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The terrible stress of shopping with kids while black

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“Leave it in the car,” I say, pointing to my son’s Batman action figure. He puts it down.

“Take your hood off. What’s in your pocket?”

“I know, Mom,” he says, rubbing the space between his eyebrows. He sounds like a child. He is a child to me. But at age 14, he’s 5 feet 4 inches tall, with kinky hair, brown skin and a penchant for comfortable clothes like hoodies and sweats, he is a suspect. He fits the description. It doesn’t matter that he still plays with toys and watches cartoons — he is black. He will always fit the description.

Before we enter the store, there is a checklist of things that must be in order. Do not bring anything inside the store that the store sells. Keep your hands away from your pockets at all times. Leave your jacket in the bottom of the cart. When you pick something up, put it back in the same place. Stand out in the open parts of the aisles. He’s intrigued by the cameras in the self-checkout and on the ceiling — don’t look at them, but do make eye contact with the employees and greet them. Most important, if it feels like someone is following you, tell me right away.

He has never stolen. He came close one time in a store seven years ago. It was a Lego Minifigure worth a few dollars. As I scanned the grocery store aisle, I saw the tiny toy out of the corner of my eye. My son’s eyes were wide and fixed as he manipulated the figure’s little arms and legs.

“Where did you get that?” I asked with panic. His eyes changed, responding to the anxiety in my voice. He pointed a few aisles back. I grabbed his arm, dragging him to the scene. There was the tiny foil packet. I grabbed it and we marched to customer service.

“Excuse me. He would like to pay for this,” I said.

“Okay,” the customer service employee said, seemingly confused.

“He opened this without paying for it. That’s like stealing. Tell him what happens to people who steal,” I demanded.

“Well, we call the police when people steal. The police take people to jail,” she said in her best child-friendly voice.

“I don’t want to go to jail, Mommy!” my son screamed.

“Thank you,” I said, choking back tears.

Jail, I thought. Jail was the best-case scenario for a black boy criminalized for being a child. This was the year Trayvon Martin was shot at age 17. A couple of years later, Tamir Rice, 12, would be shot while playing with a toy. When I was a child, it was 15-year-old Latasha Harlins who was shot and killed over a bottle of juice. She was going to pay for the juice, but that didn’t matter. When Phoenix police recently threatened to kill a black family because their 4-year-old walked out of a dollar store with a doll, the value of those goods didn’t matter. When the officer yanked the arm of the 1-year-old, attempting to remove her from her father and place her on the hot ground, her value as a human didn’t matter.

So when I go down the checklist with my son, what I’m really saying to him is that he is valuable beyond belief. He is irreplaceable. His life is worth more than any possession that can be found in any store. No matter what the world is telling black children, they need to know their worth. I want my black children to be free. As much as I don’t want my children to live afraid, I want them to live.

In our local Target, my son takes off his jacket. He leaves his toys and other possessions. The store associates know him by name. I head to the grocery aisles, and he heads to electronics to play with the video game displays.

“Remember the rules!”

“Got it. See you, Mom!” He yells without looking back. My 4-year-old son runs behind his big brother, looking at me for approval. I nod and let them go, praying that I will see them again.

Kelly Glass is a freelance writer whose interests focus on the intersections of parenting, mental health, race and diversity. A city girl at heart, she lives in an Illinois college town with her educator husband, brilliant preteen son on the autism spectrum and an ambitious toddler. Follow her on Twitter.

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