too great a burden to bear
Today it was Philando Castile. Yesterday it was Alton Sterling. The day before that, there was someone else, and tomorrow there will likely be another.
Most days, I stuff my painful awareness of how severely fucked up this world is into a mental box so I can get through the day without screaming or breaking anything. Today, I walked behind the kitchen counter across the room where my son played, squatted down into a deep frog pose, brought my hands to heart center, and silently cried and screamed so he wouldn’t see.
I cried for myself, feeling unsafe in this world and fearing what might happen if some vigilante, with or without a badge, decided to steal me from my family. I cried for my son, worrying how the world will see him has he grows, and wanting him to be safe in a world that will alternately exoticize and demonize him for what his particular combination of cultures and phenotypes represents to them. I cried for how many mothers have lived through the unimaginable, because someone with a weapon wouldn’t see their babies’ humanity. I cried, wondering if there’s anything I can do to keep from joining their ranks. And today in particular, I cried for all the mothers who decide they will “toughen up” or break the will of their sweet babies, in a broken-hearted attempt to stop someone else from doing it for them.
Every time This happens, there’s a quiet conversation among Black folks, about how we will keep our kids safe from state violence. Actually, there are at least two conversations. There’s the sad, somewhat productive one, about The Talk we have with our kids so they understand that what they may hear about police and other authority figures from their White friends, teachers, and so forth doesn’t necessarily reflect the reality we live with. And then there’s the absolutely devastating one, about how we all need to “get tough” on (read: punish, typically physically) our kids so they don’t act out and “get themselves shot.”
Get. Themselves. Shot. As though the hand without the gun is the one responsible for firing it.
Few things make me angrier and sadder than victim-blaming or respectability politics. But in combination? And projected onto parenting? And used to justify cruelty to children? No, no, NO.
I thought of the desperate mother clobbering her child during the Baltimore riots. I thought of all the folks who, in their pain, would try to think of ways to distance themselves and blame these latest men, or their parenting, for their deaths, so they can tell themselves that they and their children are less vulnerable to the same fate.
Then I took a deep breath and made a promise: I will not let fear drive my parenting.
I refuse to hurt my child in a cruel, short-sighted attempt to to “save” him from someone else’s violence. One, it’s been shown time and again that kids who experience physical punishment and shaming are more likely to misbehave, and thus more likely to come in contact with potentially violent authorities. Even those who don’t outwardly misbehave frequently internalize how they are treated, experiencing anxiety and depression as a result. Two, even if that wasn’t the case, why would it be better for your parents to hurt you than a police officer? Physical pain is physical pain, no matter who inflicts it. But physical pain inflicted upon you by people who are supposed to care about you is compounded by the spiritual and emotional pain of betrayal. I won’t betray my child by teaching him that he deserves violence, at home or anywhere else.
If the rest of the world is a cold place, my home will be a warm place, where we can heal and recharge from what happens outside. Where we know we are loved and accepted fully, and where we don’t have to worry that making a mistake will result in someone purposefully hurting us.
I will raise my child to be a strong, empathetic person who lives in his integrity and treats everyone with respect. I will help him be aware of himself and his surroundings, hone his ability to judge character, and encourage him to listen to that voice inside that says, “Something’s not right here — I need to go.” I will help him recognize when others are trying to make him feel ashamed for being his truest self, and teach him how to stand up for himself in a way that affirms his humanity without diminishing theirs. And I will teach him to stand up for what’s right, and to use the privileges he does have to interrupt injustice at every opportunity, because that’s just what we do around here.
But I won’t ever teach him to change himself, or surrender the spirit of our home, for fear of state violence (or fear of anything else, for that matter). Because nothing can save us from state violence, except ending state violence.
Our babies are born free and good and worthy. And every moment of their lives matters, even if those lives are cut tragically short. I want to fill those moments with as much love and joy as I can, because though it’s my job to keep him as safe as possible, I alone cannot control all that happens to him. I will not squander the time we do have together by letting other people’s hate poison our love.
So while he naps, I will write, and I will grieve, and do whatever else I need to do to process this hurt. And when he wakes, I will cuddle him and breathe him in and enjoy as much of our time together as I can. And I’ll keep doing that day in and day out, as long as we live and as long as he’ll let me. Because to do anything else is to forfeit our happiness, our love, and our sense of self to fear and hate. It’s bad enough that others’ fear and hate can end our lives. It’s worse if we give those lives away before they even get the chance.
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