Because They Need to Know
I don't remember where we were -- maybe the grocery store -- when Gobez, my nine-year-old son, adopted from Ethiopia
, started throwing punches at me, trying to stir up a pretend boxing match. He was in that wild rumpus kind of a mood that grips little boys from time to time, and wasn't listening to my warnings to stop. I felt myself edging toward panic. I'm 5'2" and about 128 pounds. Although only in fourth grade, my son is approaching 5'1" and carries 100 pounds of almost solid muscle. I felt scared, but not because I thought Gobez would hurt me; he wouldn't. I was afraid that someone in the store would not realize that we were mother and son. That someone would misinterpret what was happening between a black boy and a white woman and call the cops.
I worry about my son a lot. I‘ve written about this before
. Friends -- usually white friends -- have suggested that I obsess over race, racism
, and racial profiling too much. In the store that day, when Gobez started acting like a wild man, I wanted to believe my anxiety was indeed irrational, because then the fear could be temporarily dismissed. Unfortunately, a news story I read the other week made me feel I'm right to be anxious.
Scott Henson writes about the Texas Criminal Justice system on his blog, Grits for Breakfast
. A recent ugly encounter with Austin police prompted Henson to share a personal story with his readers. Henson, who describes himself as "stereotypical-looking white Texas redneck," was walking his five-year-old African American granddaughter Ty home from an afternoon of roller-skating when the two were stopped by a deputy constable. The female officer advised the pair that "someone had seen a white man chasing a black girl and reported a possible kidnapping."
After questioning Ty and determining she wasn't being held against her will, the officer let the girl and her grandfather go. Moments later, nine squad cars arrived. Officers threw Grandpa into handcuffs and whisked the terrified child into a patrol car for questioning. Henson was never arrested, but he and Ty were detained for at least 30 minutes in a traumatizing ordeal for which the Austin police have not apologized; in fact, they dispute Henson's account
, even though this is the second
time they've stopped him while babysitting Ty. One can hardly fault the police for responding vigorously to a kidnapping report, but it's clear that racial stereotypes and the notion that family members should physically "match" one another set off a disastrous chain of misunderstandings and mishandlings that could have come to a much more tragic conclusion.
As parents, we live in constant tension: how thoroughly should we prepare our kids for the ugliness that exists in the world? How carefully should we guard their innocence? After reading Henson's story, I decided it was time for another family talk. I told the kids the story of little Ty and her grandfather, and we talked about the questions our family might receive from law enforcement. I even admitted to Gobez that I'd been afraid that a stranger would wrongly report him for beating me up, and he laughed at the ridiculousness of it. I reiterated my admonishments to remain calm and respectful in any encounters with police. All in all, it was a good, productive conversation that I wish our family didn't need to have.
I want Gobez to respect police officers and value their service to society, but at the same time, both he and my two girls need to know what racial profiling is. They need to be aware of the kind of misunderstandings that can arise due to race -- or racism
. Finding opportunities to talk about these issues in a way that doesn't provoke undue anxiety in the kids is a constant challenge.
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