One evening last spring, my son packed his backpack for school the next day and sighed. “Mom, it’s weird walking around near my school,” he said. His somber tone made me afraid of what would come next—confessions of bullying, peer pressure, or, as had been reported about the eighth-graders, witnessing kids drinking or making out near the campus.
“Why?” I asked, trying to sound calm.
“All the white people move away from me when I’m walking to school. The white women grab their bags or cross the street. The only people who say hi are black women pushing strollers with white children in them,” he said.
At the time, he was barely five feet tall and weighed under 100 pounds. He was a 12-year-old in the sixth grade at a fairly diverse but majority-white middle school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Since starting there, he had been insistent about going to school on his own, a 20-minute journey from our home in Harlem. His father and I had set up a system: one of us would track his journey to school until he sent a text message confirming arrival. I watched the little dot that represents his movement along the city grid, but what that phone app could not show was the people he encountered along the way and how they treated him.
I was caught off-guard by his words, because he was popular and well-liked at his school. Only a few weeks prior, he had been awarded Student of the Month at his school’s assembly, where he was praised for his kindness, hard work, integrity, and school spirit. To his embarrassment, he was considered a model student. I wondered if being praised inside the school attuned him to the cold hostility that he experienced outside.
I asked how long had he noticed this and how he felt, but my words stumbled out awkwardly. I listened to his slowed speech and watched him struggle with the painful recognition of the gap between how he is seen by those who know and love him and how he is perceived in public by white passersby. No matter how hard he worked in school, how many A’s he earned, or how kind he was, he had little influence over how strangers on the subway and on the streets thought of him. Once in a school assignment, my son quoted Rashad, a black teen in the novel All American Boys, about the lethal stakes of being misrecognized by white people, “Whaaaaa? What was going on? He was accusing me of things that hadn’t even happened! Like, he couldn’t have been talking to me. I wanted to turn around to check and make sure there wasn’t some other kid standing behind me, stuffing chips in his backpack or something, but I knew there wasn’t. I knew this asshole was talking to . . . at . . . about . . . me. It felt like some kind of bad prank.”
My son felt no discomfort with white people. He felt discomfort with these encounters. Their fear not only made him a threat in their minds, but, more importantly, it made him unsafe. And that filled me with terror and dread. After all, he was the same age and size of Tamir Rice, who was killed by Cleveland police when he was playing alone in a park. There is no record of what Tamir felt or thought in the seconds that transpired between the police vehicle pulling up to him and an officer shooting him. We do know from the court transcript what a threat the white officer thought Tamir to be. The police’s account has become the official record. The violence done to Tamir is not only his death but the silencing of his voice.
My son’s school is located in District 3 of New York City. Spanning from West and Central Harlem to the Upper West Side, it’s considered one of the most segregated districts in a city known for some of the most segregated schools in the country. District 3 had been in the news around the time of our conversation, because his school’s principal and other progressive educators and activists had introduced a proposal to create admissions standards that would increase diversity among middle schools in the district. The most vocal opposition to this proposal came from white parents on the Upper West Side—parents like the ones who avoid my son. Guarding their blocks and what they consider their neighborhood schools, these parents argue that the new admission policy would disadvantage their children. In a video that went viral, a white mother screams during a meeting to discuss the proposal, arguing that such changes would disadvantage her daughter by sending her to a less qualified school. “You’re talking about an 11-year-old,” she said. “You’re telling them that you’re going to go to a school that’s not going to educate you the same way you’ve been educated. Life sucks!”“What does it feel like to walk around in a child’s body and be perceived a threat?”
This woman took for granted that the best schools belong to children like hers. And she was not alone in her vocal opposition to efforts to change admissions. In these protests, I heard more than concerns about their children not winning a choice spot in a top public school. I heard the fear of black children moving through neighborhoods and sitting in classes with their children—the threat of proximity to black children. Yes, they feared that their children would have to go to school in another neighborhood, but they also feared that more black children would be going to school in theirs.
A recent study by researchers at Ohio State University confirmed what most black parents already know—that black boys are fearful when walking in white neighborhoods. For me, the report in The New York Times on the study was perhaps more troubling than the findings. It asked if black parents were creating stress and fear for black children by exposing them to reported incidents of anti-black violence and making them hypervigilant about their encounters with white people. The study seemed to imply that black boys feel safer in their own neighborhoods, and that those neighborhoods are presumably largely black. I read the article and wondered, “But in what neighborhoods are black children safe?” Not long after Trayvon Martin was killed, my son and I were walking home on a windy afternoon, all zipped up in our outerwear, rushing home from afterschool pickup to make dinner. When we were just a block away from our building, he instructed me, “Mom, we should take off our hoods so that the police don’t shoot us.” I wanted to tell him that police wouldn’t shoot us on our walk home, but I knew that I could not guarantee that. So instead I said, “It’s chilly. We don’t have to be afraid to cover our heads.”
As he grows more independent and travels to other neighborhoods, my instructions to my son grow more urgent. Each lesson speaks to my fear of his vulnerability in public space. I tell him not to wear his expensive sneakers when he’s out by himself. The pitch of fear in my voice gets higher, shakes him up a bit, when I extract a promise that he will not jump the subway turnstile under any circumstance, even if his metro card is not working. He asks, “Then what should I do?” I say, “Ask a subway worker for help. And, if there’s none available, look for a woman who looks like me and ask her to help.” This, we both know, is inadequate.
I realize that my child has cultivated a distant, polite composure as a way of easing the fear and distance between white people and him in school and in public. I recognize his impeccable manners as a form of resistance against the stereotypes and assumptions that society piles on him and black boys. But as he grows taller and older and more independent, walking city streets without an adult, those manners won’t work as well as a barrier between him and racism. I imagine that he has said “excuse me” or “sorry” to one or more of those white women who fear him on his walk to school. It is a tic he has, apologizing for his presence when people seem surprised or when we have to navigate crowded stairs or subway platforms. I imagine him moving through the world apologizing for just being.
I have agonized over this for years: How do I prepare him without paralyzing him with the fear of white people’s paranoia? How much do I tell him before he has had an opportunity to experience the world on his own terms? If I don’t tell him enough, am I setting him up for more harm? When he was three, he came home from the expensive and exclusive Montessori preschool, where his father and I paid a huge chunk of our combined salaries to send him, and said, “I don’t want to be black, Mommy.” Why? “A boy today said that he didn’t want to be my friend because I’m black.” That was the first time my child ever referred to race—learned through the rejection of a three-year-old white child in his class. I, a professor of race and ethnicity, felt like a total failure. I hadn’t prepared him for the racial cruelty that a black child might experience. But how could I?
I had forgotten that three is not too young to know what it feels like to be a target of anti-black racism. I had forgotten that when I was three my divorced and working-class mother had sent me to the best preschool that she could afford, a small class in the basement of the Presbyterian church in the Midwestern town where we lived. I was the only black child. After a few weeks of attending, I refused to go. I cried hysterically when she left me there. I had no words to tell her what was happening to me. She found out when she dropped in unexpectedly and watched in horror as a white boy followed me around the classroom hitting me in the head, banging on my Afro puffs, and tugging my braids. The teachers did nothing. They were surprised by mother’s anger and said that they had no idea the boy’s actions bothered me. My mother removed me from the school. I stayed home with grandma until I went to kindergarten in our majority-black neighborhood school.
I thought about all of this as I listened to my son search for words to express what it felt like walking alone to school. He repeated that it was weird, left space between his words that I wanted to fill with assurances. But I was deliberate in pausing; I wanted to give him room to arrive at what he was feeling; I didn’t want to overwhelm him by making clear my growing sense of horror. What I heard in his silence was a jarring awareness of being misrecognized. What does it feel like to walk around in a child’s body and be perceived a threat? Finally, I asked, “Would you feel better if I walked you to school?” He thought about it. He first said “maybe,” but then, “No, I need to learn to deal with this. It’s what I will face in college, right?”
I said, “White people act differently toward black kids when they know that they have parents who love them.” It was an icky statement, one that I partially believed but didn’t want to own. He asked, “How come?” I said that they were less likely to be rude or hostile toward a child if an adult was present. Before he went to bed, he asked, “Why don’t white people like us? Are white people racist everywhere?”
That night, I went to sleep enraged by the thought of white women shrinking and scurrying away in fear of him. He had recognized with such nuance how white women’s reaction to black people, especially to black boys and men, was somehow a gauge of white people’s paranoia and fear of black bodies as a whole. It was a perverse realization. He was caught between dealing with aggressive behavior and yet being seen as the aggressor.
It was as if I could see his mind and body absorb the weight of the quotidian violence that accompanies growing up as a black boy. But after that night, he didn’t bring up walking to school, and I struggled to find ways to talk to him about it. When I asked him about his experience traveling to and from school, he gave one-word answers, or said, “Nothing has changed, Mom.” Sometimes he would just tell me about his lunch outings. Three days a week, he is allowed to leave campus with his classmates to eat lunch at local restaurants. He always goes with his closest school friend, who is Mexican-Colombian. They share inside jokes, laugh together as they walk the halls of their school and the surrounding neighborhood. I liked to imagine my boy has found safety in his friend’s company.“I had forgotten that three is not too young to know what it feels like to be a target of anti-black racism.”
I sought the advice of friends. One told me, “Well, it’s tricky. Maybe if he walks to school with other kids, he will feel less alone in this experience. But if he walks with kids who are predominantly black, he will become more of a target. You know how people fear groups of black teens.” Another gave the opposite advice: “Don’t let him walk to school with a group of white kids, because if anything goes wrong, he will be blamed.” A white mother who lives in Harlem, and whose son attends the same middle school, emailed me about her feelings of guilt; the school’s neighborhood, where my son feels vulnerable, is one where she feels much safer for her son than on their block in Harlem.
I learned later from my son’s Spanish teacher, a black woman, that he had found other ways to work through his experience. In an assignment to create a “Yo Soy” poem—a poem about identity, he wrote these first lines:
Pero la sociedad
No puede ver más allá de eso
Por que’, yo no entiendo
Siento que estoy caminando hacia una pared
no puedo ir a ningún lado
yo bloqueo la negatividad como una barrera de sonido
I am African American
cannot see beyond that
Why?, I do not understand
I feel like I’m walking towards a wall
I can not go anywhere
I block negativity as a sound barrier
I, too, was processing his experience in a classroom. While he was writing poems of identity in a new language, I was teaching an introductory course on race and ethnicity to undergraduates. That semester, I was preoccupied by a conversation between two essays, Claudia Rankine’s “The Condition of Black Life is Mourning” and Eula Biss’s “White Debt,” both about the raising of boys into a racial consciousness. I wanted to explore how both drew on Baldwin’s “On Being White and Other Lies.” Rankine writes of a friend whose experience of raising her black son is that of coping with daily fear and mourning: “Her son’s childhood feels impossible, because he will have to be—has to be—so much more careful. Our mourning, this mourning, is in time with our lives. There is no life outside of our reality here. Is this something that can be seen and known by parents of white children?” Biss takes up this query by considering what it means to raise a white male child to understand his racial privilege and racial debt. She writes, “What my son was expressing—that he wants the comfort of what he has but that he is uncomfortable with how he came to have it—is one conundrum of whiteness.” It is a conundrum that endangers my son and other black children. Not someone usually inclined to share much of my personal life with students, I was surprised when I heard myself blurt out in the middle of a lecture on school segregation: “My son who is twelve told me that white people move away from him when he walks to school. He wonders why people are racist toward him.” One student advised, “You shouldn’t let him go at it alone.”
Even though my son didn’t talk to me about his daily journey, I knew that he was wrestling with some of these experiences with his dad. We have co-parented relatively harmoniously since our divorce ten years ago. He watches his father negotiate public space, observes how his dad calls out white racism, sometimes with humor but always with integrity. His father demands that white people acknowledge him in the spaces they occupy together. My son identifies with his dad’s experience of racism, more so than with mine. Once when I told him how relieved I was that the white parents at a reception I had attended were friendly and welcoming, he responded, “Mom, would they treat dad and me the same? Do you think that they are afraid of black men?”
Some mornings I considered following him to school to see how he manages on his own. I stopped myself, knowing that it would mortify him. Instead, I imagined that others were watching over him with a kind of public love and recognition. My baby passes our friend Kofi’s building in Harlem on his way to the subway. Kofi, who sees him often, tells me, “I like that young man. He’s together. You know what I mean? He carries himself well out here on these streets.” I think of the black women who push strollers along the blocks of his schools looking out and wishing safe passage for him and the other black children journeying toward a “better education.” Our friend Julie, who is white and lives near his school, saw him on his way one morning and said hello, but he didn’t respond. She said that he had on his protective gear: his headphones. She tried to make light of it: “He probably wondered who is this random white woman waving at him.” When I told him later that Julie had seen him, he was very surprised and perhaps a bit relieved that someone who loves him recognized him in what otherwise feels like hostile territory. A couple of months later, they saw each other and hugged. He sent me a text that morning: “I saw Julie today [heart emoji].”
When we are walking together, my son often walks behind or in front of me. He used to hold my hand, but no longer. Now, he reads the scene around him as he moves through the city. One evening we were coming home from dinner with Julie and other friends; he was ahead of me when he stopped in the middle of the sidewalk to witness a cop interrogating a black driver. He stood like a rock; I couldn’t move him. His fearlessness scared me, and I was afraid he would become the officer’s target. When it seemed like the driver would be alright, we walked on together towards home. I told him that what he did was brave but was not a stance he should ever take alone. It is too risky for a black boy to stand alone as a concerned witness to ensure that police officers are not abusing other black people. My words felt like a compromise. I was asking him not to walk ahead of me, headstrong into this world of brutal anti-black violence, a world that has created so many forms of confining and killing black people, a world that places some of its most primal fears onto bodies like his.
My son is now taller than me and gleeful about this. I am in awe of his growth—six inches this year alone. But, while celebrating these markers of his growing independence, I struggle with how to protect him physically and emotionally from what we both know is out there. This year, he started eighth grade. On his first day, I walked out the door with him, hoping to casually escort him. He stopped me and said, “Mom, I’m fine walking on my own.” And then he walked off, strapped with his backpack and headphones.
Listen to an interview with the author on The Electorette here.