skin and big brown eyes and if you ever let me give you a haircut you could look just like him in a year or two. Maybe sooner, if you hit one of those crazy growth spurts you pray for nightly.
And so we asked you to put the toy in the house. You asked why. We exchanged the look and that conversation happened.
Will you remember it as the first time you really realized what "it's not fair" means? Will you remember it as the day you started to see your skin not just as a different color but as a thing to have an opinion about?
"Some people make bad guesses about other people based just off what they see. Like, if they see a girl or boy, or an older person or teenager, or a person in a wheelchair, or a girl with short hair or a boy with long hair, they might guess things about what that person likes and dislikes and wants to do."
"Yes, it's not a good idea to pre-judge someone based on their looks. Even if sometimes it does mean something; like if you wear a Star Wars shirt I might guess you like Star Wars."
You agreed. "Right, but maybe you had to borrow it because your shirt was dirty at school."
"Right. And then for stuff people can't choose about themselves at all like age or gender or height or health or skin color it's really just making a big guess. Those don't really give a good guess about any one person. These are pre-judgements. They're judgements made before there's any real information. It's called prejudice."
You understood, but were waiting to see what this had to do with your toy. I prayed for words.
"So sometimes people are lazy or scared or just don't bother to think too hard because it would mean a lot of hard work for them...and they make these pre-judgements about what a person is like, and what that person is planning to do or how they'll behave. They are bad decision makers. And these people tend to think things that are hard to understand, like that girls are weaker than boys or people with dark skin are bigger trouble-makers than people with light skin."
Jorge, this broke my heart. You go to a beautifully diverse school and have been taught love and peace. You had Sneetches on Beaches memorized before you could read. You personally have friends and classmates from dozens of countries and ethnicities. Your two best friends are your sister and a girl in your class who could probably beat you in any game you named but only by an inch. You are far more concerned with some one's choices about favorite superhero than any physical characteristic. You think evil only really exists in Star Wars and GI Joe. Girls are weaker and more docile than boys? Skin color as a personality decider? I might as well have told you that these people think that anyone with an odd number of eye lashes was better than those with even numbers.
"And sometimes--too often--bad decision makers see a brown-skinned person--especially a boy--and think they are going to be trouble. Sweetie, not long ago a little boy like you was at a park, playing with a toy gun just like this one--the very one your dad probably played with every day at your age without a thought--and someone made a bad guess: they guessed he was dangerous. They called the police. The police took one look at him and didn't even ask him his name or to set the toy down, they just shot him dead. He's dead now; just a little boy. And not long ago a young man with dark skin was at a Wal-Mart and picked up a kind-of-practice-toy gun that they sell there. He just picked it up and was carrying it in the store like you'd carry a book or some Legos you wanted to buy. Another customer was a bad decision maker and called the police because they guessed he was going to do something dangerous. The police showed up and didn't even ask him a question, they just shot him dead. The customers and the police were bad decision makers. They pre-judged. I could walk in that store and pick up a gun and carry it to the front and no one would care, but because people are scared or lazy and just make decisions with no information, this guy was killed. Not all police are bad decision makers--most of them are very good decision makers--but they can also be bad decision makers. And that can be dangerous.
Honey, you can't play in the front yard or the sidewalks or a park with a toy that might ever look like a gun. I like our neighbors and our police--I think they're all pretty good decision makers--but we can't know who the bad decision makers are and so this is for your protection. I would never stop crying if you were hurt by a bad decision maker who saw you and made a bad guess and then they hurt you."
Jorge, you started crying. This conversation gutted us both. What the heck is wrong with this world that I have to warn my nine year old that he'd almost certainly be arrested or presumed dangerous for doing things that his cousins or little brother will do without a thought and everyone will smile because, you know, boys will be boys? You don't get that chance. Because here's the reality: light-skinned-boys will be boys. Dark-skinned-boys will be shot, pushed to the ground, sat on, trailed through the store watching for you to steal things, asked how you got the car you're driving, asked for your immigration papers, and generally treated like a sneak, a thief, and a threat...for the rest of your (hopefully long) life.
And so I cringe when you want to wear your favorite sweatpants to school, or your favorite shirt which is now stained in a dozen places and worn at the cuffs, or your favorite shoes which are a bit beat up. You don't have that privilege. You (and in turn, I) will be judged far more harshly for you looking dirty, messy, poor, or otherwise uncared for. Katie wore dirty ripped-up shoes for 3 years and refused to let me replace them and people just smiled...kids. But if you show up in ripped shoes and ripped pants and a stained shirt, people make judgements about your potential and your value. This right here is when you can finally use that phrase I've otherwise banned from your mouth: "It's not fair."
I've been quiet about this issue for a long time. I cry with my friends that deal with this daily but I have not spoken out. But Saturday afternoon it went from a political statement I didn't want to make, to a necessary reality to protect your life. You are getting bigger. Soon you won't be immediately associated with your parents and sisters and brother and re-judged. Soon you will be asking to go to the park with your friends for a bit and I want to be able to say yes, but I also need to know you'll be safe from the bad decision makers. You'll get taller, hairier, and in the eyes of the bad decision makers, far more sinister and suspicious.
This, more than anything, is why I panic when you still can't learn to control your tantrums and rages. What if you are still prone to shouting and arguing about little annoyances when you are 16? What will happen if you try to argue that you weren't actually doing anything wrong when you are stopped on the sidewalk for a "random" search? What will happen when yet another blowhard tells you to go back where you came from? What will happen if you get frustrated and angry at a friend and are voicing that opinion in front of the wrong person? What will happen if you and Katie are arguing about whose fault it is that the car battery died at the mall and it gets loud and heated? You'll be judged quickly and harshly. Not as a rowdy boy with a lot of energy and passion, but as a threat and a danger and menace. You have to be twice as calm, twice as reserved, twice as obedient, twice as respectful. You don't get to earn your teenage war stories of "boys will be boys" like your uncles and cousins. Those are far too likely to earn you suspensions, jail time, or a grave.
I want to scream with you: it's not fair. But mostly I just want to protect you.
I'm sorry I can't fix this. I'm trying.