How Parenting Black Children Has Changed My View of Racism
Racism isn't fading in this country because it's hardcoded into every facet of American life. I never realized its power over Black lives until I raised Black children of my own.
When my husband answered his phone on a Saturday in early May, I heard my 22-year old son on the other end quickly say he was fine. He then went on to explain that he had been driving too fast on an exit and had hit the concrete barrier on the side of the ramp. (My kids know the rule that when making an urgent call like this one, the first thing out of your mouth should be that you’re OK, assuming that you are.)
My son, David*, had recently finished his senior year at college remotely after the pandemic closed schools across the United States. He had returned to the Pennsylvania campus to pick up the last of his belongings in his college apartment that he left back in March, including a huge TV, plus clothes strewn across the backseat, and a collection of beer cans he intended to recycle. He was driving back to our home in New Jersey when he had the accident.
This was still a couple of weeks before a graphic video showing George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, dying while a Minneapolis police officer pinned him to the ground with a knee on his neck went viral. But even before that, no one in our family needed more evidence to understand the tragic relationship between the police and Black people.
With the car stuck on the edge of the highway, David had already called 911. I knew he wasn’t hurt in the accident, but that didn’t mean he was safe…yet. Like so many mothers of young Black men, I was now panicking as I imagined my son’s encounter with the cops and ticked off all the ways it could go wrong.
Except for one difference: I’m not a Black woman. I’m White and Jewish.
I grew up in a largely White middle-class suburb of Minneapolis and believed that the police were there to help. Sometime over the last two decades, though, I’ve become a mother who immediately panics, with a racing heart and flushed face, about the danger the police might pose to my son. It doesn’t matter that he just graduated summa cum laude from college, or that he’s naturally quiet and cautious. He’s Black. That’s what Americans see first.
An optimist at heart
Before I got married to my now-husband who is Black and Puerto Rican, I thought I understood the challenges that I would face in raising Black children. We lived in one of the most liberal areas of the country, where White people said they valued diversity and wanted their children to attend school with kids that didn’t look like them. It’s not that I wasn’t concerned, but my husband and I had a lot of support and advantages, including supportive families and we both had college degrees and successful careers. (Looking back, I’m embarrassed at my naivete.)
Before I had children, I believed I could at least control the impact that racism would have on my family. I thought I could always recognize it, bring attention to it, and, most importantly, prevent my children from being shaped by it. I was wrong. I didn’t understand how invisible it is, how it seeps in so cleverly, and how it has incredible staying power.
The pervasiveness of racism
Dan Dalton/Getty ImagesWhen my children were babies, I remember being surprised by the racist remarks and questions. I was often oblivious to them or even laughed them off. “Where is he from?” people would frequently ask about the baby in my arms, and then the growing toddler running around me. “Huh? Montclair,” I would answer. I wasn’t trying to be clever. I was still new to the stupid questions and hadn’t caught on to the narrative behind everyone trying to categorize my children. My black husband, even though his skin is darker than his bi-racial children, got fewer of those questions. Here’s why you shouldn’t ask people of color where they’re from.
Even as my children grew older, when I recognized racism for what it was, it took a different form. Friends, teachers, and neighbors would turn it back on me somehow, getting angry or blaming me for mistakes I must have made or whining.
Here’s an example: On a Monday during middle school, my daughter Lili’s schedule was changed and she was put in a remedial reading program. Everybody in the small group was Black. Apparently, no White child had reading problems.
What was stunning to me is that no one ever asked me for permission to pull Lili out of her existing classes or even notified me after the fact about the change. Lili didn’t tell me at first either, and I had never seen my daughter so angry and distracted before. It wasn’t until later that week that she told me what happened.
I was an active volunteer in the school, as was my husband. I knew the teachers, one even lived in my neighborhood. I knew the majority of the other parents. But when I wasn’t there, my daughter was on her own. No one apparently could naturally picture the threads that led back to her loving family. The system, the administrators, the teachers only saw a Black girl, whose parents didn’t need to be called before this decision was made. This is systemic racism. (This is the difference between systemic and systematic.)
I repeatedly called the school administrators, and then sent multiple emails. I heard nothing back. I’m a journalist and it’s my job to get people to call me back! My husband did the same. Days went by. Finally, the teacher for the reading program (whom I hadn’t met before) called. She wasn’t calling with an explanation of why my daughter was put in a remedial program without my knowledge, much less consent, or how they made the determination in the first place. Instead, she asked me whether I read to Lili, whether I had books in my home. She told me how important reading to your child was. I ignored the condescension and the urge to tell her that I tripped over books in our home and that there was nothing so pleasurable to me as reading to my kids.
I had to. Because the teacher assumed that I was Black and I needed to listen to how Black parents are often spoken to. Tears were stinging my eyes as I listened to her rebukes of my parenting skills, even though she knew nothing about me. I imagined being subject to this kind of daily slap in the face. I didn’t get the call to tell me about my daughter because the school didn’t think the parent of a Black child deserved the call.
A pervasive stereotype
Admission staff at top colleges and universities will often say their efforts to recruit students of color are stymied by a lack of prepared high school students. Well, they need to go to these high schools to see who is being pushed to go where.
When my son was a junior in high school, his counselor at the high school met with him and sent him home with a list of potential colleges, many of which were mediocre or which I had never even heard of. Trust me, this wasn’t about me or keeping up with my suburban neighbors’ elite college obsessions. My son had great grades and fabulous SAT scores. I never imagined doing this, but I decided to get another opinion and hired an independent college counselor. Suddenly his list included well known, top-tier schools. Even then, my son got in everywhere he applied, making me think that he was still underestimated because of the color of his skin.
It was after Trayvon Martin’s killing, that the racist stakes got higher
Cavan Images/Getty Images
After the killing of Trayvon Martin, a black 17-year-old, by George Zimmerman in 2012, my son, then in middle school, suddenly wanted red hoodies, blue-and-white-striped hoodies, and bright primary colored clothes. The reason was clear to me: Zimmerman, on neighborhood watch in Sanford, Florida, followed Martin around his subdivision and eventually shot and killed the teen. A dark gray hoodie, which Martin was wearing when he was killed, became a curious point of discussion. Do young Black men look scarier in hoodies than their White peers? Clearly my son thought he would be less threatening as a Black guy if he wore a cherry red hoodie.
Shortly after the tragedy, when I dropped my son off at school in the morning, I watched all the boys, including those at the high school across the street, as they walked around and thought hard about who looked more threatening. Most of the young men, White and Black, wore sagging pants, oversized dark sweatshirts, and backward-facing caps. They were all trying to perfect what they thought was “cool.” But only the Black boys would potentially pay for the way they dressed. Although David had no interest in talking (at least to me) about Trayvon Martin, he was scared. Racism had evolved into something with definitive consequences.
I wish I could lend my White privilege to my children
Security guards and store clerks enthusiastically greet me when I enter Nordstrom’s or Bloomingdale’s. If I can’t find my train ticket right away in my bag, the conductor skips me and comes back. When I pull over on the side of the road with car trouble, cops smile and ask if I need help. No one ever questions why I’ve entered a fancy apartment building or office, no one thinks I’m there to clean up, instead of for the job interview. When I raise my hand in New York, taxis stop to pick me up.
I walk out the door every day—well, at least I did before COVID-19 forced us into lockdown—with the privilege of a White woman. I can’t share that privilege with my Black children. Believe me, I always thought I would be able to. I’ve tried. I want the world to give my kids the benefit of the doubt or think they’re the boss of the place.
You can’t outsmart racism
A few months before my father passed away last year, he wanted to talk about helping out with tuition for college and all the post-graduate degrees he imagined for my kids. The son of a refugee from Eastern Europe in the 1930s, he believed that education was what protected people from the vagaries of racism or anti-Semitism. To him, it made sense that educated people were less likely to believe racist tropes. More importantly, with an education, you could create some wealth and end any cycle of poverty.
In his life, having an education put him on par with the people with power, something his own father never had. It allowed him to move to a neighborhood that at one time didn’t allow Jews and to get access to good doctors when he needed them. He hated the thought of relying on luck. That’s what he wanted for his Black grandchildren. He wanted to make sure they could outsmart all the racists in this country.
What he didn’t understand was how racism is written into every aspect of American life. It’s not necessarily about some racists needing to be educated. So far, it hasn’t been outsmarted. My father would hate it, but his grandchildren would still need a lot of luck and White people willing to stand up and fight for them.
At its core, parenting is about protection and making sure your children can thrive in the world without you. Black mothers have been denied forever what White women have been able to take for granted: the ability to protect their children, whether it’s from bad schools, teachers, neighborhoods, the racism of other parents, or cops. As the mother of Black children, well adults now, I feel their vulnerability every day.
My son was lucky that day on the Garden State Parkway. Even as his family raced to get him, a routine encounter between a young Black man and the cops on a rainy Saturday in March remained routine, uneventful, and quiet.
Next, read on to learn about everyday acts of racism that don’t get talked about enough.
For more on this important issue, see our guide to the Fight Against Racism.
*Some names have been changed.
Editor’s note: The opinions here belong to the author. To submit your own idea for an essay, email [email protected].