In my suburban community, the white mothers I know are overwhelmed and disgusted by what they’ve seen on the news this week. We’ve seen grown black men and women being murdered in front of our eyes, and we feel helpless. But what we don’t see is that each one of these victims was loved and cherished by a mother whose worst fear has been realized.
In this new series, “What I Wish You Knew,” I’m asking various mothers to tell their stories, and I’m hoping to become a better person and a more active participant in change. I recently interviewed Torsha Tomlinson, wife of Pro Football Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson and a mother of two, about what it’s like raising a black son in America.
Tell me what it feels like when you hear on the news that another innocent black man has been killed or threatened? What goes through your mind?
It feels like betrayal over and over again. There is a flurry of emotions: anger mixed with anxiety, sadness, fear, hopelessness, and an overwhelming desire to do something about it. Every time I hear about yet another unarmed black man being killed and the smear campaign begins along with the despicable explaining away of the unnecessary loss of another black soul, I’m reminded that the lives of people who look like my son are not valued. I’m reminded that to some people, my son’s skin color makes him a target and there’s nothing I can do about it. I cannot change his skin color.
When I see the mothers of these men and hear their cries, I find myself drowning in feelings of inadequacy and anxiety due to my inability as a mother to protect my son from this. Prayers for his continued protection go through my mind. Unrealistic thoughts of keeping my son safe at home with me forever and ever run through my mind. Then I prepare to sit my children down and explain it all to them so that I can ensure they hear the truth from me before hearing lies elsewhere.
What have you seen to be the reaction from your white friends? What do you wish they understood?
First let me say that people who I previously thought to be my “friends,” who had no reaction to the repeated injustices of people who look like me and my children, are no longer my friends. The white friends I do still have in my life are very supportive and genuinely want to help facilitate change. They are honest with themselves about their own privileges and what they see happening to people of color. My white friends are disgusted by all of this and afraid for their own white children to be growing up in a world full of such hate.
They are struggling, just as I am, to try and explain all of this to such young, innocent minds. They have a strong understanding that an injustice against one of us is an injustice against all of us. But they do still feel helpless and lost at times … clueless as to what they can do to make it better … afraid to speak out for fear of being attacked, ridiculed or judged by their white friends and family.
I understand that fear and I respect them for knowing and believing that doing nothing makes them at the very least an accomplice to racism even if they aren’t racist themselves. My white friends have a desire to take some responsibility for ensuring that we don’t inevitably leave these same problems behind for our children‘s children to continue to have to deal with. I wish everyone understood that.
How old is your son, and how do you explain all of this to him?
My son is nine years old and for his own safety and the desire to want to keep him safe, we don’t sugar coat any of this with him. Although we never show him any of the graphic images in the media, we do make sure that he is very much aware of what is happening to women, children and men all over America who look like us. We have been honest with him about America’s history and its lingering effects. Knowing the history allows him to understand the why. This is something I think is missing in schools and in people’s homes.
I get it! Parts of America’s history are rough, unpleasant, brutal and even heartless at times. But when you know better, you do better! Tolerance and understanding of another group’s plight only comes from learning the deep-rooted truths about their history. We are doing everybody a disservice by always sweeping the ugly parts of our history under the rug. Not discussing and teaching how we really got to this point is part of the problem.
We teach our son that there are good and bad people in the world from all walks of life, and that a person’s skin color alone does not make him or her good or bad. We spend a lot of time building him up. Developing a healthy self-esteem for our son is very important to us knowing that he has to go out into a world that wants to bombard him with negative images, narratives and portrayals of people who look like him.
We also believe that representation matters, so we go out of our way to ensure he sees, meets, reads about and encounters black men of color in a positive light. We want him to know that his life matters, has worth and value, regardless of how the world around him perceives those who look like him.
Tell me about the conversations you and your husband have had about keeping your son safe.
My husband and I had to start having these very scary and difficult conversations with our son when he was eight years old. Honestly, at first, it was a source of contention between us because although I felt like it was time, my husband was completely against it. Rightly so, he wanted my son to have the privilege of remaining an innocent, naive child for as long as he could without having to comprehend such grown-up issues.
However, the more we kept seeing incident after incident occurring in the media, we knew that even though he was so young, educating him and preparing him to have to walk through life as a black man was vital to his safety. As black parents the longer we waited, the more at risk our son would be. My husband and I realize that it is inevitable that our son will one day face discrimination, so we agreed to never stop talking and teaching him how to handle it in ways that will ensure he will always return back home to us safely.
When he’s out riding his bike or playing with friends, are you worried?
Due to the current environment and, frankly, the shift I’ve seen roughly over the last three-and-a-half years, my son has not been outside riding his bike without my husband or myself with him. This is simply due to fear that the police could be called on him by people who think he looks suspicious or doesn’t belong here. It’s simply not safe, not worth the worry, or the chance of a terrible irreversible accident occurring like what has happened to too many other brown boys.
What has your son said to you?
This is all very scary and confusing for him. Grasping the concept that someone who doesn’t even know you and who you’ve never done a single ounce of harm towards could dislike you, wish ill will toward you and want to cause you harm is very difficult for him to understand. We honestly weren’t aware of the effects the lack of justice served in all of these cases was truly having on him until an incident occurred a few months ago.
He was having issues at school with another student for months and never once said anything to anyone about it. When things finally came to light we asked him why he let it go on for so long without coming to us, and he said that “it was because the other student’s father was a police officer and that he was afraid he’d do bad things to our family since cops can do anything they want.”
I cried a million tears in that moment. I hated how these awful killings being allowed to occur with no justice being served were shaping my child negatively and instilling fear in him. I was not okay with that. We have had to put a lot of energy into teaching him that not all cops are bad and that no human is perfect! We remind him that most cops are the real heroes that dedicate their lives to keeping us safe. Most importantly, we remind our son of how unfair it would be for him to be judged by the bad actions of others, so we will not take part in unfairly judging all officers by the bad actions of a few.
What is said when you discuss these tragedies and our culture with your black mom friends?
The overwhelming topic of almost all of our discussions is fear … fear for our husbands and children. There’s also an overwhelming feeling of exhaustion. We are tired of this! We are tired of talking about it, fighting it and having to prepare our children for it. We watched our moms and grandmothers go through this same exact fear for their sons and husbands. They watched our great-grandmothers deal with the same fears, and so on and so forth back too many generations to count.
We fear that our children and grandchildren will still be dealing with the same thing. We also discuss the hurt and disappointment some black mothers feel toward their white friends who choose to bury their heads in the sand and pretend like nothing is happening. We share our struggles with the idea of a “friend” who breaks bread with your family, sleeps over, attends birthdays, whose children participate in extracurricular activities and play with your children, and claim to care about your child and family, yet he/she displays such indifference for what is happening around the country to people who look like your family. The appearance of desensitization and blatant disregard to death, murder, injustice and unnecessary loss of black lives displayed by some of those white “friends” is flat out shocking.
What do we take for granted as white moms?
There are many things I could touch on pertaining to the things white moms take for granted but I’d like to focus on the number one thing that I am currently struggling with. I would imagine that just like all moms you love your children and want the best for them. You want them to live out a full and happy life like the rest of us. Most moms struggle with the idea of our children growing up and getting older. We’d keep them babies forever if we could. But I’m not sure if white moms fear their white sons simply getting older could lead to them being killed. I doubt white moms ever worry that simply growing up could come with a negative perception toward their sons and could cause them harm.
I am the mother of a sweet, caring, shy, baby-faced, nine-year-old brown boy … a boy who is quickly growing every day into someone who will be viewed as just a threatening and intimidating black man by people who have zero regard for the real content of his character. I would imagine that white moms are proud when their sons grow tall and start to fill out into handsome young men. Black moms know that same height and size on our sons paired with their blackness can cause fear and intimidation that could lead to their deaths behind the hands of fearful and bias officers.
There are studies and statistics that show that, in general, black boys over the age of 10 are judged to be less innocent than white boys. A 2014 study found that black boys are seen as more culpable for their actions within a criminal justice context than white boys. Research also found that black boys as young as 10 years old were significantly less likely to be viewed as children than their white peers. My son is weeks away from turning 10, and the thought of anyone considering him to be, punishing him as, treating him like, or expecting him to behave as an adult is scary and absurd.
What do black moms wish white moms would tell our children when these tragedies occur?
Tell them that wrong is wrong regardless of whom is at fault. No one is perfect, not even police officers. Ensure that they know a person’s skin color doesn’t automatically make them guilty or at fault. Make sure they understand that in America we have a judicial system for a reason, and that no one’s life should be taken over a pack of cigarettes, an evening jog, a counterfeit $20 bill, failing to signal, a pack of Skittles or a toy pellet gun.
Human life has to be viewed as more valuable than that. Realize that you ignoring these acts of injustice and not addressing them in your own home reads as disregard for human life and is teaching your children to do the same, which keeps us in this perpetual cycle generation after generation. So even if you choose not to tell your children anything when yet another unarmed black man has been killed by law enforcement, your reaction or lack there of will inadvertently be a lesson to them anyway.
What can we do to help fix the problem? Posting on social media is one thing, but how do we ignite actual change and save lives?
This systemic problem was rooted into the very foundation that America was built on over centuries and centuries. Unrooting it and getting rid of it will not be an easy task. Stand with us! Speak up & speak out! We need allies who understand that this problem is everyone’s problem.
Honestly, black people are not responsible for centuries of unwarranted violence against them, so I truly feel that the onus should not solely be on us to fix it. I believe you can help by first acknowledging there is a problem. You all live in the same world we live in. You witness the same things we witness. You have heard our cries and complaints forever. So a good place to start is to stop denying the facts of racism in this country. Then begin addressing the views and teachings in your own homes with your families, children and within your circles.
Educating your children is most vital. Stopping the spread of hate and division to other generations is key. Expose your children to positive images, books and representation of people of color. Encourage your family to get to know people outside of their own race if they don’t already. That is the most organic way to cultivate understanding and tolerance for those that are different than us. Educate your friends who you hear spewing evil and hate towards people of color. Stop being afraid of losing your white friends for speaking truth to power. If they are down with hate, ask yourself why you are friends with them in the first place. Understand that simply not being racist isn’t enough. We need you all to be anti-racist and instill the same into your children.