I prayed for a son every night during my first trimester, a beautiful, healthy boy.
I never once thought that a few years later, my answered prayer would become a source of deep fear and anguish.
Let me explain it to you: When my son, J, came into my world, I truly didn’t deserve him. I wasn’t ready for motherhood. And I had no idea how impactful his presence alone would be on my life, my family’s life, and even my friends’ lives. He is the sweetest, funniest, most empathetic person I know.
As he has grown from a beautiful, curly-haired, enchanting infant into a handsome, 6-foot-tall teenager, some days, I can no longer see him as an innocent child.
I am reminded daily that the majority of the world CHOOSES to see him differently.
I’m forced to come to grips with the fact that the majority of the world views my son ONLY as a big, tall black kid.
J is no longer marveled at by strangers as a child but viewed a possible threat to those around him who don’t know him. And that fact has created a hard spot in my heart. That fact has forced me to parent my son in a way that regularly brings tears to my eyes.
His middle school years have been the toughest thus far.
But not for reasons most moms find themselves frustrated with a middle schooler — refusal to do homework, bad grades, or the ever-dreaded first crush drama. Though those typical middle school parenting milestones have happened, with exception to making bad grades, MY frustrations with his middle school years lie deeper than the surface.
As he began middle school, I had a growing concern that he could become viewed as a potential threat or target inside the school walls. I’ve worried, on many occasions, that those that are supposed to educate and care for him will be the very ones that inflict harm upon him. Knowing that as he walks the halls of his school that even his teachers or principal could catch him on a day where he is having just a typical hormonal sucky day and take that as him being another defiant black boy at school.
Recent studies at several higher education institutions, including Rutgers University, Stanford University, and Columbia University, have the same conclusion. Black students receive harsher disciplinary actions as they enter middle school and through high school; as they age from cute little elementary-aged boys into big, black teenagers.
My fears became a reality this year as he started eighth grade.
I’ve had to deal with teachers who immediately assume he is a trouble maker or defiant because he was late to his sixth period three times in one week. His teacher assumed he was late because he doesn’t care about the class. When the actual reason he was late is because he was experiencing growing pains in his long legs had become so painful those few days and running or jogging to class to be on time was impossible.
Implicit bias. Stereotypes. Assumption of guilt.
They all began as he entered seventh grade. I started monitoring and tracking it each quarter to ensure I wasn’t overly-sensitive or unfair to his instructors. But as the year ticked on, it became clear that things that his other classmates got a “pass” on; for him, it merited a call to me to complain that he is “difficult.”
It’s never been a simple task to make sure your kid, especially a boy, is being a model student. But the added pressure of making sure his teachers and administrators are treating him fairly, and vice versa, sometimes becomes too much.
The frustrations with school, coupled with the fear of everyday life for my son growing into a young adult began to stifle me as a mother. I started having a hard time seeing my son for who he truly is. J is a kid who is still afraid of lizards. He loves to swim almost as much as he loves basketball. He has a soft spot in his heart for the homeless, buys extra cookies for his friends at lunch every day even when his lunch account is nearly empty, and (so far) has always does the right thing.
So I decided the only way I could parent my son and try to create structure around who he is and how the world views him was to talk with him about perception in today’s world.
After the initial talk at 11 years old, I began compiling a list of rules for J to understand how he should navigate the world today and every day of his adult life in the future.
List of rules I have to enforce with my black, 14-year-old son:
- You are not allowed to wear a hoodie, ever. I DON’T CARE how cold it is outside.
- You are not allowed to run in a public space unless you are on a ball field.
- You are not allowed to hold your friend’s items when you are hanging out, only your on personal items. (Someone may think you stole their items.)
- When you go to the beach, you are not allowed to cut between homes to get to the sand faster. STAY ON THE STREET and sidewalks where people can see you and without obstructions.
- Always hold your head up and smile if you see a police officer, but don’t make too much eye contact with them.
- If you are walking home from the gym and you happen to be stopped by a cop, remain calm and say only this: “My name is J. I am 14 years old. I’m walking home from the gym, and I don’t have anything on me. I don’t have an ID because I’m 14. My address is _____.” Repeat your age to the officer several times, so he knows you are a child and not an adult.
- ANYTIME you move from place to place, and I’m not with you TEXT ME. I need to know exactly where you are and where you are going anytime you are out with friends.
- When your white friends leave, YOU LEAVE! Do not hang around an establishment alone, ever.
- Try always to find an elder black man or woman in the area if you are out with friends and remain in their line of vision. They will keep an eye on you and look out for you when you are with friends and I’m not there. They will be my eyes and ears when you are away from me.
- You do not browse around any store of any type. Go in, get what you need quickly, and get out.
- Always address your principal when you see them in the hallway and around campus. He/she needs to know who you are and your character so that you are never automatically assumed to be a trouble maker.
- Never argue with your teacher in the classroom. If you feel wronged, speak to her AFTER class and in private to address your issue.
As he enters high school in the fall, I’m sure this list of rules will grow.
As he begins to drive, I fear that the list will include every black mother’s rules of: “Keep your hands on the steering wheel. Don’t fidget in the car. If you get pulled over, start recording immediately. Never drive through a rich neighborhood.” Plus, so many other rules he shouldn’t have to learn.
So many rules I shouldn’t have to enforce.
But that is our life, that is our shared frustration and anguish. I used to believe that since we live in paradise, such a beautiful community filled with retirees, philanthropists, and people who care about so many issues, that he would be spared the list of rules we’ve created.
But I was wrong.
As he grows, I know he will stick out like a sore thumb. Because no matter what I teach him and what he does to remain a model student and citizen, I can’t teach the world to respect him and see him for who he truly is — a boy with dreams and nothing but love in his heart.
So it’s my job to love him harder, protect him fiercely, and show him how to navigate the world with brown skin and be proud of who he is at the same time.
It’s hard work.
And I can’t say that I would choose it again, given a choice, and that’s the harsh reality. But I will do everything in my power and all that I can to raise my son to be a great man, a fair man, and someone who sees only the best in the world and in people.