There are certain tragedies that hit the news cycle that will – inevitably – hit us each harder than they do other people, or than other tragedies hit us. It’s always because – on some level – they hit too close to home.
Sandy Hook happened December 2012. My daughter had just turned 7 and my youngest son was 4. The kids that died that day all looked like they could be my children and I remember insisting that we all sleep in the same room that night. My kids didn’t care, they thought it was just a fun change in sleeping arrangements, but I moved mattress to rooms so that I could grab their hands every time I woke up in a sweat…so I could lean over and feel their breath when I panicked. I had to distance myself from the coverage for the next week, just so that I could get some sort of sleep…although even with that precaution it was still rare. It was just too close to home.
I got the news of the Pulse Nightclub shooting right before I started on a trail run on an early Sunday morning in 2016. My son was 21 at the time, and often went to bigger cities just to hit up their gay club/bar scene. He would have never gone all the way to Orlando, but jeezus…it still felt so much like it could have been him. Every story, every rainbow flag donned across a memorial, every face of young club goers…just felt like they could belong to him. Again…I didn’t sleep for days. I went to our local memorial and sat silently in tears the entire time. It was just too close to home.
This phenomena, this tendency to react viscerally to certain tragedies that contain points of connection to our own lives…is what finally woke me up to racial injustices and why I sometimes wonder if white parents with a son with the same age as my oldest, also woke up in the same manner.
Now…if you are not the parent of a son around born somewhere between 94 and 96, then maybe you don’t get the connection. But let me tell you how having a son born in 1995 helped finally wake me up to my own white privilege and the injustice that Black Americans face that I’ll never have to. Now, that’s not to say there aren’t different injustices that may hit any member of my family, but our white skin protects us from many we never even consider.
Trayvon Martin was born three weeks after my oldest son was born. When his death hit the news in 2012, my son was also 17 years old. At that time my teenage son was also very much shaped like a grown man and could very easily be mistaken for one in the dark of the night walking around our neighborhood. But…there was never a part of me who worried about such a thing. Never a part of me who worried about him wearing hoodies (which he always wore, specifically a black one from his theatre program designed to allow him to be hidden in shadows if he was ever working backstage) on the street. And yet…here was a boy who was the same shape, the same size, wearing the same clothes and who died…because he was a different color. He even liked the same candy my son liked. Skittles.
It’s not like I woke up that day to a clear understanding of the racial injustices that occur regularly in our country. No. That day I simply woke up to the risks my son didn’t need to consider, that black boys the same age did. I also simply had a broken heart because I just felt the pain of that loss so clearly, since he was the same age as my son.
It wasn’t until a few months after my son graduated from high school the following year when the racial injustice of Trayvon’s murder really hit me. It was the day his murderer was acquitted. I remember not sleeping at all that night, watching the reaction of Black Twitter and trying to find a way to make sense of something that was new in my world. I had never spent any time really thinking about racial injustice until that night. I vividly remember scrolling through twitter, almost desperately looking for voices that were as shocked as I was. Surely everyone was as shocked as I was! But no…what I saw was message after message again from Black Americans who expected nothing less.
But I wasn’t truly awake yet, because…and I’m always embarrassed to admit this…I struggled accepting the swelling of activism around the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” I wanted to understand it, but my whiteness and my privilege and my ignorance and my racism kept thinking of my own son…the same age as Trayvon…and thinking but all lives should matter, not just black lives.
And then…one year later…Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson.
Michael Brown was a year younger than my son, but still…close enough in age that I was seeing his recent graduation photos on the news while my own son’s graduation photos from the year before were still fresh in my mind. I kept thinking about how he should be looking forward to his first year in college, the year my son was currently enjoying. I watched his family grieve and felt a visceral reaction as I imagined my son, so very close to the same age, dying as tragically.
Then, the media and the white public crucified him with stories about whether or not he was robbing anyone or whether or not he was a criminal. Seeing that also reminded me of how photos of Trayvon smoking circulated after his death as if somehow these things justified the murders of both boys. I found myself imagining my son dying in either of their places and knowing in my heart that no photos of his criminal activity would cross the news. I just knew that if my son…the same age as those boys…had died tragically his memory would be preserved in cute photos with his siblings and looking handsome and innocent. No one would be framing him as any sort of “thug” or “criminal” or trying to justify his tragic death because of benign actions of his youth.
No. Because his life, as a white boy, would have mattered more in our society. And suddenly that is when I truly understood the phrase Black Lives Matter.
From the time of Trayvon Martin’s murder to the time of Michael Brown’s murder, my understanding of white privilege and systemic racism and the oppression of the criminal justice system…grew and made me an entirely different person than I was before. It was very much like being baptized by fire. Two boys – the same age as mine – dying unfairly because of the color of their skin, just woke me up to so many things I had been blinded to before. Those stories hit too close to home.
I’m always curious if there are other white parents of boys the age that Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown should be, mothers of men the same age as my son now, who experienced a similar transformation. And I wonder if they also sometimes fight pangs of guilt that it took those stories of those boys the same age as our own to change our perception.
I have crossed the paths of people who don’t understand…of people who still believe white privilege doesn’t exist…of people who think the racial imbalance of the criminal justice system is reasonable and just. I have said to them before, “I could no longer look past it all when boys the same age as mine were dying in situations that my son would have survived, simply because he’s white.”
Tamir Rice was born in June 2002, and I wonder if parents of white boys the same age as him saw a similar awakening after his murder. Kaleif Browder was born in 1993 and I wonder how many parents watched his documentary and imagined their sons of the same age and realized how they would have never been treated as unfairly. Sandra Bland was 28 when she died in police custody and I wonder how many white people watched the video confrontation between her and the police officer and thought, “That could have been my fiery daughter,” but recognized how often white young women get blown off having the same “attitude” that black young women get arrested for.
I think it’s important we sit in those discomforts, as white people, and listen to the lessons they teach us. In those moments when those stories hit close to home, we need to learn from that vulnerability, when we see in that moment how different it is to parent white children in our society. How different it is to be white. When our vision is honed into how much more default trust our white children are given above those of black children by a society that was built around the hierarchy of race.
It’s not fun to think about. It’s not easy to meditate on. But it’s important and I’m trying to keep my mind open when those stories hit close to home, because that’s when my heart is the most open to learning.