This letter was written to a white parent whose child attends school with my son who wrote to express her sadness over recent events and to find out how to be an ally. Here is my response.
Dear White Parent,
Thank you for reaching out to me.
My answer to your concern for my family’s well-being is that this hurts. Deeply. To my core. To our core.
But it’s not the first time, nor will it be the last.
And it’s not about the one, it’s about the too many.
I appreciate your acknowledgment that we have different life experiences and your desire to bridge that gap. It gives me the space to share some of my reality. This is awkward sometimes, unwelcome many times, but my truth is my truth and my fears are my fears.
The only way to explain my truth and my fears is through my stories. One I’ll share ― to better explain how I can benefit from having an ally ― is that when my younger son was in the fourth grade, we were both invited to a school friend’s community pool. My son had a great, carefree time as only young kids can, and I spent time chatting with the mom.
Unfortunately, I forgot my watch at the pool and, by the time I realized it, everyone was gone and the pool gates were locked. I texted the mom who stopped by the pool, saw the watch, and innocently suggested that I return and have my son climb the gate to retrieve my watch, as it would have been more difficult for her as an adult to do so.
My immediate and honest reply to her was, “I’ll wait. My Black child will not be doing that.”
The thought of having my son be seen climbing a locked gate, despite my presence, terrified me at the time. It terrifies me still. Black parents know our children are often suspected of doing something suspicious regardless of what they are doing.
Kids like 12-year old Tamir Rice, who was shot dead by a police officer for playing with a toy gun in a park, and 14-year-old Brennan Walker who was shot by a homeowner after getting lost and ringing the wrong doorbell to ask for directions. Seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin was fatally shot with a bag of Skittles in his hand when he tried to defend himself against a stranger following and harassing him. Nineteen-year-old Jeremey Lake was killed by the father of a girl he was secretly dating, an off-duty police officer who lied and claimed Lake himself had a gun.
These moments are like 911 moments in the lives of so many Black mothers, so many Black parents, because we don’t get to ask for a redo when there is a “misunderstanding.” Our children don’t get the chance to explain themselves.
As you were likely writing your email to me today, I was driving my 13-year-old son to the park to practice soccer drills. On our way, my license slipped down from the center console of my car and fell between the seats. My son asked me to pull the car over so he could remove his seatbelt and fish it out, which struck me as odd. When I questioned why, he replied, “Because if the police pulls us over, they might see you reaching down to get your license and shoot you.” So my son has to live with the ever-present fear of losing a parent, too.
I’m sure many parenting sites would have suggested that I reassure my son with words like “everything will be just fine” or “don’t worry, nothing will happen,” but when you are Black in America, those reassurances ring empty. Like so many Black families, we have had to teach our sons how to navigate a complicated relationship with the police whom we rely on and need to trust to keep us safe, but at whose hands we can tragically lose our lives.
I appreciate your question asking how to be a better ally, and I don’t want to waste this opportunity by pretending that I don’t need you when I do.
What an ally looks like to me is someone who is aware that our kids will walk through life differently. I need to know that you will look out for my son when he is out of my presence. I need to know that you will not allow him to be put in a position to do things that endanger him, but first you need to understand what those things are, how benign they can be, and acknowledge that his skin color alone makes others view him as a threat.
I need you to stop wanting to be “colorblind” because being “colorblind” means you are also blind to the very differences that put my son at risk.
An ally also understands that both in and out of school, our kids’ experiences will be different, no matter how economically privileged we may both be. As a Black parent, I’m familiar with what biased educational tools look like, and I often have to speak up to protect my children and other children from unconscious biases.
I’ve had to call out the third-grade worksheet that pictured the slaves on Thomas Jefferson’s plantation rejoicing and dancing upon seeing him. As a Black parent, I had to complain that my son was allowed to view a lynching exhibit on a sixth grade school trip when the school did not warn the families ahead of time. I’m the one who had to console him when he had nightmares after seeing bodies that looked like his own hanging from trees.
As a Black parent, I’ve had to hear the resignation in my son’s voice when he talks about how his Black friends are disciplined more harshly at school. And as a Black parent, I bear the burden of writing yet another email and attending another meeting when yet another N-word incident happens at our school.
When these moments happen, I need your support and to hear it called out by others who don’t look like me. I need to hear you name it and condemn the action with the same indignation that you would if it had happened to your own child.
My ideal ally is willing to go outside of her comfort zone to have discussions about race, gender, ethnicity, religion and all of the other pieces of our identity that are deeply personal. She understands that these discussions are not about being red, blue, polite, impolite, but instead are about human dignity.
That is my long answer.
The short answer is that this hurts. And I pray for my family and our country.
Dr. Michele Benoit-Wilson is a board-certified OBGYN practicing in Raleigh, North Carolina. She is a wife, mother of two boys, a sister, daughter and an avid reader. She is also a member of McStuffin Mommies, a Black physician moms advocacy group, and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., a public service sisterhood.