Passing on the Code

By: Wendy Rhein

The murder of Trayvon Martin has consumed the media and many a mind these last few weeks. The death of a child is always a tragedy but this one has taken on a larger grief because of its racial foundation, its avoidability, and its shocking reminder that the death of a young black man at the hand of a person who believes himself to be an authority is not new. Not by a long shot.

I am a white woman raising two young black men. I’m well aware of that. I’ve been accused of being overly aware of it. I can’t tell you how many people have told me that that they just don’t see race, or that race isn’t a factor anymore.

(That’s just not true. And it bothers me when people claim to not see race because it is an intrinsic part of identity and pride. Don’t negate my sons’ race by saying you don’t see it. Celebrate it. Welcome it. Cherish the fact that difference exists everywhere you find it.)

I digress.

There is this thing called the Code. I’ve been told about the Code. I’ve asked scores of not-so-sensitive questions about the Code and how to share it with my sons someday. I am incredibly grateful to the men who have been willing to talk to me openly and honestly about what to say and how, acknowledging my limitations. I could have left this alone until they are older, ignored it until absolutely necessary because that certainly would be less confrontational for me. But I want to be prepared. I want them to be prepared. And I admit to a level of shame about the need for the existence of the Code that I need to deal with too.

Generations of African American families have sat around thousands of kitchen tables and shared this sad reality with their sons. One day, my dear child, you will scare someone just because you are a young black man. They will question your presence in their neighborhood, at their school, late at night at a traffic stop. Pay very close attention to your environment, to your surroundings. If you feel uncomfortable, pay attention to that and leave. Over time you will develop a sixth sense about these things, I’ve been told. Be respectful when you are stopped by a police officer even when you have no idea why. Don’t be submissive but don’t challenge. Find respect in humility and self preservation. And please know that not all white people will be like this, you have a wide and loving group of examples that prove otherwise. Don’t let these indignities make you angry or hateful because that’s not who you are. Be aware that others fear and judge based on their issues; it has both nothing and everything to do with you.

My boys are too young, thank God, for this discussion but I know it is coming. It is hard for me on many levels. I see the internal battle between teaching them to be wary and questioning and creating distrust and bitterness. I want them to live in a world that is full of love and creativity and purpose, not labels and misconceptions and genuine danger. How do I balance raising them to be self confident and powerful young men while also telling them to be careful about going to a Stop n Shop after a football game? How can I tell them to be who they inherently are and yet plant this insidious seed of self-limitation and self loathing?

I wish I could say that I’m shocked and surprised that a 17-year-old black man who tried to shield himself from the night’s rain with a hooded sweatshirt was gunned down in his neighborhood. Instead, I’m shocked and surprised by the shock and surprise of so many others. This is the reality for many black male teens. For those who say they don’t see race, please understand that others’ experiences are not yours and we need to acknowledge that racial reactions still exist, whether in high profile situations like Trayvon’s or the more subtle indignities faced by black men daily. I don’t know how so many of these parents have talked to their sons over the years without erupting in rage over the very fact that we still have to have this conversation. I don’t know how I will.

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Comments

  1. Madgew says

    Very well said Wendy. My significant other (mostly for the last 11 years) is black and 54 years old. It still happens to him (driving while black), being looked at oddly and being aware of his surroundings when he travels to small towns or big cities for his work. He has a biracial son (17)who he has talked to many times over this exact issue and knows the code. It is so sad to me that today it has not changed much over the years, if at all. Thanks for writing this. When it is time (and I would so love it not to ever be time) you will know the right words for your son.

  2. Sarah says

    Wendy, this made me cry. I really, really dislike that you have to prepare yourself to have this conversation with your boys. It’s just wrong that it’s necessary and continues to be so.

  3. Brandy Black says

    Wendy, I too dislike that you have to have this discussion with your kids. I can’t wait for the day that this will no longer be an issue. Thanks for writing such an important piece.

  4. Wendy says

    Thank you Sarah, Madge and Brandy for the comments. It is a horrible reality but reality nonetheless. I too long for the day when it isn’t but I’m not seeing much cultural advancement in the perception of black men.

  5. Darryl says

    Wendy,

    I am not traditionally a part of the discussions in this forum but was requested to read and provide another “voice” to this important discussion. Let me begin by saying that I am a 54 year old black man and the father of an 18 year old biracial son. My experiences are varied and long, it’s my hope that all of our sons of color will be freed of the trials and tribulation of sharing life experiences within the dominant culture of the US. (white folks). My earliest experiences are of my freshman year high school age friends who treated me well (equally) until their awakening to the gentler sex (girls) and that I could be a formidable competitor for the attention and affections of the blossoming young ladies.
    Add to that, my superior experiences on the athletic field and the over the top “reactions” that high school produces for the good and bad. I recall the extra 10 minutes of questions whenever I met the parents of my female friends. I also noticed what would become a life long reaction of the white guys I befriended in high school, college and even my first couple of jobs out of college…the repeated pattern was one of “all is cool” until they see that you may be as smart, as good (in the job performance) or heaven forbid actually better than they. Since I have been in sales most of my career, it’s pretty obvious who’s doing what and getting annual awards etc… Of course, this played out socially as well. During my 20′s, I moved to a home in a beach community. After the move (shared with 2 white females) on a nice day, I decided to merely walk around the block. By the time I was on my street, I was detained by the police and asked what and why I was “in the neighborhood”, I was requested (and complied) with the officers request to produce and demonstrate my door key. (That situation would not fly with me today). It was my “housewarming gift” from one of my neighbors. Of course, I have been pulled over for no reason several times in my driving career, but also have been in violation of some driving rule only to be “left off with a warning”. So my experiences are not of a binary nature, but more an avenue of some amazingly cool cross cultural experiences and others of serious disappointment in the inhumanity expressed to me by others. As a person of color who has matriculated in the dominate culture world of corporate business / social environments, there have been countless times of enduring focused stares of folks when I enter a room being the only or one of few people of color not serving something, some curious, some welcoming and some…..not so much. That’s my story.

  6. Kelvin says

    What’s interesting about this from my perspective is how different my generation was from my parents. They grew up in segregation in Texas. My parents both graduated from San Augustine Colored High School. Since our father was in the navy, we grew up in an integrated neighborhood. I think that made it especially difficult on our parents trying to convey how we should act. We had white friends growing up. Our parents didn’t.

    My father was the kind of man who could talk to anybody of any race. He had a great knack of discerning accents. He’d talk to someone and say, “What part of Georgia are you from?” He loved to ask questions. My dad was one of the first Special Assistants for Minority Affairs in the Navy in the country. But at the same time he was distrustful of white people. He always wanted us to watch our backs. And he told me that I would have to work twice as hard to be given the same credit as my white counterparts. The warnings I received from my father were borne out. If three blacks were gathered together somewhere, that was a ‘gang.’ Or suspicious. Me and my two brothers (all in our 20′s) were standing alongside my brother Ken’s car near K STreet in Sacramento one evening. K Street always had different things going on. Sac PD pulled up and told us they’d received a call of suspicious people near a vehicle. Ken showed them that it was his car and what got them to leave without further hassle was Ken showed them his badge. He was a correctional officer.

    When I first started my newspaper column in 1992, a woman wrote to me wanting to meet. We met for coffee a few times. Then she invited me to her house for dinner. She was an older white woman. It was strictly platonic but one day my mother told me that I shouldn’t be going alone to a white woman’s apartment. Now all of this may seem odd to people of my generation but my parents came from a different time and though things were changing, they knew it was better to err on the side of caution.

    I’ve gotten stopped by police for DWB. I started to count it. It’s hard for people to believe it when i tell them I’ve been stopped by police THIRTEEN times without getting a ticket. One time me and two friends were driving and pulled over for brake lights that were out. My friend who was driving was Hispanic. I was in the passenger seat. My other friend was in the back seat. He was white. We were stopped in the middle of nowhere by CHP, all ordered to have our hands up. The CHP officer came up with his gun in hand and the way he talked to us was…he talked down to us. It was a tense situation because his attitude seemed so out of place.

    Being seen as suspicious, not being able to get help in a store or having an employee shadow your movements around a store….what black person hasn’t experienced it? If you’re a young black man you know you’re seen as a land shark. A potential predator. Sometimes I’ve told myself when I’ve seen women lock their car doors, grab their purses tighter or refuse to get on an elevator with me, that they’re being prudent. They’re alone. They don’t know me. They don’t know that they’re safer with me there because I’d come to their assistance if they were in trouble. But I also wonder…do they have that same reaction with everyone?

  7. Robin says

    Kelvin and Darryl, I do appreciate you sharing your stories. I also have been followed around stores (and I don’t go back to those stores, and I have written to the CEOs to say why). I do watch where I’m going and if I’m in a parking structure at night I may ask a security guard to walk me to my car or hold my packages tighter. Because yes, having been assaulted twice (once by a white person and once by an Israeli), I am leery of everybody, no matter what color they are or how tall or short they are. I’m going to watch to see who is in my neighborhood, and yes, if the white van with no windows is parked some place I will call the non-emergency number, no matter who is sitting in the front seat (why Comcast says they can’t label all their trucks is beyond me). I do encourage my kids to watch their surroundings at all times and will encourage them to keep doing so. As minorities in the area we live in, we will get followed and we will get stares and we will need to be sensitive. And we’re white. I can’t imagine how magnified this is for people of color. So, how can I be most supportive of my beautiful nephews (who are darker than I am) and teach my kids to be sensitive and supportive of the whole family, too?

  8. Darryl says

    I’m sorry that I had to provide my input on 2 entries, but here goes the essence of my story relative to the topic at hand, raising a black (or biracial)male in America. My earlier preamble was only to provide a context of my experience and therefore a snap shot of what I bring to this area of parenting a “black” (biracial) son.

    Given that his upbringing was very different culturally than my own, the most obvious thing I tried early on, was to insure that he spent time with his black culture through the association and time spent with my brother’s kids, who were both the same age and older. They are black and not immersed in white culture by community, work or school. While my mother made it mandatory for me, I did not with my son, though periodically I insisted and took my son to the black churches, I’ve attended over the past several years.

    The other thing that I purposely tried to do was, look at the news for “teachable moments” and examples of how the world operated from time to time in relation to black folks, (women and people of color) but especially black folks. I would engage my son in age appropriate discussions of black history, the tremendous price extracted from my ancestors for the right to vote, the principals of Jim Crow laws, and the fundamentals of the Plessey v Ferguson and the Brown v Board of Education decisions. We would talk about these things against the backdrop of his developing life story.

    As it had with me a generation earlier, I felt sorrow for his experience of white classmates, making fun and laughing during the history lesson of the bleak and disgraceful treatment of black folks in America during his underclassman high school year. I felt bad when someone he counted as a friend in freshman year, was heard to be “dissin” my son with racial derogatory statements in sophomore year. I felt bad when he experience the attraction to a girl classmate only to see the “fear” in her eyes at the thought of a home visit. I felt bad when he and a white friend were merely looking in a closed retail clothes storefront (on a 4 lane busy avenue) at maybe 6-7 PM only to be stopped by the police and questioned as if there is an issue with looking in a window.

    The good news is that I tried and believe I was successful in creating an environment that he feels we can discuss and talk about any and all of these issues and the world overall. I share with him some of the issues of today and the lack of civil discourse in the nation today as we address issues pertaining to different segments of our society. (racial and economic) I also share with him any of my own experiences today that smack of unjust and unequal treatment, not just for myself and black folks, but for women, Hispanics and any other minority that is systematically or individually mistreated or marginalized to their detriment.

    My goal was to raise a bright, articulate knowledgeable man, capable of the seeing the best of and the not so cool side of America. I closed by saying that my son’s scores of the white and ethnic friends who have “shown him love” and have made his life experience thus far, a real positive adventure. I have met and continue to meet the most wonderful, thoughtful and generous people of all social/economic backgrounds and religions and share that message just as strongly with my son.

    I think that it’s ALL of our jobs to make injustice and racism hard to stand the light of day (and our presence). It starts with what kind of adults are we raising. (as kids). I hope we all think that humanity and the just treatment of others is near the top of the list of lessons we provide.

  9. Madgew says

    Darryl, thanks for your heartfelt comments. I appreciate you sharing your experiences of growing up as well as your son’s experiences. I would have hoped it would have been better by now. Our country has a lot of work to do. But we can at least do our part and acknowledge this is still a very real problem.

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