I'm not a celebrity, but I share a trait with many famous actresses -- I am a white woman raising an adopted child who is not white. Tonight I am wondering if Angelina Jolie has warned Maddox and Pax that the police might mistake them for gang members, and to move slowly and keep their hands visible in the event of a traffic stop. I am wondering if Sandra Bullock is thinking about how to dress little Louis so he does not appear dangerous to random white people who see him on the playground. I am wondering if these white celebrity moms feel as inadequate as I do to prepare their children of color to live in a racist society.
I keep thinking of an interview I read years ago with Camille Cosby, after her son Ennis was murdered by a white racist man when he pulled off the road with car trouble. Mrs. Cosby said she had always worried when Ennis drove really nice cars -- which his dad Bill could afford to buy by the dozens -- she thought that he would be mistaken for a drug dealer. And indeed, the young white gang member who shot him did believe that Ennis was dealing drugs.
Mrs. Cosby knew to worry about that car that might enrage an ignorant passer-by, the way that my African American friends tell me they have always taught their children, especially sons, to behave in a racist society -- to keep their heads down, not to talk back, never to run in public, to be polite and smile even when being treated incredibly rudely or even violently by thugs or police or anyone else. This is how parents have shown love and care for their children.
Right now, many of my white friends on Facebook appear to be struggling with how to talk to their white kids about the racism evident in the acquittal of George Zimmerman. This surprises me a bit and I'm not sure exactly what they're struggling with. I have been talking to my own kid about racism ever since, at age 3, she asked seriously, "Do only brown people steal things?" and I realized that she was picking up the dominant culture's biases even as I tried to shield her from them. After that, we began very frequent conversations. I can't tell you the number of times she has said to me, "You only think that because you are white," or asked me, "Are you ashamed to be white?"
Several years ago, when she began to travel on city buses independently, I told her to always have ID ready, to smile and be over the top of polite with police officers. She looked at me as if I were a simple child. "You think I don't know that?" she asked me. She then proceeded to tell me stories of police treating many kids she knew badly. Apparently, she had not told me before, because she didn't think I needed to know. She has pointed out to me how I benefit from white privilege as I go about my days, and a number of times has suggested that, were she to behave as I do, things would not go well for her. She is a splendid (if sometimes snotty) teacher, and I try to return the favor by being as honest as I can in conversations with her, and being conscious of the privileges which are mine because I am white.
This week, I must admit, even I am stymied by what she must be learning from this latest evidence of how racist our culture is. What are her take-aways? Never ever call a friend on the phone if someone is chasing you and threatening you -- or maybe, call a white friend, never a person of color, because if you do, your friend will be treated as a criminal just for taking your call?
Or how about, never walk in your neighborhood? Don't eat Skittles? If it's raining, just get wet -- never attempt to cover yourself up?
When I texted her last night, to say that George Zimmerman had been acquitted, I did it because I needed her to know I was upset about it, even as she was out with friends. She responded with the text equivalent of a shrug, and we haven't had a chance to talk about it yet.
This week, as I pray and cry and read and write blogs and Facebook posts and attend vigils and plot about how to improve things even a bit in my local community, she is off at a national training on racism and community organizing. There's something right about that, about knowing she will learn things and go places with her life that I can only dream of, about knowing she is with other young people who are plotting and strategizing and in whose hands I can trust the world. About knowing she can talk with others who share her own life experience about how to be safe and stay alive.
But I'm glad we've been talking since she was little, because if we had to start now, I cannot imagine what I would say. To my white friends with kids of any age: Just start having the conversations. Daily. Now. So, you stumble, and your kid sees that you feel inadequate. Welcome to the world of parenting!