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.
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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.
If you liked this post, you may also like:
- CT: What Privileged Christians Can Learn From the Trayvon Martin Case (jacobswelljustice.com)
- Reflections on Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman and Race in America (rageagainsttheminivan.com)
- Voices on the lessons of Zimmerman trial (cnn.com)