What to Tell Our White Sons in Light of the Trayvon Martin Case

Trayvon Martin Protest - Sanford
Trayvon Martin Protest – Sanford (Photo credit: werthmedia)

My heart still aches when I think about the verdict of the Trayvon Martin case that was revealed last Saturday. It aches as I imagine Trayvon yelling for help. It aches as I imagine his mother wishing she could have helped him. It’s every mother’s worst nightmare come to life. Our kid being brutally victimized. When I think of this happening to my son, I shudder. Although, if I’m being real I’ll admit, part of me takes comfort in the fact that this probably wouldn’t happen to my son… because he’s white. He most likely will not be seen as a threat just by walking down the street while wearing a hoodie on a misty winter night.  That’s what we call privilege. Luca has the privilege of not needing to be on guard his whole life. I, as his mother, have the privilege of resting in that.

Statistics would show, actually, that as a white male, Luca is more likely to be a perpetrator of violence than a victim. When I think about that, I shudder again. I’m not sure which is worse. I would be heartbroken and certainly feel I have failed as a mother if my son were to ever inflict violence on another, no matter their race or gender. But let’s face it, at least my son would still be alive. So, while parents of black sons are talking to them about how to protect themselves and thwart negative stereotypes, us parents of white sons need to do some talking too.

We need to talk about privilege, because it’s real.

We need to talk about how to handle fear, anger, and conflict in a peaceful way.

We need to talk to them about the opportunity that they have to help others who are not privileged.

Of course, they didn’t ask for privilege, nor do they need to be ashamed of it. We just need to acknowledge it and strive to use that privilege for good. We can all hope that someday this will not be the reality, but for now, it is. To ignore this issue is only contributing to the problem. This is a topic all parents of all races need to be having with their kids, not to perpetuate the problem, but to prepare them for the real world.

If it seems to you that the issue of privilege is not real, it’s probably because you haven’t really been aware of it. Our history of experiences shape our perception of reality. So don’t take my word for it, here’s an excerpt from Kristen Howerton’s blog “Rage Against the Minivan,” click on the links to read more about the studies she’s citing:

…this isn’t just about Trayvon. His death is a catalyst for this conversation, but regardless of what happened there, the issue of bias and black men remains.  It’s evident when people call the police on a black person attempting to break a bike lock but walk by (or offer assistance to) a white person doing the same thing. It’s evident when a group of children are asked about the photo of a white man and a black man and they assume the black man to be a criminal and the white man to be a teacher (despite the fact that the pictured men were Timothy McVeigh and a black Harvard professor). It’s evident when people assume a black man to be a criminal over a white man at first glance. It’s evident when children look at photos of two children on a playground and a majority of them assume ill intent on the part of the black child. It’s evident when we look at the shameful “stop and frisk” habit that profiles young black men as potential criminals.

Trayvon just brought to light the oppressive stereotypes that all black men are living under. And the case illustrated that it can sometimes be a matter of life and death.

My son isn’t old enough to have a conversation about race (or anything) yet, but I’m gearing-up for it. Caleb and I plan to adopt, and most likely our son or daughter will be a person of color. When that is the case, we will no longer have the privilege to ignore this issue even if we wanted to. Truly, I think us moms of white children don’t really have the privilege of ignoring it as much as we would like to think. When I reflect back on the horrific crimes that have been taking place… Newtown…mall shootings… Columbine… etc….I recognize that all were at the hands of white boys. Do boys of color have incidents of violence? Absolutely. But I think that we need to not fool ourselves into thinking that because our kids are not of color that they are “in the clear.” This post isn’t meant to demonize white males, it’s meant to be a wake-up call to parents of boys everywhere. We MUST teach our children to be ambassadors of peace. And part of that is being aware of our prejudice.

We can point our fingers and blame others all we want but we only have the power to change our own actions. I hear a lot of people saying things like, ” But, Black people are racist too!” And you know what? They are (sort-of) right. SOME Black people are racist. Of course. But tell me, how does that justify your racism? We’re just running around in circles with that logic and it reminds me of being on the playground in second grade when stealing a ball was justified because the other kid stole it first. Ugh.

The race issue is only one factor in the tragedy of Trayvon. The other issue is that of skewed masculinity. Trayvon’s attacker, Zimmerman, was acquitted because of the “Stand Your Ground” law. A law that condones using lethal force to end a conflict EVEN IF YOUR OPPONENT IS FLEEING THE SCENE. This is not ok. This is why I said above that it is so important that we teach our sons how to handle conflict in a peaceful way. Emotional intelligence, the ability to recognize and regulate our emotions, is a key component in child-rearing and yet most of us lack it. In order to teach our children how to properly handle anger and conflict, we need to learn how to do that ourselves. So, yes, I am going to say it again, as I have said in so many of my writings: GO TO THERAPY. Learn how to deal with conflict in a healthy way. I know, it’s scary and expensive, but we’re talking about your children here. Most of us haven’t learned how to deal with our emotions, like anger..especially Christians and especially men.  We immediately think anger is bad and try to just stuff it down. Unfortunately, anger doesn’t disappear, it festers. If we don’t learn how to manage our anger, we can become quite ugly in the face of conflict.

* * *

I know that this post is really heavy. It probably offended some people. Honestly, I get that. When I first recognized that I was privileged, I was ashamed. In our Diversity course at Vanguard we played a game. We all stood shoulder to shoulder in a field. Then, our professor read off a list of questions, to each “YES” that we answered, we were to take a step forward. Questions like:

“Did you have your own room growing-up?” I stepped forward.

“Did your parents pay for college?” Step forward.

“If you’ve never wondered if you weren’t hired somewhere because of your skin color…” Forward…

“Were you given a car?” Forward.

The list went on and on… And you know what? I was in the very far front. Only two white male classmates were ahead of me. This activity revealed that I was given an undeserved advantage in life. It’s not bad. It just means that I kind of won the lottery when I was born. Many other people were not so lucky, they did not win the lottery and that means that life is harder for them than it is for me. That’s reality. However, when I first recognized it, I felt so guilty. I felt like I had done something wrong. It’s sort of like survivor’s guilt. You know? When there’s a plane crash or something and only one person lives? Often, that survivor feels a sort of guilt about it. Like, “Why me? Why did I survive when everyone else died??” There’s no reason for it. They just lucked-out. That’s sort of what privilege is like. We lucked-out. You see, privilege isn’t necessarily about race, it’s about who has the power in a society and who has advantages. Yes, we all work hard, I get that. Maybe it makes you angry to read this because you have worked so hard to get where you are and you don’t want people to think you were just handed anything. Well, it can be BOTH true that you worked hard AND were given an extra boost either because your family wasn’t in poverty, or because of the color of your skin, or because of your gender, or even because you’re heterosexual. All of these factors affect our ability to achieve success in this society.

Now that I accept the fact that privilege is real, I have a responsibility to decide what I’m going to do with this privilege. I can ignore it or deny it… both of which will continue to perpetuate the phenomenon of privilege. Or I can try to use my lottery ticket as a means to help others. I can listen to other’s stories of being stereotyped with an open heart. I can seek first to understand those who are different from me. I can try to see the ways in which I stereotype others. I can educate my children about the reality of privilege. I can try to go out of my comfort zone and expose myself to other cultures instead of staying in my little white OC Christian bubble.

I don’t feel bad about being privileged anymore. I feel empowered. Probably how Harry Potter felt when he discovered his gift of magic. It was intimidating at first but then he learned to embrace it and use it for good. We can all do that too. Let’s turn this tragedy into an opportunity for growth. No matter what the color of your kids’ skin, talk to them about loving others in the way Jesus did. Show them how to handle anger and conflict in a peaceful way. And most of all, let’s all commit to being more loving ourselves so that we can be models of what we teach.

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3 thoughts on “What to Tell Our White Sons in Light of the Trayvon Martin Case

  1. I wanted to send this to you privately (couldn’t find a direct contact link), since it seems that whenever I comment on your blog it’s to be contradictory.. and that’s really, really not my desire, but it just comes with the territory of the subjects you write about, I suppose. I’m content with what I have to say, and it’s hardly a personal attack, but if you’d like to remove it after you read it, I’m cool with that.

    Anyway, I think your last few sentences were the most important, yet they were proceeded by an entry that still focused on negative social dividing lines as well as assumptions about an event that none of us was there for (and even worse assumptions that the color of young Martin’s skin was an important factor to Zimmerman). Even the title of this entry furthers the divisive nature of this type of thinking.. feeling the need to specify “white” sons, especially when you later mention that you’re likely going to adopt a dark-skinned kid. This entry feels like a response.. perhaps to angry/boneheaded/racist comments on Facebook or the emotions ignited by the mainstream media, and I think I get what you’re ultimately after, but I think the message got a little lost.

    If I was black (or American Indian), I’d have an advantage on college applications.. in that way I’d be privileged, but I’m not. I’ve already been accepted to the school I want to go to, though, so it’s not even a factor or point I should mention. By even bringing it up, I’m only encouraging a divisive line that so many folks already accept.. and one that doesn’t even directly effect me in this matter. That’s sort of what I saw happening with this post. The sadness of this situation isn’t that a black boy was killed, but that a boy was killed. The specification of skin-color isn’t necessary to make it a sad tale.. and, if anything, it only serves to encourage the perpetuation that it should even matter. Heck, it’s just as sad to simply say that a young person was killed, eliminating even his gender.

    If I’m lucky enough to have kids, I don’t want to teach them to care about social injustices done to groups of people, but rather to care about what happens to individual people. I sincerely believe that’s the only way you can find a solution to the problems you talk about in this post, which is why I’m mentioning it.. because lumping folks into categories is easy, and it makes it more difficult to focus on the individual persons involved. At least, it offers a barrier for some to think outside of their viewpoint, or a crutch who feel bitter or wronged. Of course there are generalities that can be made, but when talking about death or a person’s heart or legal rights or whatever sensitive subject may be at hand, the more specific one can be about that particular situation, the better.

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    • Hi Mark,
      I completely understand where you are coming from. I once felt the same way you do… that we should focus on people as individual people, not by their race or gender. I completely agree that what matters most is individual people and not so much the color of their skin. Sadly, that is not the world we live in. There are many people who do judge others by their skin color and I can promise you that both you and I have racial biases because it is human nature to have them. You’re right, we don’t know if Zimmerman racially profiled Trayvon, we also don’t know that he didn’t (more evidence seems to lean towards the suggestion that he did but I guess we can never be 100% positive). This event is more of a catalyst for a conversation that needs to be had. It is an opportunity to talk about a social phenomenon that DOES exist.

      It would be a dream come true if this conversation didn’t need to happen. I wish that skin color or gender wasn’t an issue, but they are. Furthermore, trying to be “Colorblind” (as it seems you’re suggesting) is to deny people of an integral part of their identity. People of color know what it’s like to live in a world where they are stereo-typed. By talking about it, we are bringing this issue out into the light so that it can be changed. I don’t believe we are creating division by simply acknowledging the division that already exists. Part of eliminating a problem, is to first name it.

      People (as you may have seen in some of the studies cited) have a natural bias towards that which is similar. It is the way our brains are wired. This is why it is so important to have conversations with our children about people who are different than them. It’s also important that they know about the injustices that were done to groups of people because talking about it minimizes the likelihood of it happening again. We have to understand our own human nature to stereotype and divide so that we can be aware of it and it’s consequences.

      I’m going to let your whole comment about college applications slide because it seems you realize it was a moot point. However, I will say, that there is a reason why things like that have been put in place and it’s to try to bring a more level playing field to groups of people who were once oppressed. We can’t expect decades of injustice to not bring any consequences. Hopefully, one day, there will not be a need to “level the playing field” at all. Unfortunately, that day is not today and I hardly think it’s appropriate for us to complain about it. We don’t realize it, but being privileged makes it easier to even get to a place where we are filling-out college applications. Generally, people of less privilege have a harder time even getting to that place. (I’m obviously not just referring to specific races here, but people of lower income as well) That is why there are programs to help people who historically have had a difficult time achieving the same goals as those who are more privileged. Not because they don’t work as hard, but because they don’t have the same connections or resources that we have. It’s only recent progress that women are now equally as likely to achieve the same education as men (with the exception of doctoral degrees), yet even then, they are more likely to get paid less.

      This is reality. We have to start asking ourselves why society is this way. It is because we naturally hang-out with and help those who are similar to us. It’s not always a conscious decision to gravitate towards those who are similar, it’s just the way our brains our wired (it was a survival mechanism at one point). So in order to alleviate that bias we have to 1. Be aware of it, 2. Work incredibly hard to not let it influence who gets help and who doesn’t, and 3. Sometimes it will mean going out of our way to help those less fortunate.

      I hope all of this makes sense. I know that you were not personally attacking me but that this is a very heated subject. I’m sure many others felt the way you did but chose not to comment at all. I am glad that you commented so that I could (hopefully) clarify some things. I truly believe that we have to be willing to really see what others are experiencing, even if it goes against what we believe to be true. When we don’t have a historical reference for something, our perception is that it doesn’t exist. I implore you and others who believe that privilege isn’t an issue in our society to do some reading. Seek answers and understanding. Our fellow citizens have stories to tell and we need to listen.

      Here’s a link about the natural racial bias that children have, it’s fascinating: http://www.rageagainsttheminivan.com/2012/04/kids-on-race-cnn-study.html
      Here’s an essay by a relatively privileged black man about his experience being black in America: http://www.rageagainsttheminivan.com/2013/07/what-i-want-you-to-know-about-being.html
      And an article that I think you will like Mark, about how to use race as an appropriate descriptor but not as a source of judgement: http://www.rageagainsttheminivan.com/2012/03/describing-vs-ascribing-digging-deeper.html

      I chose these articles all from the same blog but of course there are many more sources on the topic and you would have no difficulty finding them. I hope that you take the time to read those listed and that it develops a curiosity about the stories of those less privileged. I think that we are striving for the same goal but have very different ideas on how to achieve it. Thanks for commenting, I appreciate your willingness to challenge what you’ve read so that the conversation can continue towards positive change.

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