Recently, I was talking to my husband, Tim, about our teenage son and his reckless driving. I explained how much I worry about him. He’s a sassy kid but for all the right reasons. He constantly pushes the boundaries because he’s a free spirited, adventurous, independent thinker who is frequently misunderstood. He questions everything, including authority, but he’s not disrespectful and doesn’t have a mean bone in his body. He just has issues with bureaucracy, red tape, traditional brick and mortar classrooms, and unnecessary rules that seem to serve no purpose.
My son has had his share of heartbreak and trauma and growing up in a small business family is not easy. But, for the most part, he lives a fairly charmed life. He is brilliant, witty, tall, handsome, physically fit, and as charismatic as he could be, possessing all the traits our society deems important. But when he starts that arguing he sometimes comes off like the worst possible version of a privileged, white, fraternity brat. Not only is he good looking and articulate, he drives his Jeep too fast, gets As on all the assignments he actually deems worthy of completing, and could not care less about the Fs from the work he considers to be a waste of time. He’s almost finished with high school so I don’t worry too much but I constantly struggle to balance my efforts reeling in his overzealousness while not squashing his initiative and inquisitive nature. I admire how he speaks his mind and thinks for himself and I don’t want to stifle his independence. One of my biggest fears regarding my amazing son is that he’ll be misjudged when in reality, even with his faults, he is a truly wonderful human being with endless potential.
While my husband and I were chatting about our son getting pulled over for speeding, I mentioned a couple of other boys who got pulled over recently. Just the other day two different young black men we know both got pulled over within days of each other. One texted me, “I just got pulled over,” and the other one posted it on his Snap story. In both cases I immediately dropped to my knees and prayed that they were stopped by legitimate good cops and not a poser-bully-with-a-badge.
We then talked about how much we hate crappy competitors because they make our entire industry look bad and I said how hard it must be for young black men every time a black criminal is on the news. I said I can’t even imagine how hard it must be to work as a police officer right now. As if the on-the-job risk isn’t bad enough, a bad cop makes daily life total hell for the all the good cops. I talked about how I cringe when I hear of a mass shooting, assuming it will be a white kid with his parent’s gun, and how I sometimes let the pain from that association overshadow the real tragedy at hand. I think our conversation even detoured so far as to discuss how incorrectly trained pit bulls give all bully breeds a bad name. I clearly take issue with blanket assumptions.
After getting back on course I continued with my story, sharing how I prayed that the boys who got pulled over would be respectful and compliant and live to fight the bigger fight. I knew these boys were fine, young men and prayed they were not perceived as dangerous threats in any way. These boys were like family and I couldn’t bear the thought of their young lives – both so full of endless potential – being cut short. I hastily texted back, both hands on the wheel. Polite. Compliant. Exactly what I tell my own son but with much deeper meaning. I even scolded one of them for not posting a follow up showing he was okay, to which he replied, “Sorry Mama Emerson,” then updated his story. In both cases – as in most cases – everything went fine. Uneventful. In fact, both of them drove away with nothing more than a polite warning. But that fear… the fear of thinking, my God, is one of their names going to be the next hash tag on Twitter… that fear was debilitating. I still choke and tear up thinking about it. And these boys are not even my sons.
I went on to say how when our son gets pulled over the most we worry about is that his smart mouth will get him a ticket. Then suddenly our conversation stopped.
My eyes opened wide and I said, “Oh my God. All this time I thought I understood the concept of white privilege.”
I swallowed hard. More silence.
“I think, maybe, I didn’t truly get it until this exact moment.” Not only did I suddenly understand it, I actually felt it.
My words: I admire how my son speaks his mind and thinks for himself and I don’t want to stifle his independence.
That’s what this white mother worries about. Yet we must tell young black men to be compliant because they have more to worry about than just a ticket. We stifle their independence to avoid them getting wrongfully accused or worse. As a white mother, my concern is that my son speaks respectfully so he doesn’t seem arrogant. Black mothers are worried their sons won’t come home. I knew this before but I had never felt the pain.
My words: My biggest fear regarding my amazing son is that he’ll be misjudged.
That’s my biggest fear. He’ll be misjudged. Misjudged and then what? Given a ticket? Even if he is misjudged, he’s not likely going to be killed for it. Black mothers worry their sons will be misjudged, too, but the consequences they could face are much different.
As the words fell out of my mouth about how I felt when my white son got pulled over verses how I felt when these two young black men got pulled over I could not breathe. Ironic, I know. It was like for one brief moment I could finally appreciate the anger that fuels movements and inspires protests. For one brief moment I could feel what I told my staff two years ago during the Ferguson riots about being careful not to fall into the blanket assumption trap or make this crisis something it’s not. Too many times I’ve explained to whites, as well as non-whites, that when you see #BlackLivesMatter it means what it says because they do. Black lives do matter. That doesn’t mean other lives don’t. It’s a reminder that black lives do. If I say #cancersucks it doesn’t mean diabetes doesn’t. When people of color are free from systematic oppression, we all shall be free. Until all are free, none are free. I’ve understood all this for a long, long time but until this moment I had never actually felt it and I was feeling it to my core. I’m talkin’ a nose-tingling-goose-bumps-raising-nausea-inducing kind of moment here.
As a successful business woman in a male dominated field, I’ve felt oppression, judgement, and discrimination. I’ve had the usual issues like customers calling me “little lady” and asking to speak with “the man,” salesmen asking to meet my boss, or bankers wanting me to come back with my husband but that’s about it. Sure, growing up in the poor part of East Topeka may have given me a little insight but I’ve spent the past 30 years in Lawrence, Kansas which is unlike any other Kansas town. We have an abundance of female entrepreneurs. What I’ve experienced here has been nothing compared to what other businesswomen face elsewhere. We also don’t have racial tension here anywhere near the levels other communities experience. My daughter’s boyfriend is a black college athlete from the Detroit area. When he moved to Kansas after high school his family worried for his safety dating a young, white girl in Kansas – the daughter of a camo-wearing hunter, no less. But we explained to them that the majority of Lawrence folks are just like us. We have good public schools, Haskell University (a Native American college) as well as the University of Kansas. Most of us stand in solidarity, teaching tolerance, supporting all people equally regardless of color, gender, or sexual orientation. Bi-racial couples and gay couples can walk downtown holding hands with no fear. Piercings, tattoos, non-traditional hair – no one cares. Many homosexual kids “come out” in middle school here.
It’s not perfect, but our community is so accepting and accommodating that our kids grow up somewhat sheltered from the extreme prejudice seen in other towns — so much so that they are often not prepared to accept the harsh realities of systematic oppression or that they could unwittingly play a role in it. And that sheltering is in some ways a privilege – much like the privilege of being white – but it’s also a curse because we assume we can understand things that we can’t possibly comprehend. When “townies” leave Lawrence they are always faced with a rude awakening that the rest of the world is still asleep. We hashtag #BlackLivesMatter and use social media to shame others into compliance then sit back as if we are actually accomplishing something great when, in reality, we’ve done nothing more than raise a little more awareness and preach an extra sermon to the choir. Not many folks around here can even begin to relate to the struggle.
So am I awake now? Maybe a little more than before. But I still won’t pretend to understand the struggle. Even after my epiphany, I certainly don’t have all the answers. But I do know a few things. I know that blanket judgement of people is wrong. Making assumptions based on appearance is a mistake. Fighting hate and unjustified violence with hate and unjustified violence won’t solve anything. All groups have an inherent culture that is to be embraced and accepted as equal, not same. We’re all different and that is a good thing. And all groups have what I call posers who don’t deserve to be in the group. Don’t be fooled. Posting a politically correct or socially popular banner doesn’t stop a company from secretly denying employment based on race or ignoring their own gender bias. Folks need to dig deeper than that. It’s better to judge by the way people live their lives, the way they conduct their business, and the way they interact with their community, or better yet, don’t judge at all. As for me, my family, and our business, we’ll let our record be the judge because ultimately we only answer to One and His judgement reigns Supreme.
I’ve been told to watch what I say but I refuse to submit to labeling by the meme of the day or be told what to say or how to act according to a trend, a group, or business advice from a corporate suit. We were advised to post signs in our business in support of the second amendment and advised to post no-guns allowed signs, both in the same week. We posted neither. We think for ourselves. I will still stand during the national anthem but I will not condemn those who kneel. I won’t condone bullying, oppression, or the judgment of all based on the actions of a relative few. I won’t deny my faith in a group of non-believers. I will stand in solidarity with all who are oppressed as I always have regardless of whether or not it’s the popular thing to do. I will continue to stand in solidarity long after it is socially required. I will teach my kids, my employees, and everyone under my influence to hold each other up and never get sucked into mediocrity and shallow, blanket judgment. Maybe my beliefs mean I’m more awake than some but I’m comfortable admitting that even at 50 years old I still have much to learn.
As we teach in everything we do, I’ll remind anyone who’ll listen that it’s never about WHO is right; it’s about WHAT is right. Systematic racism and oppression is a problem in every culture that must be addressed. Our culture is no exception. We need to do better and denying our shortcomings won’t make them go away. Admitting failure takes courage. Exposing weakness shows strength. No, not all white people get a pass or an easy life but white privilege is real and acknowledging it is not choosing a side; it’s merely facing a truth that allows for further enlightenment. We must all work to be part of the solution or, if we can’t make things better, be supportive of those who can. People of all races must try harder to feel each other’s pain, put ourselves in others’ shoes, and do everything in our power to be better, more understanding, more supportive, and share any insight that comes our way the minute we’re enlightened.
My blog has, what, 12 readers or something? Who actually reads 2000 word blog posts? So this post may shed a little light but it won’t change the world and make things better. Although, at least, if nothing else, it won’t make things worse. I can relate to women but I can’t ever comprehend the oppression felt by Native Americans and people of color and, unlike some well-intentioned white folks, I won’t pretend to act like I can ever relate. But I will continue to listen and ask and do whatever I can to not be a part of the problem in hopes that on some level I can be part of the solution.