In my head, I have a list of things I want to teach my son, Gavin.
Most things are common to one-year-olds: Gavin just discovered Elmo and, yesterday, learned to “clap clap” along with the letter of the day. We are learning letter sounds, number sounds, and we have but two words: an enthusiastic “hi” as a return greeting, and “aigee”, which we learned is his way of calling our dog, Scooby. My husband and I are first-time parents, and we’re still revelling in the way our son’s eyes light up at every new discovery in his world.
But the amount of love we feel right now is tempered by fear that I might lose Gavin too soon – and not to an accident, or even to local violence, but rather to the bullets of law enforcement.
I want my son to be brave, to have the heart to stand up to injustice. But I cannot teach him to be brave if I have to teach him to be fearful and meek in his interactions with authority. I cannot teach my son justice if I have to instruct him to always cower before the power of the state for the sake of his life.
In Cleveland, a 12-year-old boy named Tamir Rice was shot and died on Sundayafter brandishing a toy gun near police officers at a playground. A mother has to bury her 12-year-old in Cleveland during Thanksgiving because he did a stupid kid thing: he brought a toy gun to school and waved it around. When I was in elementary school, kids who brought toy guns onto school property were taken to the principal’s office, their parents were called, and they would face possible suspension. Apparently, now people call the police, and those police might draw and shoot before even talking to the child.
In my head, the list of things I need to teach my son, as he grows older, grows longer with each shooting.
We have to teach our baby the golden rule; to be polite and respectful; to not talk to strangers. To teach him to be loving, kind, and respectful. We want him to learn and know he can be anything he wants to be in this world.
But we also have to tell him that, if a guy follows you after you buy a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea, run back into the store and stay there. We have to tell him not to play his music too loud – but also that, if he does and someone asks him to turn it down, to do it, even if that person is mean, because anything is better than dying over his stereo volume.
But when do these kind of edicts end? Akai Gurley was 28, and he opened a door to a stairwell in a badly-lit housing project this weekend, and received a bullet for his trouble. He leaves behind a two-year-old, who no longer has a father. What is the lesson here for my son? Don’t open doors? Don’t live in a housing project? Don’t be poor? Don’t be in the wrong place at the wrong time?
My husband and I used to think that we wouldn’t have to have the conversation about how the cops don’t necessarily serve and protect everyone until Gavin’s early teen years. After all, my husband managed to survive both the police and DC as a young black man in the turbulent 80s and 90s, so I thought that maybe we could keep Gavin both reasonably safe and sheltered from the hard truth that any given cop might see him as a threat to eliminate rather than a citizen to protect.
So do we now start the conversation – The Talk – earlier? At 10 years old maybe, or eight? Should I tell my son – should I have to tell my son – that, even if the police are wrong, that even if they treat him as less than human, that even if they are doing something unfair, that he should not speak up in order to preserve his own life?
Do I teach my son to never walk in the shadow of a single building, to never wear a hooded sweatshirt, to never cosplay as his favorite anime character, to never accidentally startle someone? How do I teach him to tiptoe in the world and still be confident in himself? How do I tell him these things and yet also teach him that the world is amazing and he can grow into anyone he wants to be?
Personality and proclivities aside, I cannot change that my son is going to grow into a tall, young black man, and be subject to other people’s perceptions of him as threat – my baby boy, who today is clapping and singing little vowel sounds from his crib.
I realize, as I outline the growing lists of “don’ts” that I will hand my son at different points in his development, that if I tell him these things, I am raising him to be fearful. More than that, I am stifling his development as a person: how can he have a full childhood and grow into a capable adult, unless he has the space to make mistakes?
I shouldn’t have to train my boy to live his life to deflect the danger of other people’s warped perceptions of him. I shouldn’t haveto teach him police avoidance techniques and ask him not to act out as we did as teenagers and to willingly swallow other people’s disrespect – all to keep him breathing in a world that feels so sickeningly unfair.
I will, as my black parents did before me, take on this task of training my son to both survive and thrive.
But who will take on the responsibility for training the police?