Explaining privilege to my white son

Here is the blog post where you decide I’m too political for you to follow me anymore. Before you go, I just wanted to say, it’s been real, y’all.

Oh wait, you’re still here? Then read on, brave souls, about how a white civil rights lawyer explains about privilege to her white son.

On the second night of the Ferguson protests, I sat down to watch the news with The Boy. Before I turned the TV on, I said to him, “Remember how we talked about how there was a young man killed by a police officer last summer? And people were really upset about it, because the young man didn’t have a gun or anything, but the policeman shot him anyway?” And he said, “Yeah, the kid wearing the hoodie?” And I said, “No, that was a different kid, and the man who shot him wasn’t a policeman. This one was a little older than the other kid.” And he said, “Oh,” in a sad voice.

Which is basically how I felt saying that sentence to him. Very, very sad that this keeps happening so much that my 7 year old is aware of multiple cases of unarmed black men being shot and killed.

And then I said, “Well, there was a jury that decided today that the police officer who shot this young man didn’t do anything wrong, so he isn’t going to have to go to court or anything. Or jail.” And The Boy got mad. He said, “That’s not right! That makes me so mad! That jury is stupid!” (Stupid is a pretty strong word for a 7 year old.)

Which is basically how I felt upon hearing the verdict too. Pretty mad, although, less surprised than The Boy. I’ve seen a lot of racist shit while practicing civil rights law, so it takes a lot to shock me now. But the absence of shock doesn’t mean the absence of anger. Injustice still makes me see red. Just like the people in Ferguson.

Then we talked about the community’s response to the verdict. I explained that there were a lot of people who thought it was unfair and stupid, and that many of those people had gone out to protest the verdict by walking in the streets, carrying signs, and using their voices. I also told him that there were some people, not most people, but a few, who were doing violent things because they were so mad, like burning cars or smashing windows.

The Boy said, “That’s stupid too. Smashing stuff doesn’t make things better.” I told him that’s right, it sure doesn’t.

At that moment, Michael Brown’s mom came on the TV, and I said, “That’s the young man’s mom.” And The Boy looked at her anguished face, and said, “If my sister died, I’d be really sad.” And I said, “Of course–families are sad when someone dies, because we love each other.”

Then I said this to him: “What makes me most upset about this is that I think this young man died because a lot of white people are scared of black people. And so they act out of fear, and think that black people are dangerous, even though they’re not. Even policemen get scared sometimes. It makes me sad that that mom had to lose her son, and other moms have to be scared for their sons, because they’re black. It’s not fair that I don’t have to worry about you, but they have to worry about their sons.”

And The Boy said, “Because I’m white.”

And I said, “Yep, because we’re white.”

And he said, “Yeah, it’s not right. I don’t like that feeling.”

And I said, “Me neither.”

That night before bed, The Boy asked me to tell him a story. I often tell him a story about when I was a kid and went on a vacation, or a story about my grandparents, or about the time he pooped on our cat. But it seemed wrong that night to be talking about our own stories, and so I told him about Harriet Tubman instead. After I finished, he asked me to tell the one about the woman on the bus, but I told him it was bedtime and we’d have to talk about Rosa Parks tomorrow.

I feel like this: the best way I can fight for a world where black mothers don’t have to live in fear for their sons, where they can feel as secure as I do when I send my son out in the world, is for me to make sure my white son understands what he has, and what others don’t have. I have to teach him not just that Michael Brown’s family is just like ours, but how unfair it is that a family that is just like ours can’t have the same peace of mind that we do. That it’s wrong for things to be this way, and we need to be that family’s ally in making change happen.

You may think this is too heavy of a topic for a 7 year old to understand. I disagree. I think it’s so fucking obvious, even a 7 year old can get it, if only we’d try to teach them.