Monday, August 18, 2014

Parenting, Fears, and White Privilege

Spawn #1 and Spawn #2, circa 1998

Once upon a time, I fooled myself into believing I could always keep my boys safe. It was simpler to suspend my disbelief about the real world when they were small. In those days, I could wrap them in safety gear, manage their experiences and interactions, and generally keep our lives controlled. (Of course I know - I even knew then - that this is a comfortable fiction.)

As they got older, I learned to pull back more and more, giving them longer and longer 'safety tethers' as they learned to negotiate the larger world. Suddenly, they are grown up. In two weeks, both boys will be off to college. The younger one starts as a Freshman, the older one as an upperclassmen.

It's ironic: I write stories with young teen and young adult protagonists in them. In much of my work, the characters have problematic relationships with parents and authority. And they face challenges and dangers, but none of the stories I have ever invented are as frightening to me as what I saw happen on the streets of Missouri this past week.

I certainly don't have to worry about either of my sons being abducted into the world of Faerie, having to cope with prescient visions of inner-city violence, or dealing with a space ship whose heavily damaged and paranoid AI is trying to get them killed. These are the dangers of my fictional worlds.

It's telling what I do worry about in the actual world my children inhabit: car accidents, painful relationships, disappointments. I don't worry about either of my sons getting shot by the police or considered a threat because of the way they look.  

That is what white privilege looks like.

Let me tell you what has become an amusing story in our family. If we were African American or Latino, or any other non-white minority, it might very well have ended differently and not been amusing, but a tragedy.

When my older son was a high school senior, he participated in an independent study project that released him from classes for the latter half of his year. Instead, he commuted via the 'T' every day to an inner-city community farm. His commute required that he connect in a large urban train station. One morning, he noticed two men following him through the station. He sped up. They sped up. He thought for sure he was going to be mugged and tried to get away from them, but they shouted for him to stop and finally identified themselves as undercover transit cops.

My son stopped, quite confused, wondering what he might have done wrong.

They insisted he show them ID.

Ultimately, they hadn't believed him to be a student (my son is over 6' tall and had a thick beard) and assumed he was using a student transit pass illegally. They still didn't really seem to believe him, despite him showing them all 4 years of his HS photo ID's (identifying him as a student in a well regarded suburban district). But my son is (despite being large) softly spoken, polite, and has an air of innocence/naivety about him. They all laughed and he headed to his assignment.

I didn't think of it at the time, but now I look back in horror. What if we were not white? What if he'd been wearing a hoodie? Or his pants were sagging? My son is tall. He looks intimidating from a distance. He was wearing headphones and had music on. It had taken him some time to realize the men were shouting at him. I can imagine a narrative where two cops see a black man doing something they identify as illegal, and then rushing away from them when they tell him to stop.

That's not what happened. And I hadn't even imagined any other scenario. That is what white privilege looks like.

I have the luxury of worrying about my sons' grades and if they will get enough sleep and make it to their morning classes. I worry about alcohol, not gun violence. And I don't ever even consider that either of them might get shot in the street.

We live in a community where our biggest brush with crime was a stolen bicycle. My younger son, who does not yet have his driver's license, often walks home from friends' houses late at night and I have no concern that he will be questioned by police or be the victim of crime. I have every reasonable expectation that my sons will live to graduate college. That is what white privilege looks like.

This is what we need to be talking about, in painful, frank conversations both within our own communities and outside them. We will be a 'post-racial' society only when no mother has to worry about her child making it home alive at the end of every day.