Early on in the George Zimmerman trial, I read a full day's transcript of proceedings and realized the prosecution was in deep trouble. So, the jurors' not guilty verdict neither surprised nor shocked me.
It did, however, grieve me deeply, especially as the mother of three sons-one of whom is a Naval ROTC student studying at Tuskegee University with the goal of becoming a Navy pilot. Because he's in training now, some hours lapsed before his dad and I connected with him following the Zimmerman outcome; yet, his hurt and confusion remained palpable. Our 19-year-old explained, with a mix of sadness and anger, how devalued he felt as a young, black male-even one training for a career in the United States military.
For my and my husband's part, we've always instilled in our children a sense of race and cultural pride that sometimes is at risk of invalidation by what they see, hear and experience outside our home. We've also given them, when appropriate, heavy doses of reality. One of the biggest concerns perceptions. We explain that sometimes they will be judged not by their standards, education, faith, ethics or good reputation-but simply by the color of their skin, fullness of their features and texture of their hair. Obviously, I can't speak for every African American parent, but in our home (and those of so many others I know) the conversation about race and perception is woven organically into the fabric of our everyday parenting. The messages we relay to our children are ongoing, mostly informal and typically based on our experiences and understanding of the factual and historic injustices meted against people of color in our country.
More often they are impromptu, like the time our oldest son, then in his early teens, decided to walk to a friend's house with his Airsoft gun in tow. My memory doesn't recall whether the replica was visible or hidden-but, either way-his bold and naïve move provoked an emotional response from his dad and me concerning the perception of a young, black male walking down the street with a gun-fake or not. Of course, at that moment, our son was neither black, nor remotely interested in charged admonishments from his parents about the dangers of walking on his neighborhood sidewalk with a fake gun. At that moment, he simply was a kid eager to make it to his friend's house, where they'd head to the backyard and begin shooting targets.
In fairness, I imagine eyebrows would rise if anyone from any race walked down the street with a gun-fake or not. But for a black parent, the stakes are much, much higher. And, I think we all know it.
So, yes, it grieves me deeply to think that my sons and their beautiful, inherent being can spark a perception about them that can too easily lead to tragedy or character denigration. I'll never forget the day my husband expressed deep frustration as we left a department store parking lot. I asked what was bothering him. He said, "I'm just tired of being treated like a criminal." I said, with a bit of irritation, "What are you talking about?" He responded, "Didn't you see me keeping the door open for the little white woman and then her quickly clutching her purse, as if I wanted to steal it?" I grew embarrassed, because I was oblivious to the humiliating exchange that had occurred just behind me. In a sigh of resignation, my husband said: "Happens all the time."
It's these types of experiences that prompt us to tell our children, even when black men possess the marks of success (my husband, a former firefighter, is a talented and professional musician and college professor), they too often can be misjudged and treated as societal pariahs.
And, so in the Zimmerman trial aftermath, it's especially disturbing to read the diatribes of bloggers who deny the impact of how European settlers developed this country and how we're still dealing with the fallout, 21st century style. It was the criminal justice system and laws lacking in common sense that paved the way for a Zimmerman verdict that distressed a great many of us ... and our children. These can be addressed through legislative halls, the courts and criminal justice systems. But, what takes place in the home-and ultimately the heart-is up to us. It's we parents who now have a noble opportunity to help banish perceptions. If nothing else, the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman story should stir us all to teach our children-and maybe ourselves-about respect for self, respect for others and judgment based on character, not false perceptions.
Kysa Daniels is the creator of VillageStrong, a family support initiative that provides parenting solutions for today’s families. www.VillageStrong.com