I Have the Big Job of Teaching My Black Children About Police

05/01/2015 05:24 pm ET | Updated May 01, 2016
Rachel Garlinghouse

My children, ages 6, 4 and 2, love all things police. For the longest time, their favorite song was "5-1-5-0" by Dierks Bentley. We listened to the song no fewer than 20 times a day for months on end. My children enjoy wearing police costumes, and two Christmases ago they received a much-desired police ride-on car complete with flashing lights and a siren. They point police officers out to me when we are driving, squealing in delight when they see the red and blue lights flashing brightly. When we attend community events, my children love to go up to police booths and get high-fives and stickers from the officers.

Just last month, my daughters were riding bikes in our driveway when a young man who was driving by leaned out his truck window and twice hurled the n-word at my daughters. I was appalled and shaken, and I immediately called the police. As we waited for an officer to arrive, my mind was reeling. What type of officer would I encounter? Would he or she take the situation seriously? Would my children be rightfully considered victims of racism, or would the offender be excused, his actions deemed immature, at worst?

We live less than 30 minutes from Ferguson. Our town and surrounding areas, like much of the country, is polarized when it comes to race. Some posted "I support Darren Wilson" as their Facebook profile picture, while others changed their picture to #BlackLivesMatter. The worst were those who ignored the neighboring situation completely, choosing to post funny cat videos and "work sucks" statuses instead. Whether a person was trying to avoid the proverbial elephant in the room or was adamant that Wilson or Brown was in the right, the St. Louis community was, and still is, on edge.

The officer, a white man in his thirties, who responded to my 911 call was kind. He handled the situation with seriousness, professionalism and grace. He took detailed notes, he followed up with me numerous times and he sought the counsel of higher-ups to try to figure out what could be done should we be able to identify the offender.

Police, at this point in my children's lives, continue to represent and practice safety, assistance, respect and justice.

But I know the day is coming when my children will stop being adorable little kids who garner high-fives and smiles and compliments from adults, including police officers. They will grow bigger, stronger and more mature. They will become teenagers who test boundaries. They will blare their music, experiment with fashion, loiter at local parks with friends after school and spend less and less time in our presence. They will walk down sidewalks with friends, they will drive cars and they will date.

If current situations are any prediction of the future, as brown-skinned people, my children will grow to be among the most feared, stereotyped and misunderstand in society.

I've listened to black parents share that the way to keep our black children safe when there is a police encounter is to teach them to do exactly what the officer asks, even when the kids are clearly being targeted because of their race. The goal is to stay alive.

What scares me the most for my children is that no amount of personal kindness, education, manners or talents will protect them from being profiled. We have to parent them differently than we would have parented any white, biological children we would have had. We have to give them different warnings and reminders when they leave the safety of our home. We have to prepare them for the realities that people of color face. These are not "what-ifs." Rather, these are "whens."

Eventually, we have to break the news to them. Police aren't always fair. They aren't always safe. They cannot always be trusted or respected. They may not have your best interest at heart. They don't always "serve and protect" every person.

One evening, just days after Michael Brown died, my kids asked to watch a movie while I made dinner. I flipped on the television to see Brown's face fill the screen, the station still turned to local news we had been watching the night before after the kids had gone to bed. My daughter, who had just turned 6, asked, "Mommy, who is that?"

In my mind, I thought about her use of the present tense and the fact that Michael Brown is now a "was" and not an "is." Just like many other black men and boys whose names fill my heart and mind: Tamir Rice, John Crawford III, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott. Their faces and stories haunt me and weigh heavily on my heart. I think a lot about their mothers, those who have been left behind to make sense of the losses of their children.

When I look at my children, I want what every mother wants. I want them to live long, healthy and happy lives. I want them to be judged only by the content of their character, but sadly, that is not and will not be the case. The minute they enter a room, there will be assessments of their worth and predictions of their character, these things made based solely on their brown skin.

The police are no different than any other person who sees my children. Their past experiences, the way they were raised, the friends they surround themselves with, the music they listen to, the news channels they watch -- all of these shape the person's view of people of color. People like my children.

What I teach my children about the police is so much more than lessons on racism, black history and discrimination. It's much more than teaching resilience, self-respect and respect for authority.

Teaching my children about police can mean life or death.