Questions We Ask When Raising Black Boys in America

04/30/2015 05:34 pm ET | Updated Jun 30, 2015
Erin Michelle Threlfall

Finally solo, yet still tethered to me with the chord of life, my son was placed on my belly. He squirmed and inched towards my heart.

I, having moments before unleashed a deeply grand and primal sound, could barely make my words audible.

"What... What should I do?"

Laughing, my Ghanaian midwife held wide her arms.

"Oh, Madam! You hold him! Take him in your arms and let him feel you. Let him know he's safe."

I've asked that question at least daily since the day my son was born.

What should I do when he...

Throws a tantrum?

Won't eat vegetables?

Breaks a rule?

Cries from missing his father and friends in distant lands?

What should I do?

A refrain familiar to all parents as we seek counsel from books, friends, blogs and magazines. For the longest while, my quest for advice felt like a natural part of the rhythm of things. I was just like all of my friends, doing my best to raise my child so that he could be a happy, thriving, thoughtful citizen of the world.

I fit in with my peers -- most everyone I knew was an expat, living outside their birth country, raising the child as a "third culture kid." Most of those children were living, breathing evidence of cross-cultural love. The playground hues were an endless mix of Japanese-Italian, Ghanaian-American, Indonesian-Dutch, Vietnamese-Swiss, German-Thai, Nigerian-Canadian.

We were writing our own cultural norms as we raised the tribe of global citizens. Their skin tones and gorgeously exotic eyes made our children something people were fascinated by, and though there was the odd occasional judgment, for the most part, these beautiful children were doted on for their beauty and uniqueness.

When I asked "what should I do?" I was seeking advice that could get me through to the next phase -- or, at least, hour -- before I was baffled again by this never-ending craziness of parenthood. I worried about my sanity and my son's well-being, often wondering how on earth I was going to survive the teenage years. I worried that his naughty actions might get him into a bit of trouble, or his struggles with academics might impact his grades.

But never, not once, did I worry about the color of his skin, and what that would do to impact his survival.

Until I moved to America.

Let's get something out of the way. I am a white woman. As a white woman raised in America, I didn't grow up thinking so much about the color of my skin. As far as I knew, it had little bearing on how I was treated. My smallish stature, my womanhood, my hippy phase -- those things all impacted how I was treated because, let's be honest some more, America is a land run by white men who like to be in control and for things to fall in a certain kind of norm. So yes, smallish hippyish womanhood brought some issues, but not my skin tone. Whiteness brought privilege, and though I didn't even realize what that meant until I moved to Africa, I benefitted from it.

Now this white woman is raising a black boy in America. Let's get one more thing out of the way: Being black in America is not an innocuous way to be. One has only to turn on the nightly news to learn that, in many neighborhoods, this is an automatic indictment that just might get you killed.

Suddenly, my "What should I do?" has a whole new weight.

What should I do to...

Keep him safe when he walks out the door?

Ensure he knows how to talk to police in a way that won't get him unjustly arrested?

Rally my white peers to make a stand against what could happen to my boy?

On the topic of keeping our children safe, some might say, "just stay away from trouble." That's the advice we would give our kids, right? Stay away from the edge of the pool, don't run out into traffic, avoid stray dogs, buckle your seatbelt...

But what advice is there to give to our sons and daughters when just walking down the street in the "safe" suburbs wearing the wrong jacket could get you shot? When the police who are meant to protect and serve are sometimes the ones snapping the spines of innocent boys? When a water gun in the hands of a 7-year-old becomes imminent danger?

I'm not entirely naive; I knew from the moment I learned I was pregnant that we would face some difficulties. But I thought we had made progress. I thought our culture had shifted so that at least the police didn't behave like the clan members of the 1960s... Maybe I didn't see it because my white privilege kept this from being a part of my daily sphere of fear. Maybe what's always been there is just rising up to the surface. Either way. It is now a part of my day-to-day reality. Something I must be keenly aware of.

As I write this, my son lies sleeping in the room next to me, his now 8-year-old body reaching towards manhood. Safe. Loved. Hoped for. Just like every other child asleep in their beds.

In the background, the nightly news flashes tales of our latest failures in America, this time made evident on the streets of Baltimore. I'm at a loss. I don't know how to usher my son safely into manhood, and I don't know who to turn to for advice, because it seems that, when black in America, survival is more luck of the draw and good fortune over carefully laid plans and wise choices. There is no claiming of a third culture, no curiosity and awe over my son's gorgeous tones. Because in America, he is black. In America, to many, black means trouble.

And so, like millions of mothers whose boys are black in America, I am left wondering...

What should I do?

This post originally appeared in Erin Michelle Threlfall's blog: This Life