Talking with our Children about Trayvon Martin

Dawn Davenport

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How can we talk to our children about Trayvon Martin?

How can we talk to our children about Trayvon Martin?

A friend over at the Creating a Family Facebook Support Group gently chastised me (actually all of us white adoptive parents) for our silence on the Trayvon Martin shooting.  She’s right, I have been relatively silent, other than clicking the “like” button.  As I pondered why, I had to fight becoming defensive.  I was out of the country when the story broke; I was just getting up to speed, etc.  But once I put my defensiveness aside, I had to acknowledge the other truth: I didn’t know what to say, and wasn’t sure my input as a white woman would be welcome.  I still don’t know what to say, but maybe it’s more important for all of us—white, black, and every shade of brown in between—to enter into the discussion.  And given the prevalence of transracial adoption (white parents adopting children of color), there are more and more of us to speak.

The facts are still coming in about what happened that night between 29 year old George Zimmerman and 17 year old Trayvon Martin.  I do NOT want to live in a country that prosecutes by media or mob, but from what little we do know, it seems pretty clear that the whole tragic event began when Zimmerman started following Martin because he looked like he didn’t belong in that neighborhood.  The media reports that Zimmerman said Martin looked out of place because he was wearing a hoodie, but since hoodies are almost the universal uniform of all teen males (along with saggy fraying pants puddling around untied shoes), it’s hard to imagine that Zimmerman didn’t routinely see a hoodie-clad youth walking the neighborhood.  It begs the suspicion that it was the color of Trayvon’s face under that hoodie that made him suspicious, and regardless of what else happened after Zimmerman started following Trayvon, this fact is troubling enough.

When President Obama said “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon”, he could be speaking for many of us.  In fact, many of us, black and white parents alike, could say, “I have a son that looks almost exactly like Trayvon”, complete with hoodie, baggy pants, mischievous smile, and kind eyes.  How do we protect our boys from looking out of place, when we still live in a painfully racially divided world?  How do we prepare them to handle other’s suspicion?  And for those boys raised by white parents, how do we explain to them that the “white privilege” that they absorbed from us may not stand them in good stead when interacting with the rest of the world?

Over the years, when I’m under stress I fall back on reading and re-reading Maya Anglou’s series of autobiographies.  In The Heart of a Woman, she said one of the reasons she moved to Africa for her son’s adolescence is that (and I’m working off my memory here, so this is the gist rather than the exact language) she wanted him to have the experience of coming of age in a place where strong black men were the norm, and he didn’t have to worry that his strength and very existence was a threat to the majority.  I so understand her reasoning and suspect that right now many other moms of black tweens and teens wish the same for their sons.  Assuming moving to Africa is not an option, what’s a parent to do.  How do we prepare our boys for the very real possibility that some will see their skin color as evidence of potential for harm, rather than potential for kindness, creativity, and greatness?

I don’t have the answers, and I suspect that no parent does, regardless of their race, but I can recommend a completely wonderful article in Time.com by TouréHow to Talk to Young Black Boys About Trayvon Martin. His suggestions are wise, specific, and quite frankly, break my heart.

1. It’s unlikely but possible that you could get killed today. Or any day. I’m sorry, but that’s the truth. Black maleness is a potentially fatal condition. I tell you that not to scare you but because knowing that could save your life. There are people who will look at you and see a villain or a criminal or something fearsome.

2. If you encounter such a situation, you need to play it cool. Keep your wits about you. Don’t worry about winning the situation. Your mission is to survive….

3. There is nothing wrong with you. You’re amazing. I love you. When I look at you, I see a complex human being with awesome potential, but some others will look at you and see a thug — even if their only evidence is your skin. Their racism relates to larger anxieties and problems in America that you didn’t create. …

4. You will have to make allowances for other people’s racism. That’s part of the burden of being black. We can be defiant and dead or smart and alive. I’m not saying you can’t wear what you want, but your clothes are a red herring. They’ll blame it on your hoodie or your jeans when the real reason they decided you were a criminal is that you’re black….

5. Be aware of your surroundings. Especially when it’s dark. Or bright. Some people are on the lookout for muggers or rapists. You need to be on the lookout for profilers who are judging you. Don’t give them an opportunity to make a mistake.

6. If you feel you are being profiled and followed or, worse, chased by someone with a vigilante streak — if you are hunted in the way it seems Trayvon was, by someone bigger than you who may be armed and hopped up on stereotypes about you — then you need to act. By calling the police….

7. What if it’s the cops who are making you feel threatened? Well, then you need to retreat. I don’t mean run away. I mean don’t resist. Now is not the time to fight the power. Make sure they can see your hands, follow all instructions, don’t say anything, keep your cool. …

8. Never forget: As far as we can tell, Trayvon did nothing wrong and still lost his life. You could be a Trayvon.

In this discussion amongst white parents of children of color, I can just hear our black friends shaking their heads and thinking with no small hint of irony, “Welcome to our world.”  But maybe that’s the larger point—those of us who live with and love a child of a different race now live in part in the same world. I don’t pretend that transracial adoptions are necessarily always in the child’s best interest, or that we should use adoption to create a post racial world, but given the increase in adoptions across racial lines and especially the increase in mixed race relationships and marriages, those of us with a deficit in melanin and our extended families are entering, albeit maybe just at the door, a world that our friends of color have lived in for a long long time.  A mixing of these worlds has got to be a good thing.

Recently I was visiting with my 81 year old aunt in North Carolina.  Her family and extended family is now mixed race by virtue of birth and adoption.  She was relaying a conversation from her quilting group.  One of the women was talking about a break-in that had happened in the neighborhood and described the men arrested as “two black men”.  My aunt, who until this moment I had always thought of as a ruffling-feathers-is-not-polite-and-shouldn’t-be-done-in-proper-company (and-certainly-not-at-Quilting-Group) type of Southern woman, responded, “Was it really necessary to include their race?  I’ve noticed that many of you include the race of a person when they are black and do something bad, but not when they are white, and I just want you to know that it isn’t fair.  Both blacks and whites can do awful things and good things, so why mention their race at all?”  I can’t say for certain that my aunt would not have said this if she did not now have a family with varying races, but I sure have my suspicions.  In any event, better late than never–Way to go auntie!

 

Image credit: AngelaJohnsonMeadows

26/03/2012 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog | 20 Comments



20 Responses to Talking with our Children about Trayvon Martin

  1. Tara says:

    Hi Dawn,
    I’m a Korean adoptee who grew up in an all white community. I have a Caucasian husband, Amerasian children by birth and Ethiopian children by adoption. Tragedies such as Trayvon’s prompt discussion where it might not otherwise occur, which is positive. It prompts awareness and self-reflection in a world of tunnel vision, which is positive. You are promoting both of those positives by posting your honest feelings. The sad part is that a mother and father have lost their child in a horrific way, and our society chooses to see it as a race issue rather than a humanity issue. As parents of children(no matter color) we simply must stick to teaching them values and respect. We encourage our children to be proud of their heritage as that is a piece of who they are, but it does not define them. Being a person of moral character and having compassion on others is what does define you. Evil and good exists in all races because we are all human and live in a fallen world. Being aware of how others may choose to judge you is wise, but using that against them is not. As minorities we must choose more to educate rather than retaliate, and give the benefit of the doubt rather than jump to conclusions. Assuming race is the issue before getting to the bottom of things makes the minority just as much at fault as those they claim are treating them unfairly by the color of their skin. I hope and pray that the upcoming generation does truly make progress and live more peacefully without judging each other so superficially.

    • Dawn says:

      Tara, beautifully said. Again, I stress that I don’t know exactly what happened that night, so I’m trying not to pre-judge, but is sure seems that when George Zimmerman first saw Trayvon Martin walking along the street, he saw someone threateningly out of place, rather than a person of moral character. I sure pray that my kids are defined by and define themselves by the strength of their character and the depth of their compassion. I pray others give them a chance to show their character and compassion before judging them.

  2. Dawn says:

    Lain, I have a son who looks like that too-skin color notwithstanding.

  3. Dawn says:

    Karla, after you’ve had some time to think, please drop back by and share your thoughts. I truly want this to be a discussion as I work my way through this mess.

  4. Swanky Moms Club said:

    Well I was very happy to find out today that Zimmerman will be charged!

    [[Comment imported from blog] at 11:05 pm on April 11, 2012]

  5. Well I was very happy to find out today that Zimmerman will be charged!

  6. Swanky Moms Club said:

    Well I was very happy to find out today that Zimmerman will be charged!

    [[Comment imported from blog] at 11:05 pm on April 11, 2012]

  7. Anonymous says:

    too many details of this horrible event are still not available to thr public!!!

    until we
    know who accosted whom, i reserve my judgement on this sad event!!!

  8. tera says:

    So beautifully said, Tara! Thanks for sharing this Dawn. It’s always going to be a humanity issue when people are being hurt. However, it’s definitely a personal issue for those who are most affected. Just like women and men and families pained by infertility and the lack of awareness and understanding from others who see it differently because they experience another reality as we do, so are the families with black children needing to have a voice and support from one another to be proactive in getting their truth out there. It’s important because otherwise only one side is heard and that side is often overlooking facts and experiences of the other side that affect the overall truth of the story.

  9. Noel says:

    A little off topic, but I was speaking with a friend of mine who was reading a blog about the Hunger Games movie. She stated that people were posting comments such as – I can’t believe Rue was black, it ruined the entire movie for me and well, at least when I found out the District 11 tributes were black, I wasn’t as sad when they died. Wow, this just blew me away. I cannot even believe it. Which of course, got us talking about Trayvon again. I attempt to live in my little utopia and try to believe the best in others and that others couldn’t possibly have negative thoughts purely on the color of ones skin…but, they do. Another friend of mine is in law school. She is in her late 30s. She said they were in Con Law and the younger students were asking why they even needed to learn this stuff since these problems don’t even exist anymore. I wish that were the case…but it is not.

    • Dawn says:

      I hear from my kids, who are teens, and from other youth I work with at church, that they don’t see race as a big deal anymore. I wonder if it is a generational thing that maybe with the younger generation we are really making progress. Or is it that they have not had enough experience in the world to see that racism is alive and well?

  10. Joe says:

    My wife and I are in the process of adopting from Ethiopia. It is scary to think that there is still so much hate in this world. I hope our son will be able to raise his children in a world where skin tone does not matter, who you are and what you do matters!

  11. Jocelyne says:

    These are discussion that need to occur regularly – open discussion about racial profiling between the races. In many suburban and rural areas people tend to stay segragated. I live in a rural commuter community that has undercurrents of cultural hate – white vs black, mexican vs central american (especially guatemalan), native tribe vs native tribe, white vs native – all this hate and prejudice is passed down from generation to generation. Instead of assuming we live harmoniously in a multicultural world, we need to engage in community events that allow the cultures, the generations to mingle and get to know each other – we are human, we care for our families, we care for our community. I am going to adopt a child and bring that child into this community. It scares me that my child who most likely will not be white, has a higher risk of danger just because the color of his/her skin or the shape of his/her nose. You can educate your child, but how do you protect your child from the boogie man when the boogie man is real?

    • Dawn says:

      Jocelyn, and yet the rate of interracial dating and marriage is higher than it’s ever been. When looking at the friendships at our high school, I see a lot of mixing race tables in the cafeteria. It’s not perfect, but seems to be getting better. On the other hand, I absolutely believe that racial profiling occurs every day, such as when store owners look askance at black teens when they are shopping, and neighborhood watch volunteers thinking a young black teen is up to no good, just because he is walking through a neighborhood. And what doesn’t seem to be getting better is our ability to talk about race. Hence, why I decided to post this blog. We all need to start talking, so thanks for giving your two cents.

  12. Noel says:

    I don’t know what exactly is meant about speaking up. I have been plastering my FB page with messages about Trayvon & engaging people in discussions about this. I have read several good blogs written by white people about what Trayvon’s death that were very well written. What more am I to do? My son is only 4 so we obviously haven’t had a discussion with him, but when the time comes, I hope to have a good friend who is a black male (I do now – but who knows in 10 years) to have the conversation with my son…

  13. Jesse says:

    Those are very good suggestions for how to talk to our children about this issue. In addition, we should also talk about not how, since we don’t like it when some people pre-judge us based on how we look, we should not pre-judge Zimmerman as guilty when we don’t have all the facts.

    • Dawn says:

      Jesse, as I said, I don’t want to live in a country that prosecutes by media or mob. Public prosecution cuts both ways and hurts us all by weakening our system of justice. However, it sure seems to me that regardless what happened that night, and you’re right that we don’t know the whole story yet, is seems pretty clear that the reason Trayvon was “suspicious” and looked out of place was because of the color of his skin. That is a discussion that we can and should be having now.

  14. Kathleen says:

    Dawn, I appreciate your well thought out and reasoned article BUT how dare anyone tell you (or me by virtue of having adopted) what cause you must be involved in. I am an adoptive parent who has not be silent on the Treyvon issue so the “friend” who painted with such broad stokes is just wrong. I did not speak up because I am an adoptive parent, I spoke up because I am a parent. Having an interracial family doesn’t mean I have a responsibility to fight any cause. No one on this planet has a right to tell me what I need to be passionate about, vocal about, fight against or for and frankly it is the height of arrogance to presume to do so.

  15. Lain says:

    I have a very white teen who has pooling jeans, untied sneakers, and loves to wear his hoodie up. Between his aspergers and his strong resemblance to Unibomer, I’ve actually had “the conversation” about how people will pre-judge and decide you’re “bad” just on looks alone. He always thought I was making stuff up until Travon Martin. I wish I was wrong.

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