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 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