Dear Mother of a Son, a little boy who will someday grow up to be a White Man,
I’m writing to you today because I’m in mourning. For the second time in too many months, a White Man got away with killing an innocent, unarmed young Black boy. I know that Jordan Davis was 17 years-old when Michael Dunn shot and killed him on November 23rd, 2012, and that at 17 many boys look like grown men, but you and I both know that boys at 17 still have a lot more growing to do. Some justice found Michael Dunn on Saturday night. He was convicted of attempted murder, the attempted murder of the three other innocents who were in the car he shot up that night. I know that this is a nuanced thing… the man is going to go to jail for the rest of his life (I hope), and so, there is justice there. But it isn’t full justice, you see, because the man will never be fully held responsible for the life that he took. A mother will never go to sleep knowing that her son’s soul can fully rest because a jury held a man responsible for his death. And the collective mothers of little Black boys everywhere must once again keep one eye open, steel their hearts, and find out ways to explain why the lives of their sons don’t seem to matter under Themis’ blinded eyes in an American courtroom.
I know what you are thinking: I’m not responsible for Michael Dunn, or his actions. I’m not a racist. My husband/partner isn’t a racist. I’m not going to raise racist children.
I agree with you. I can’t hold you responsible for the actions of Michael Dunn or George Zimmerman or Theodore Wafer. I’m not trying to. I’m not writing to you about these men.
I’m writing you about your son. Your little boy who is still just a boy. Your little boy who might share a classroom with my little boys. Or a parking lot. Or a train. Or a chance encounter on a sidewalk during the day or nighttime. I’m writing to you about the innocent child snuggling in your lap right now or sleeping in the next room or playing with his trains or watching a little television. I just want to write to you about your little boy for a minute.
If you’re anything like me, you are probably spending a lot of your time thinking ten steps ahead of where your little boy is right now. Best preschool now, best reading program tomorrow, advanced math and science in high school are a must! You’re probably wondering which sport should he play, which instrument should he try? You’re monitoring all of the reports about sugar and brain function, trying to come up with ways to sneak those veggies into each meal, keep him away from constantly drinking apple juice. Maybe you are struggling with potty training like I am or pushing him to work on sounding out letters while you read to him twice a day. Maybe you are praying for the snow to melt and for the sun to warm the earth so that we may all kick our children out of the house and let them romp around freely outside all day long. And isn’t it wonderful? That these are our worries? That these are the things we get to think about on a daily basis? These are what I’m worried about.
But I’m also worried about what happens when my little boy turns into an almost-man, and I send him into the world to see what it has to offer him. I’m going to ask you a blunt question, and I pray that you won’t be offended. But I want to know: Do you think your son would shoot mine if he was playing loud music in a parking lot? Would he shoot my son if he were wearing a hoodie and walking down a dark street? Does your son have a world view that says that Black bodies are “bad” bodies, that Black men are “bad” men, and that they should be feared?
I’m not trying to accuse you of a crime or say that your son will grow up to commit one. No, I don’t think that you wake up in the morning and explicitly teach your son bigoted ideas. I don’t think that you are blatantly calling people the N-word or “thugs” or anything else in front of your child as you walk down the street. I am sure that you are a good person, a good mother, a woman doing the best for your son.
But I wonder if you choose to tighten your grip on your bag, or cross the street when you see a Black body coming in your direction? Do you choose not to say anything to the Brown people around you who you see every day (in the grocery store, at the bank, in the park)? Maybe you turn on the news when you are cooking dinner, and you see a criminal suspect described as “Black male, six-feet tall, with medium build” and you’ve mumbled something under your breath about “it figures” or “I’m not surprised.” Maybe you’ve been in a situation at a store or in some other place, where you’ve noticed a person of color working and available, but you’ve actively sought out a White worker instead because it made you feel more comfortable? Maybe you live in an all-white community and you rarely venture out into other areas, exposing your child to the faces of our diverse world? Maybe you even cringe a little bit when diversity comes up, because you feel awkward and don’t know what to say, so you’d rather just say nothing at all?
Maybe you noticed that the only time your son’s school talks about people of color is during Black History Month, and they seem to only talk about the same give people every year? Or maybe they don’t do anything at all? (My son’s preschool didn’t do anything for Black History Month at all this year. Not even a single poster.) Maybe you noticed that your son is going to a lot of birthday parties, but for some reason the handful of children of color in your son’s class are never there too? Maybe you’ve realized that you’ve never invited a child of color to play at your place? It just didn’t even occur to you? Maybe you have a collection of books that you read to your children, but few or none of them have characters of color in them?
I’m wondering if you think that teaching your son about other cultures and histories and the diversity of the world is the responsibility of school? Or something you don’t want to tackle because you don’t think you’d do it effectively? Maybe you think that this is an integrated generation, so they’ll just learn to get along naturally? Maybe you’ve asked the wrong question to the wrong person, or said the wrong thing at the wrong time, and now you’d just rather leave race stuff alone, because you don’t want to be burned or embarrassed again?
You might not think that these things matter. These are small things, baby things. You are thinking to yourself “children aren’t racist. They aren’t born racist. They have to be taught, and I’m not teaching my child to be racist.” No, you aren’t. I’d never accuse you of being racist, or teaching your child to be a racist. I just want to tell you that these little things add up. These little non-lessons that you may or may not be teaching your son will add up to larger-sum conclusions when he becomes a man. These little things right now could mean the difference between your son reaching for a weapon when he sees my son coming or not.
I’m asking you, mother to mother, to teach your son that my son isn’t a criminal. That he has a mother and a father who love him. That he was raised in a God-fearing household and given all of the best that his parents could afford to give him. You don’t have to sit with your son and lecture him about these things. I hope that you’ll simply expose your son, along the way of his long journey to manhood, to the simple fact that my son is just as valuable as he is. That his life is precious, that he is worthy of the consideration of humanity. That my son isn’t a threat, that his brown skin should not automatically register as criminal in your son’s eyes.
You see, I’m writing to you because you and I both know something that is fundamentally true: Our actions, as mothers, today, right now, echo through our son’s lives forever. Ours are the voices that will pop into their heads at the critical moments of their lives ten, fifteen, twenty, fifty years from now. We both know that the things that they see today have deep impact on tomorrow (that’s why we both work so hard to make every day count, right?). Every time you choose to go against the grain, to ask questions, to step up and out, when you make yourself uncomfortable in a moment of setting a good example, you are teaching your son something. You’re teaching him to pause, consider for a moment, to look again or search deeper. You cause him to see people, fully, beyond all of the smoke screen that our media and history and stereotypes and discomforts choose to teach him about people like me and my son. I’m writing you because I think every day about what I can do to make sure that my sons have a fighting chance, and I’m always finding ways to teach through my actions, even when those actions make me uncomfortable or force me to speak when I don’t want to, listen when I’d rather not, or stand as an example when I’d rather shrink into a corner. I’m here. Will you be here with me? For your son? For my son?
Ultimately, I’m asking you not to raise a Michael Dunn or a George Zimmerman. I’m asking you to teach your son to stay his hand in the face of a Black body. I’m asking you to look at your precious son and teach him to be patient, understanding, open-minded, justice-oriented. I’m asking you to raise your son in such a way that even if he lives in a segregated White community (like the suburb I happen to live in) he won’t automatically look at the others outside of it and see “bad” or less than. I pray, mother of a young White son, that you’ll choose to raise a son who is quick to compassion rather than his gun.
I’m raising two sons who will be gentlemen. They will conform to all of the expectations of young men raised in a good household, a household ruled under the iron fist of a strict Southern mother. I’ll do this not because I want to teach them not to look threatening, to conform to some societal expectation of a docile and well-trained colored man. I would not shackle them in such a way, and I’m just not convinced that such a thing would protect them from a Michael Dunn or a George Zimmerman anyway. I’m going to raise them to be gentlemen and scholars because I want them to walk in the world powerfully, with the inward respect of a man who knows himself and what he’s capable of, and with the knowledge that they can make a great impact on our world by walking tall, speaking with wisdom, and having dignity and discipline in their approach and demeanor. I’ll teach them these things because I’m a mother who expects great things from her sons, not because I think that these things can protect them from the evil of the world.
And I’m sure you will teach your sons similarly for similar reasons. Your sons and my sons are the same, in value and potential and preciousness.
Your sons and my sons are the same, in value, potential, and preciousness. They are now, as little boys just toddling into this wide world, and they will be later, as they emerge, powerfully, into manhood.
I hope that your son and my son will have a chance encounter in a boardroom or at a conference, at a protest rally or at a congressional hearing. I hope they’ll meet as colleagues on a panel, or at a sporting event supporting the same team. I hope that they’ll shake hands someday, the glint of ambition and power in their eyes, the weight of the world on their shoulders.
And should they meet under different circumstances, where the light is dim and the hearts are racing, I hope that your son will choose to stay his hand. I hope that all of the lessons that you teach him will flood into his being, and for just the briefest moment, he’ll stay his hand.