That's a Child

06/07/2013 02:45 pm ET | Updated Aug 07, 2013

One of the challenges faced by women who survive sexual assault by an acquaintance is the shattering of everyday trust. We expect harm from the stranger in an alley. But when violence comes at the hands of someone you're supposed to trust (a friend of a friend at a party, a classmate, a family member), your most basic assumptions about reality come undone. Forget the alley. It's not safe to go to a party, walk to class, rely on a family member; to do the everyday.

Women who journey toward healing from these experiences describe powerfully the depth of the devastation committed against a deepest part of your sense of self and your place in the world when what you are taught to assume as "safe" reveals itself as anything but.

So let's think more about safety and how taken-for-granted narratives of safety, when violated or proven false, create the most damaging forms of alienation. I realize some of us don't have to work as hard to think about this as others do.

I've been teaching my 4-year-old about "911." It started because of her questions: What if she was home alone and something bad happened? (Yes, we are years from actually leaving her home alone.) I've been trying to respond to her worries by helping her understand there is broader safety network out there. I want to teach her what that safety net looks like and what she needs to know to access some sort of protection in a world where things do sometimes go terribly wrong and moms can't be everywhere.

It's this same impulse that causes parents like me to teach children like my daughter about police officers. To point them out when we see them and describe them as a symbol of "safe."

It's a worthy impulse. It's also the point where some of the most devastating alienation exists in our nation, our communities, sometimes our own families. What I might be able to teach my white daughter about police is something my sister, whose sons are black, would never teach them -- can't teach them without putting them at risk.

You may have seen by now the coverage of the 14-year-old stopped, arrested, choked for giving police officers a "dehumanizing stare." If you haven't, you should watch it. This stare could only be seen as so dangerous because it came from a child who was black. I can't begin to imagine -- even 10 years from now -- that my daughter could ever give police officers a stare so powerful they would be compelled to arrest her and then choke her to the point of urinating on herself, all while I stood by pleading with them to stop because she couldn't breathe. It would never go that far. White skin just isn't that dangerous. Apparently black skin is.

Safety is racialized in our communities. It's raced. It's white. Like it or not, it's true.

This is a truth communities of color have, of course, known for a long time. The everyday assumptions about safety white families rely on without even realizing it, the networks we teach our children to rely on are luxuries denied to our neighbors. (Note: this shouldn't be a luxury. I'm speaking here of a right we should all have. But as ethicist Emilie Townes says, a right denied to some becomes an unjust privilege in the lives of others.)

Those of us who are white don't get to choose whether or not this truth is true. The overwhelming evidence is out there. It's true.

What we can choose is whether or not we allow ourselves to be impacted by experiences like Tremaine McMillian's. We can choose whether or not to allow the realization to utterly wash over us that this was a child. To be shaken to our core that this was a child onto whom the brute force of a police department -- one of the most publicly worshipped symbols of "safe" in our society -- came slamming down. And that he is just one of an endless many youth to whom this kind of violence happens everyday.

I don't know if this young man had been taught police were safe. If he had (which I kind of doubt), then this was one of those moments: where the realization comes through violence committed against your body that the very thing you have been taught to trust in fact poses you a grave threat. Everyday trust shattered. Deep alienation. Cause for all of us to grieve.

More likely, given what African American and Latino/a parents usually know about what their children need to learn to survive, this young man already knew something about the dangers he faced. That likely possibility -- that the everyday trust so many of us carry with us as a given was never even there for him in the first place -- should shatter my everyday trust too.

I'm not talking about shattering into despair and resignation. I'm talking about the shattering into outrage; anger that mobilizes.

Unlike some of the larger issues that make us angry but which seem hard to affect (tax reform, drones) police departments are very local. They can be pressured to respond to the communities they swear to serve and protect. In many communities organizations working on this are already there and need our support. In smaller cities a public letter saying "no" to this kind of racial violence will get attention. We needn't focus only on Florida. This happens in your community too. And mine. A lot.

Maybe those of us who are white have to start by asking ourselves who we think of as part of our community. Who are "we"? When we can look at McMillian and say "he is" -- he is part of "we" -- here is my daughter, my nephew, my godchild, my friend's kid, then we've begun. Then I know to do the same thing that I would do -- that I already do -- when I need to marshall my resources to ensure my own childrens' safety. I may not know immediately what it takes, but I get very creative about starting to figure it out.

That's a child. He has an inalienable right to expect safety from those we say "protect." More importantly, he should expect that all we adults who claim to care about children will do something concrete to demand it for him.