It’s Friday morning, and next to me my two-year-old son plays with dinosaurs, their roamings stretching across the carpeted landscape. The plastic figures occasionally stop their treks to inspect a stale, discarded Cheerio or to quickly scatter with an “I need to go potty!” urgency, but for the most part my son’s play is contained and exuberant.
It’s Week 8 of self-quarantine and I’d describe our days as cozy and content. You know, until we look at Google News or open emails from The New York Times. That’s when reality sets in and we’re brought beyond the comfort of our home’s four walls. And this week, the news was especially heavy, demanding both attention and action.
I feel ashamed it took nearly three months for Ahmaud Arbery’s murder to make national news. We should have been stunned by this long before COVID-19 contained us in our homes and made public protests and gatherings difficult. It shouldn’t have taken a shocking video to get us to turn our heads and look to him and his family.
As a dinosaur bounds across my leg, I’m brought back to the reality of the son in front of me. He is so small, so vulnerable, and so white. In an attempt to empathize and show compassion to Ahmaud’s mother and his community, many white moms I know have been quick to point out the safety our own sons experience and how unimaginable it is to know black mothers can’t feel the same. I get this approach—I’ve used it myself even. But to me this style of empathy is beginning to feel like a tired excuse. Like what we’re really saying is, “That sounds like a you problem.”
Black parents don’t need a reminder that their children don’t experience the same level of safety and sense of security as white children. “You’re not like them,” is the opening line for most black parents teaching their children how to behave out in the world. If we’re going to destroy old ways of thinking and keep hatred from entering a new reality for our children, we’re all going to need to teach our sons what it looks like to be safe.
For black boys, this looks like the conversations already happening: Don’t run. Don’t put your hood up. Don’t reach into your pocket.
For white boys, this looks like conversations many of us overlook in our day-to-day life: You are responsible for showing love. It’s not your job to tell people how to feel. You should never take matters into your own hands, regardless of how “right” you think you are.
I laid in bed last night thinking about the disparity between the experiences of Wanda Cooper, Ahmaud’s mother, and the mothers of Gregory and Travis McMichael. This weekend is Mother’s Day, and 26 years ago, Ms. Cooper celebrated this holiday by bringing her son into the world. This year, she will spend Mother’s Day putting all her dreams for her son to rest. I know nothing of the McMichael’s upbringings or family values. But I’d imagine their mothers never desired their sons to be murderers. I wonder what conversations they did or didn’t have. What happened that led to one mother mourning the loss of her son and another grieving the arrest of her child?
We all want our children to be safe. That means teaching our white children that because they are safe, they are responsible to be a safe place for others. This begins by entering our children into relationships and situations in which they are surrounded by a variety of races, cultures, and upbringings. This will mean doing the same for ourselves as well. We must let these friendships be both deep in intimacy and wide in number.
No parent argues that we should teach kids to be kind. But we should also teach that the richest kindness comes from understanding another person and honoring both their history and their present. We should talk about loving others, but we should model showing love even when you worry it might cost you something. We should celebrate our ability to influence the world, and enforce it’s not okay for us to hold all the power. We need to constantly remind our kids the world can be a scary place—maybe not for them, but for others—and they have the opportunity to change that.