His name was Shaquille, like the basketball player, but his skin was the color of café au lait and he was skinny and 9. He was moderately asthmatic and qualified for a scholarship at the camp for children with asthma where I had volunteered for several years. The camp was both staffed and attended by adults and kids of color; I was in the minority.
Shaquille vacillated between wanting to do the right thing, and the pull to do the wrong thing. He was well-liked when he was in angel mode, and his big brown eyes were crested with eyelashes twice the length of mine. When he blinked at me, wide-eyed, I could swear he couldn’t do a thing wrong.
But he did. He hit, and punched, and instigated. He antagonized and needled. I was the Unit Leader, and the counselors knew to bring him to me when things got out of hand. He was pulled aside often, and I spoke with him over and over. Shaquille had tried my patience many times, telling me one thing and doing another. His promises to behave were empty; impossible words to fulfill in his world.
At some point, I read his file to see what he had been through in his young life. It was not a pretty picture. It was no surprise that he didn’t know how to act in many social situations. What he was looking for was love, and acceptance, and for someone to notice him.
I wanted to save him. I wanted to turn him around. I hugged him and gave him more chances and tried to be loving and fair and caring. I still believed that I could save the world with love; I only wished it worked that way. But eventually, he was kicked out of the camp because he was making camp difficult for the other boys in his cabin.
I told myself that I did all I could. He was just another kid who was going to be trouble for the rest of his life and I couldn’t change that. I can see now that I should have been more aware of what he was going through as a young black boy in a rough home environment. I should have been more educated on what it was like to be Shaquille and what he was going to face as he grew to be a young black man.
I was color blind; I had friends of color and colleagues of color and volunteered with kids of color. I thought that it was enough that I could pretend that we were all the same, ignoring the differences in society through my rose-colored glasses.
I can see now that blinding ourselves to the differences and pretending they don’t exist is not helping anyone. Maybe, if I had tried harder to understand, I could have increased Shaquille’s chances for survival in a world in which young black men are much more likely to die a violent death. He wanted to be seen. He wanted to be loved. I gave up on him.
I can see it more clearly now, in life’s rear-view mirror.
I see you, mothers of color, raising your sons to navigate in a world that doesn’t always give second and third chances to a black boy the way they will my son. I see you through the eyes of my own mother. When I started dating, my mother said to me, “You can date anyone you want. Just know that if you have children with a man of a different race, your children may not be treated as nicely as you are. You have to be prepared for that.” I didn’t know what she meant at the time, but I can see it now.
I see you through the eyes of my friend Crystal, from my hometown. Crystal was the only black kid in her elementary school for a long time; I met Crystal when we were 12. To me, she was just Crystal. Just like the two black girls in my class. They were friends. That’s it.
I see now that ignoring skin color meant that I wasn’t seeing them clearly. I didn’t know that being color blind meant that I had blinders on to the inequalities and injustices of the racial divide.
After Mike Brown died in Ferguson, I asked Crystal what it’s like to be a black mother in America, and braced myself for the answers. I didn’t know that every day, she struggles to teach her son to be equal but yet on guard as a growing black male teenager. I didn’t know that her sweet, loving, music-loving boy comes home and says he was called the N-word or someone said something about his hair or skin color at school. I had never considered how confusing it is for black boys because they are told how cute they are when they are young, but as they mature into young men they are then perceived as a threat, to be watched and not trusted.
I didn’t know that Crystal’s parents taught her to be very conscious of her behavior at school to stay out of trouble. I didn’t know what it was like for our bi-racial friends to try to fit in and struggled on both sides.
I didn’t know that she has taken the time to review the history of black men in America with her son, telling him he can do anything and not to let anything stop him, yet knowing this is an uphill battle.
I didn’t know that she has to teach him how to respond to the police and other authority figures who will stop him for no reason one day.
I wanted a little boy so bad but I forgot what he was actually going to be subjected to, she told me.
It’s uncomfortable to ask.
It’s uncomfortable to hear.
Hunker down, because it’s going to be uncomfortable for quite a while yet. That doesn’t mean we should stop talking or stop trying to understand. I look at my son’s sweet face, and I know that the chances of him being shot by the police is much lower than it is for Crystal’s son, even if they are in the same situation. As a mother, and a friend, this is wrenching.
It’s important for me to help my son learn that he is a white male, which comes with both privilege and responsibility. I want my son to know to use his privilege for good.
And maybe, if I get another chance with someone like Shaquille, I will do better.
Kristin Shaw is a freelance writer and producer of the Listen to Your Mother show, Austin. She blogs at Two Cannoli.
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