I’m so glad you look like your mom.
I’m so glad my son looks like his mom.
Like every expecting father, as soon as I found out my wife was having a boy, I immediately began picturing the things we would do together, the things I would teach him, and the things we would talk about.
I pictured a mini-version of me: dark skin, dark hair, and dark eyes. My wife and I assumed that her light features stood no chance against mine. We were both very surprised to meet Diego, with his light skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes.
Over the past few weeks, as Diego and I share breakfast and read the news about continued deaths of people of color during interactions with police, watch reports on the senseless killing of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, and listen to growing the anti-immigrant rhetoric, I can’t help but feel grateful for that surprise.
Grateful that my son does not look Latino. Grateful that his blond hair will make him much less likely to get pulled over by the police. Grateful that his light skin will mean that, if he is stopped, the situation is much less likely to escalate towards violence. And grateful that looking like his mother could save his life.
Grateful, yes, but at the same time, sad. Not that he doesn’t look like me — he is a beautiful, amazing boy — but that life would be much harder for him if he did.
As soon as I started to drive, I learned that if I was pulled over, I should get my license and registration out before the cop gets to the car and, by the time he or she got to my window, I should have my hands on the steering wheel. I learned from an early age that if I was stopped by a cop on the street, I should put my hands up immediately and ask the officer to grab my ID from my pocket. Follow directions; don’t ask questions; never make a sudden movement.
The benefits of my son’s features will extend further than just those encounters: from fellow customers who confuse me for a store employee, to co-workers mistaking me for other minority colleagues, to unfamiliar neighbors questioning the reason I am opening my house’s fence door in the alley behind my house. These are subtle, less tragic, biases, but biases nonetheless. Instances and encounters that punctuate my life, and ones that those with lighter skin rarely, if ever, experience.
Today, I am a professional in my mid-30s with a law degree. When I see a cop walking toward me on the street, I still get nervous. I even get a little nervous passing security in the hall at work. I know this isn’t rational; I know I don’t have anything to worry about. But, it still happens. Those feelings of fear fly to the surface, even if briefly, before I can rationalize my way away from them. That feeling of risk, a feeling that has been ingrained in me since I was a child and is reinforced by these latest events and the consistent drum beat of anti-immigrant rhetoric, will not go away.
The sad thing is that, like so many other people of color, I am so used to those flashes of fear or assumptions about my life that they often don’t phase me anymore. Most people of color have dealt with these types of things and we will often trade “you can’t believe what just happened to me” stories while laughing it off.
I’ve had these experiences in many cities across the country but I’ve been lucky. I didn’t have to learn as a child what to do at the sound of gunshots; I didn’t have to deal with friends and relatives dying from gun violence. I grew up with great parents in a small town where, for the most part, people knew me and protected me. So many others aren’t so lucky. We shouldn’t be a country where the color of your skin so profoundly shapes your everyday life. But, we still are, and with the way things are going and the increasing tension caused by the events of the last few weeks, will continue to be.
His light skin aside, I’ll still teach my son how to minimize his risk in encounters with the police: you can never be too careful. But, when I think about his future and his safety, I find an unfortunate comfort in knowing that he looks like his Caucasian mom and not his Latino dad.