April 30, 2015

On Baltimore and mothers and privilege

I’m seeing a lot of articles about why we shouldn’t call Toya Graham a hero. Graham, in case you don’t have internet access under your rock, is the mother who was video recorded smacking her teenaged son and chasing him away from the looting in Baltimore. The articles I’m seeing are taking (white) people to task for calling her “mother of the year” and a hero because all she was doing was trying to protect her son from becoming another victim of the police.

Excuse my French here, but… duh. I mean, when I saw that video, all I saw was a mom in pure panic that her kid was going to fuck up royally and end up arrested or dead. Did y’all see something else? Is it like that white and gold dress thing?

That video has haunted me this week, and not because I don’t think parents should hit their kids. They shouldn’t, but that mother was getting her kid out of harm’s way by whatever means possible. I get that. I get that fundamentally and deep in my mama heart. It surprises me that any (decent) parent in this country looked at that video and saw anything other than astonishing recognition.

My sons screw up—sometimes big-time. I’ll bet yours do, too. I’ll bet you have a son who has punched another kid or one who has shoplifted or one who has screamed at the teacher. Maybe even stormed out of the school or broken a window. And—although we’re talking sons right now—I’ll bet you have daughters who’ve done some of these things or worse. These are exceptionally annoying and worrisome behaviors, even though they usually happen at developmentally appropriate ages and are part of growing up.

Watching Toya Graham this week, I realized that “developmentally appropriate” is part of the white privilege my kids and I enjoy. When my sons screw up, if the school overreacts, I can argue that they are learning from their mistakes. The school may or may not hear me, but I have a position of privilege from which I can say that. No one looks at my white boys and sees them as juvenile delinquents. (Well, not many.)

Black boys don’t have that leeway. If they fuck up, they may very well find themselves in the back of a police van with their spines severed. They may get shot if they don’t keep their hands visible. They may also get murdered for walking down the street to get Skittles, although that’s not much of a screw up other than that Skittles taste gross.

I talked to my kids about this unfairness this week. I don’t know how much they understood, but I wanted them to hear that not everyone has the opportunity to do the stupid shit kids do without ending up in a cell or a body bag. That the world is so unfair that a kid of exactly their age can face radically different repercussions for the same infractions.

Watching Toya Graham, I didn’t see a hero. I saw a mother terrified her kid would screw up. I’ve been there, and I’ve freaked out. I saw a mother who knew her kid could pay the ultimate price for a minor screw up. And I’ve never been there.

For the first time this week, I didn’t just intellectually understand white privilege. I felt it to the depths of mama heart.

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