I was standing in the freezer section trying to decide on a flavor of Ben & Jerry’s when a little boy came toddling down the aisle in his puffy orange coat. He followed haltingly after his mother and grandmother with his eyes glued to the shelves filled with colorful containers, and he sang, “Ice cream, ice cream…” as he took it all in. He wasn’t asking to eat it. He was just making sure his mama knew what they were looking at.
“That’s right,” she told him from where she paused at the end of the aisle. “It’s time to go now, sweetie. Let’s go home.”
He eased on in her direction, but he noticed me standing there near her. He looked up at me, raised a hand, and said, “Hi!”
“Hi buddy!” I replied, as his mama chuckled.
He started to take a step toward her, then he changed his mind and took a couple steps toward me instead. He wrapped his arms around my calf and pressed his cheek to my knee as he hugged my left leg. My heart nearly exploded at the sweetness of the moment. I laughed and patted the top of his little head, and his mama gave me that look parents get when they see someone else appreciating just how spectacular their baby is. He looked up and flashed me a smile, then did that bouncy toddler run that’s equal parts vertical and horizontal motion off toward the exit with his family.
I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. It was an unexpected bright spot in my day. It felt so beautifully human.
But then that got me thinking about humanity, about the world and especially the country housing this little boy and his family. In the checkout line, I offered silent prayers for my new buddy and his mama. I prayed for his protection as he grows, because he only has so long when white women will smile when they encounter him as a stranger out in public. He only has a few more years before wearing hoodies and going to the store at night without fear are a luxury, a little more time when police officers still give him the benefit of the doubt as a U.S. citizen. At the time I thought he might make it another 15 years before the real danger would set in, but with the recent news of a 12 year old boy being killed for playing with a toy gun at the park, it seems he may have less than a decade.
I prayed things for this precious child that I don’t have to pray for my beloved nephew, because the little boy in the grocery store is black. He will grow up to be a black man, and life will not be fair to him.
I pictured his mother, and I thought of Mary, who knew her heart would be pierced by her son’s unearned suffering. I thought of Moses’ mother and the Israelite mothers of her generation who knew what it was to fear for their little brown boys who were dangerously singled out by the powers that be. I thought of the mothers of Bethlehem whose infants were killed simply for being born male. It seems to me that black mothers in the United States have a special insight into these stories and the God they speak of that, in my unwarranted white privilege, I will never be able to comprehend. I know only what I see on the news. This is not my story to tell.
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
That doesn’t excuse me from caring, though. That doesn’t absolve me of my responsibility to do everything in my power to make sure that little boy and my nephew have the same expectation of safety as they walk through life. Both of these boys deserve all the love and respect the world can come up with, and both of their mothers deserve to sleep well at night knowing that the world is on the side of their children. I’m implicated in our communities’ failure to do this every bit as much as the Egyptian women who didn’t fight to protect their Jewish sisters and their little boys. I’d like to chicken out by convincing myself that “everything in my power” is a pretty puny arsenal, but that’s just not the case.
Three quick things I can (and regularly should) do no matter how I try to rationalize my way out of it:
- Check my privilege. Acknowledging when I am thinking or acting based on stereotypes or prejudices and consciously choosing to act out of the recognition that every person I encounter is a beloved child of God is the most basic level of responsibility here. And because some of those stereotypes and prejudices are so deeply ingrained into my worldview that I don’t even realize they’re there, I need to listen eagerly to anyone and everyone who can help me find my blind spots.
- See (or hear) something, say something. I get that this is awkward. It’s not great holiday dinner chit-chat, and it can totally kill the buzz in a conversation that’s been perfectly nice right up until that last comment, but people will usually interpret silence as consent. Racism comes in all shapes and sizes, but it’s not something we like to call out in ourselves or people we love. Screaming, “Get thee behind me, Satan!” and storming off in the middle of a party is probably not the best tactic, but even something as subtle as, asking “What do you mean by that?” can be a less aggressive way of challenging racism. The subtle approach works for uncomfortable social interactions, but we should also be willing to go a step further if we actually witness verbal or physical harassment. Speak up to the harasser, check in on the person being harassed, and make sure to get back up if you need it.
- Vote and advocate for laws that protect people of all races and genders. This means both the wording and the enforcement of laws.
God, bless all your sons. Amen.
*I recognize that the United States is not a black and white nation, and people of color of all races and ethnicities have a variety of experiences with prejudice and discrimination. I also realize that not all black men in the U.S. have the same experience, but given the recent media coverage of violence against black men and boys and President Obama’s comments after Trayvon Martin was shot that even he knows what it is like for white people to cross to the other side of the street or lock their car doors when he passes, this particular reflection seemed relevant.