On racism, injustice and having the hard conversations

"No one should have to teach their children this in the U.S.A." Mary Engelbreit

source: Mary Engelbreit

This post is so far out of my comfort zone it’s not even funny. I don’t usually blog about current events at all, opting to let other, better writers address them and then sharing the posts that resonate with me instead. And I’m so afraid I will say the wrong thing or somehow contribute to the problem rather than the solution.

But here’s the thing: this isn’t about sharing my opinion, shouting into my bull horn to be heard or trying to convince you I’m right.

It’s about talking about something because it needs to be talked about, even if my palms are sweaty and I’m afraid of saying something that hurts more than it helps.

So here goes.

In the midst of the ongoing situation on Ferguson, one thought continues to haunt me: Why do “we” (we being white people in general and conservative Christians more specifically) have such a hard time acknowledging that racial disparity still exists?

***

Forget the news stories for a minute and think about this:

When mothers of black sons — rich mothers and poor mothers, single mothers and married mothers, white mothers and black mothers — feel a desperation to teach their black sons an additional code of conduct beyond politeness and respect and morals, a code of conduct that includes putting their hands up, calling out that they’re unarmed, never wearing a hood, always deferring — because they know that not following these unwritten rules opens their sons up not just for harassment but actually puts them in danger, there is a problem.

It’s a tragedy that it takes the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin and John Crawford and Michael Brown — whether they’re shown to be legally justified or not — to open up these conversations in the public forum. And it’s even more so that we try to then sweep them under the rug by citing facts about those individual’s behaviors and circumstances. Those facts are relevant to those cases, yes, but that doesn’t change the bigger picture, the underlying issue that leaves the fear and rage simmering just under the surface for an entire race. It doesn’t change the fact that black pastors and black police officers are also sharing their stories, that as much as we wish it wasn’t true, black boys and men are unfairly targeted and harassed for simply being black.

How can we not cry out against that injustice?

But here’s what I really want you to know: talking about prejudice and racism and oppression doesn’t mean that we’re trying to drag down white men. I’m not sure I even understand this straw man argument. This isn’t about throwing white men under the bus; it’s about standing up for our brothers and sisters and fighting for justice — with them and on their behalf. It means we’re crying with our fellow mothers who are scared to death that their sons will be hurt or killed simply because they’re black.

It means acknowledging that studies show over and over that black boys are unfairly judged as being up to no good simply by the way they look. That they’re assumed to be stealing in situations where other people are given the benefit of the doubt, that even kids have learned these prejudices and that people are more likely to assume a black man is armed and dangerous.

It means being willing to talk about it, even when it’s not easy, even when we don’t know the answers.

Because it’s not okay.

Mandi Ehman is the blogger behind Life Your Way. She and her husband have four beautiful girls plus one baby boy, and together they live, work and homeschool on a little slice of heaven in wild, wonderful West Virginia. Mandi loves coffee, chocolate, easy meals, beautiful things and minimalist spaces.
  • Catherine – Makingmealtime.com

    Thank you for this post. I have been struggling to articulate exactly why this situation is hitting straight to my core and you nailed it on the head – “When mothers of black sons feel a desperation to teach their black sons an additional code of conduct…” How exhausting it must be to worry, not just about the myriad concerns of parenting, but about teaching your child skills that can hopefully keep them alive. What a burden to bear.

    • Julie

      This is the same part of Mandi’s post that resonated with me too. I cannot for a moment imagine having the kind of worry African American mothers have for their sons. As a Caucasian mother of a son, I am well aware I do not have this burden.

      • Heather

        I am sure you didn’t mean to exclude them, but I would add that many white mothers and fathers also must figure out how to support and protect their black sons. Black mothers (and fathers!) are not alone in this burden.

  • Lori

    I guess it depends in where you live. I live in New Orleans, which has a very high percentage of blacks. I’d have a guess of maybe half the population. I don’t think anyone here has a hard time acknowledging that racial disparity exists. I’m sure there are mothers having to teach their sons these extra rules, but the hard part is that there’s a whole culture of people who I think are NOT teaching their sons these rules for whatever reasons. Watch the news any night or drive through town. There are still a lot of people out there “ruining it” for everyone else by perpetuating the stereotype by their behaviors and actions. Maybe when everyone gets on board and stops the violence, things could be different. In the meantime I don’t see things changing. At least here, unfortunately.

    And if I had to hazard a guess, I bet St Louis has a similar culture. Probably any major city with economic disparities. Maybe that’s the bigger issue to deal with?

    • http://lifeyourway.net/ Mandi @ Life Your Way

      I guess the question, Lori, is why we’re dividing the issue on racial lines. Surely there are white families who are not teaching their sons to follow basic rules of conduct either (I know there are…I live in West Virginia), but we automatically offer white boys and men the benefit of the doubt while automatically assuming the worst about the black boys and men. This, in turn, makes them angry (justifiably so), and while many of them try harder to overcome the stereotypes, many of them give in and perpetuate them further because what is the point of doing better? It’s still a problem at a systemic level, and we can’t justify “our” reaction to it based on the fact that some of them play into the stereotype!

      • Tammie

        Bravo, Mandi. I understand your nervousness about jumping into the fray, but you have articulated some valid and important points. I applaud you for not being swayed from your main point: this is a systemic problem and needs to be dealt with on a systemic level, and as long as people are not even willing to admit that there is (still) racism and disparity in our society, we will not be able to heal.

        I agree with Lynnie that there are authorities who do benefit with the status quo of systemic racism, and it is in their interest to maintain it. It is up to us, the common people, to stand up for what is right, and to call out racism, misogyny, and injustice wherever we see it. Dr King said it best: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

  • erica

    I think there is a lot of ‘not teaching’ happening in every race. But what really bothers me is when something like this happens (justified or not) and the community revolts with looting and stealing, etc. –how does that make your community better, how does that help the victims families, how does that solve the problems we have with each other? I think that needs to be part of the conversation.

  • erica

    I think there is a lot of ‘not teaching’ happening in every race. But what really bothers me is when something like this happens (justified or not) and the community revolts with looting and stealing, etc. –how does that make your community better, how does that help the victims families, how does that solve the problems we have with each other? I think that needs to be part of the conversation.

    • http://lifeyourway.net/ Mandi @ Life Your Way

      Agreed. And I think the looting has more to do with opportunistic criminals than it does with actual protest. But there are plenty of people who are peacefully protesting without looting or rioting as well. As I said below, though, an entire community — or race, in this case — cannot be judged on the actions of some of them; that’s prejudice, plain and simple.

  • http://lifeyourway.net/ Mandi @ Life Your Way

    I’m afraid you didn’t read my post at all and are instead just looking for an opportunity to push your agenda. I am not discussing the specifics of this case. I am talking about prejudice against young black men as a whole. The facts of the case don’t change the fact that black families across the country have to prepare their young men to face prejudice and racism regardless of their actions. This case has brought that to the forefront again, but I’m not interested in talking about the case itself; I want to talk about the injustice of systemic prejudice.

  • Lynnie

    The issue with all of this, with the points that you make, and the points that everyone else makes, is that on the whole, as a nation, we are being continually provoked into NOT resolving these issues. People can call me whatever they like, but there is more than enough information on this topic out there – it’s just not on mainstream news, where most people see it – or do not see it, as the case is, more accurately. The problem is that we, as a people, need to wake up to the fact that even if we want to get past racism, there are some that do not want us to, and THESE are the people that we ALL should be teaming up together to fight. Racial disparity does still exist, and a large reason why it does is because there are many ways in which those with authority are abusing those authorities to keep it existing. There is much that they gain from it, while the rest of us – all colors and creeds – lose. This is what people need to understand.

  • Kimberly

    you are right, we keep stirring the pot with this and the details are relevant to determine if it was racially motivated or not. While I feel it is a tragedy that this young man lost his life whether he was at or not, I want to see people get upset over how many blacks kill other blacks daily!!! More lives are lost that way. That does not mean I think racism is acceptable because I totally do not. Only God knows what really happened and we as parents need to make sure our children have accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior. I pray this young man had.

    • http://lifeyourway.net/ Mandi @ Life Your Way

      I’m sorry, but no. The fact that black-on-black crime exists and that these murders happen on a daily basis is an important topic, but it is not one that we can use as a scapegoat when the topic of racism comes up. And again, this post is NOT about Michael Brown (and I specifically didn’t add my thoughts on that case to this post because it’s not relevant). This post is about the fact that black men — young and old alike — face prejudice and racism every single day and that their mothers live in constant fear and worry. If we continue to brush that under the rug, these charged situations will keep popping up.

      • Kacey

        Exactly what I would’ve said. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Mandi and getting the conversation started.

  • Dionne

    Reading this gives me hope. Your words were extremely poignant and appreciated. From a black mother of a teenage black son, thank you! The fact that you’re a parent gives me great joy. You are what’s right in the world. Your children will be what’s right in the world. Again, thank you.

  • RaD3321

    In answer to your first question… Because it’s not okay. And I guess because it’s not okay, we assume everyone agrees and that it should be over. And yes, we’re wrong.

    It could also be a result of where a person lives. I’ve heard the “edges” of the US are more populated with many races and generally speaking, much more tolerant of each other (that is a generalization, by the way, not a fact I am quoting).

    I still believe some of the biggest issue, though, may not be our nation’s ignorance but the fact that the media goes on and on about it, making an already large issue, be full blown to the point where no one knows the truth.

    It’s hard, it’s sad, and honestly, I can see how it’s easy for white males to feel attacked. While they “shouldn’t”, neither should black mothers have to teach their children differently either

  • KO

    From a mom of color…thank you for this post.

  • Candice

    As a person of color, I thank you for this post..you “get it” where there are lots who don’t or refuse…Thank you…

  • http://lifeyourway.net/ Mandi @ Life Your Way

    Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and this article, MJ; it’s really, really good!

  • http://www.musingsofastrongblackwoman.com Rhonda J. Smith

    I am sooooo glad that you didn’t allow your fear to keep you from writing this post, my sister. You have me crying over here. You. Get. It. Thank you, thank you, thank you. With more Christian white brothers and sisters like you, I know that, like the disciples, we can change this world upside down (right side up) (Acts 17:6). As a Christian black mother of three black sons and wife of a black man, I thank you for being in solidarity with me and challenging other brothers and sisters to face the injustice of racism toward black boys and men. You allowed the Lord to use you, Mandi, and, again, I am grateful.

  • Rachel Davis

    This post is part of the solution. Brava.

  • Erin Boyd Odom

    Love this, Mandi. Thanks for sharing. I feel the same.

  • http://joyceandnorm.wordpress.com/ Joyce (and Norm)

    This is wonderful, Mandi. I usually don’t share my thoughts on this type of thing, not because I want to stay out of things that can be a divisive topic, but really, I’m not even sure what to think sometimes. I know emotions are everywhere, and especially now with social media, things can oftentimes be taken out of context or misunderstood.

    I can’t speak for anyone else’s experience, but even as a Chinese who lives on the “edge” (as RaD3321 said) I still see racism. (I’m really boring and bookish, so I kinda like that…I’m living on the edge. :p hehe) I think people do seem to be much more tolerant of each other here, but racism is definitely present. I am in the San Francisco Bay Area where it is as diverse as it comes, but I have heard my fair share of racist remarks when I was growing up (even in school) to now from both kids and adults…both toward me or just overheard. Our family recently took a trip down to San Diego, and even there I encountered a group of teenagers making racist remarks. And if I was to be really honest, there are a few areas in this country that I would not feel completely comfortable visiting because I feel, even if no racist remarks were made, there are definitely judgments. I hope I’m not too judgmental in making that assumption, but I have heard enough personal accounts to know certain areas don’t fully “welcome” everyone who is different.

    I’m sure others have their own stories of injustices or oppression they have faced. I don’t think anyone denies that racial disparity exists. I think maybe they forget about it if it is not something they have to face on a regular basis. It makes me sad when my girls hear about something happening, and ask why someone did something to hurt another person…in general, not specifically regarding this incident. I think maybe we all need a little more love in our hearts.

    Thanks for being brave, and sharing your thoughts.

  • Stacy K.

    Thanks for your thoughtful post, Mandi. I do agree that there is a racial disparity in America, and I believe that all races need to find the right solutions to this issue. It breaks my heart to see situations like the one in Ferguson, where both sides are digging in heels and throwing blame around for not only the current hot-button incident, but for seemingly every injustice committed by the other. The “us vs. them” mentality on both sides needs to be gotten rid of before any real, lasting progress can be made.

  • http://www.mommymisadventures.com/ Michelle Mista

    Kind of late to the discussion here but thought I’d throw in my two cents. As a minority, I really need to applaud you for your efforts to talk about a subject that seems to be very difficult for some white families to acknowledge.

    Racism doesn’t have to be as shocking as a cross burning on the lawn of a non-white family or a cop texting racist epithets. It’s as simple and as subtle as holding your purse tighter when you see a black man coming around the corner or seeing an ethnic name and wondering if the person speaks English or asking “no, where are you REALLY from?” when a non-white presenting person says they are from the US.

    It’s this subtle racism that is much more pervasive and so much more difficult for people to acknowledge. Subtle racism is what gives stereotypes strength and eventually, unfortunately, justification for acts of violence. It needs to stop.

    No one likes to be called out on racism or having privilege that they are unprepared to acknowledge. But this is the very reason it NEEDS to be acknowledge and talked about openly. It stings, it’s uncomfortable, but it must be done in order for the conditions to improve.

    More succinctly (and eloquently):

    “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.” — Ben Franklin

    • http://lifeyourway.net/ Mandi @ Life Your Way

      I really love your words here, Michelle, especially this paragraph:

      “It’s this subtle racism that is much more pervasive and so much more difficult for people to acknowledge. Subtle racism is what gives stereotypes strength and eventually, unfortunately, justification for acts of violence. It needs to stop.”

      So well said!

  • mrscmoore

    Thank you so much for being sensitive and outside of the box enough to write this post. I have two daughters and they are the only African American kids in a predominately Hispanic and Caucasian small town rural school- they have always excelled in their academics- getting straight a’s for the last 3 years. The day that I dreaded since they were born of having to speak to them about other people’s intolerance of others. It is quite heart wrenching and stomach turning to realize that a lot of these kids parents smile in your face and have known you for over 15 years. Yet they have allowed their children to be in an environment in which they hear those comments, stereotypes, jokes or feelings about minorities- or don’t teach any kind of tolerance what so ever.
    Having to have your daughters embarrassed about something in which they can not change- and or come home to you in tears defeated about their purpose, looks, hair, their whole being—- because they get continuous verbal assassination because they are black and now things have become physical where the kids are trying to get revenge by hitting on my kids for getting them in trouble about the verbal. I teach my kids that they are not to let NO one abuse them and that they have the right to defend themselves… so my kids in turn defend themselves but get punished the hardest.
    DEVASTATING…… Beyond compare.