Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Do Black Mothers Still Need to Explain to Their Children the Ways of the Racial World?

When I was young, I was crazy about Earth, Wind & Fire's song, "That's the Way of the World." The lyrics are true, the way of the world can make a child with a heart of gold grow cold, and yet the lyrics are still true as they encourage us that we can overcome the way of the world, "plant your flower and grow a pearl." It's a spiritual message and I wouldn't be surprised to learn the writer was influenced by lessons he learned in Sunday School or in meditation.

With the upcoming inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama, America seems on the precipice of potentially growing pearls, but the way of the racial world is still with us. Therefore, it seems appropriate to recall that old Earth, Wind, & Fire song as I ask the following question: Do you think African-American moms, due to racism in this nation, still have more worries about their sons than other mothers, or do you believe that with the election of a black President of the United States we've moved into a post-racial world where black mothers no longer need to advise their sons and daughters about racially-tinged troubles and how to minimize that threat?

If we teach our children what we know of racial strife, are we preparing them for life or are we instilling in them unreasonable fears that trap them into a self-fulfilling prophecy for racial strife? What's the best wisdom on this?

As I worked on my post for another site, "Is Black Life Worth More than a Wine Cooler?," about racist vigilantes shooting black men on sight during Hurricane Katrina and how this crime was not investigated and their deeds seemed approved by police, I recalled why I'm cautious about where my 18-year-old goes after dark. Unlike some black mothers in urban areas, I don't have to worry about drug dealers on the corner or gangs trying to recruit my son because that's not one of the problems in my neighborhood, but I do have concerns that a non-black person may jump to a conclusion about what my son is doing or why he is where he is, and if they harm him as a result of that wrong conclusion, the authorities may look the other way.

I believe that for all our political correctness and work for racial equality, despite the wonderful progress of the African-American race and open-minded whites who want to be fair, a significant part of the white population still believes black people, especially young black men, are criminals, and under certain conditions whites are justified in accusing first or shooting first and asking questions later. Please note that I said "part" of the white population and not "all."

I don't think my feelings on this subject are unwarranted, and it galls me that if I express it people, usually well-meaning white people or the unique black person who claims to be unaware of racism, come forward to tell me that I should live without fear. Uh, excuse me, but some fear is healthy and goes a long way toward building survival strategies.

For instance, while Obama won the presidency, you may recall how easily Sarah Palin used racially-tinged rhetoric to stir up predominantly-white McCain/Palin supporters during rallies and some of the ugly shouting that rose from the crowds. I don't think it would have been wise for anyone to say the Obamas had nothing to fear during this period or even when he first announced his run for office.

Yes, the Obamas may have great coping mechanisms for dealing with such threats, the understanding that they must live life to the fullest regardless, but that doesn't mean the threat does not exist. It doesn't mean it's wise for the president-elect to speak to a crowd of thousands without the protection of bullet proof vests and glass.

Now that Obama's been elected, has the world suddenly become color blind? No. So, I'm still advising my son (and daughter) to use caution in dealing with white people in certain environments.

Since my son was old enough to go in a store alone or go places with friends, he's had rules that I doubt white teens are given:
1.) If pick up and look at something small in a store, be obvious about putting it back where you got it from.
2.) Don't look at at items, put them back quickly, and then stick your hands in your pockets.
3.) Don't enter a store unless you have enough money in your pocket to buy the least expensive item in the store. (This advice has been handed down in my family.)
4.) Don't hold bags for friends in stores or on your way out of stores. This includes not holding bags for girls you hope to impress. (A girlfriend of my mine says she's given her black sons the same advice.)
5.) Avoid walking alone at night, even at dusk, through all-white areas.
In addition, I've given him wise words for any teen male regardless of race, such as don't get in the car with people you know do drugs because If the cops stop you everybody in the car is going to jail. He also has had the lecture to not date girls who are under 18, and I mean not so much as a month under 18, black or white.

My concern about people with racist attitudes down here is not something I sit around and worry over constantly. In fact, I know there are lots of non-blacks who've overcome these fears and biases about black males and black people in general. However, there are still plenty who are bigoted and so will jump to conclusions about a black boy, especially a husky dark one like my son.

So, I'm stricken with caution whenever he calls after dark to ask if he should walk home or will someone come and get him. If he's in his school uniform, I may tell him to walk. If he's in common street clothes, I'm inclined to answer I'll pick him up.

My concern may sound strange to some mothers, even some black mothers who haven't given this much thought, haven't talked to other African-American mothers who are similarly cautious based on personal experience or family stories or the nightly news. If you feel you've never had a legitimate reason to have such concerns, then consider yourself blessed. As for me, I'm letting my son know how the world still works, especially down here in Southeastern Louisiana. I believe an ounce of wisdom is better than a pound of lawyer bills or worse, making arrangements with an undertaker.


Anonymous said...

Yes, we do. I am a black father, and part of the conversation I had with my children (2nd and 3rd grade) about President-elect Obama was that when their classmates said something about Barack's winning because he's black, they needed to respond that he won because he was more qualified. It was a little disheartening that I had to sully the conversation with them, but forewarned is forearmed and I'd be derelict in my duty to them as a father if I let them get blindsided. Thanks for the thoughts.

lilalia said...

Just because you might live in the same neighbourhood or city or country as others, does not mean you live in the same reality. Your reality includes having to instruct your son to behave in certain ways, for reasons that are sound to you, but for someone who is white might not make sense. I always think that we have to possess enough grace to recognise the diversity of our many textured realities.

I rejoice that Mr. Obama has come to office at this time. The world rejoices. The reality of the situation is his election to office might have been in part a test about racism, but it was not the cure. We all are the cure.

Happy New Year wishes to you and your family. I want to thank you for all of your intelligent, heart-felt, passionate blogging of this last year. It is a true gift you share with us. Thank you.