Are We Teaching Kids the Wrong Lessons About Trayvon?

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Pundits want black parents to use the teenager's death as a warning for their sons. But the real moral of the story is for white children.

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Two young boys hold signs during a Tallahassee rally organized by the National Christian League of Councils on April 4, 2012. Philip Sears/Reuters

In the past few weeks, I have read a number of articles about conversations that I, as a black mother, should be having with my 9-year-old son. In his Time.com article "How to Talk to Young Black Boys About Trayvon Martin," Touré begins by saying: "It's unlikely but possible that you could get killed today. Or any day. I'm sorry, but that's the truth. Black maleness is a potentially fatal condition."

In a CNN blog post, Christy Oglesby speaks of the numerous warnings she has given her son, Drew, about how society might perceive him simply because of his race and gender. "He was only 3 when I got confirmation that being black could be the death of him," she writes, recounting how a little white girl deemed her son "dirty and dangerous," presumably because of the color of his skin.

In light of Trayvon Martin's death, I, too, have cautiously begun the process of preparing my son for the challenges that likely lie ahead of him. I am unprepared for these conversations. I left the United States when I was 3 and spent most of my childhood in Kenya. While there are certainly issues with race and class in Kenya, I never experienced the kind of racism my son will have to deal with in the U.S. As a child, it never dawned on me that anyone would see me as any different, simply because my skin is brown. And so I was completely naïve and did not really think about how my child would be perceived, until last year.

At the time, Tarik was attending a private school and was the only black child in his class. It soon became clear that, for whatever reason, Tarik's teacher was not particularly fond of him. He was punished for seemingly every little infraction, and it got to the point where he was often in tears after school because he did not understand why his teacher was picking on him. As he searched for what it was that separated him from his classmates, Tarik finally settled on the one thing about him that was clearly different: the color of his skin.

In discussions with the teacher and the school administration, when I suggested that maybe, just maybe, Tarik was being treated differently because he was black, they did not even consider that it could be a possibility. I noted that there were other little black boys at the school having similarly troubling experiences. I sent them studies showing that when little white boys misbehave in school, as boys are wont to do, they are viewed as "mischievous"--the connotation being that there is some cuteness mixed up in their naughtiness. When black boys do the same, they are condemned.

I told the school administrators that we all, every single one of us, have intrinsic biases that develop as a result of what we see and learn growing up. I explained that the only way we get past those biases is by acknowledging them and then working to eliminate them. Their response was to dig deeper and look for evidence that my son was the problem. There was no empathy on the part of the teacher or the administration even when Tarik wrote a poem in which he said, "When I get left out or treeted unfairly, I feel upset and lonely...I wish that I had [my teacher] be nice and fair. I wish [the assistant principal] would understand that [my teacher] is not treating me fairly. I AM NOT A MEAN BOY." It was apparent, both to me and to my son, that they were intent on labeling him a bad child.

Tarik is now at another school where there is much more racial diversity. He is on the honor roll and has absolutely no behavioral problems. And while I am sure the people at his previous school have their version of events, I know that what Tarik went through was an introduction to what he will probably be dealing with the rest of his life.

I realized then--and am more acutely aware now, in the wake of Trayvon Martin's death--that there are things that I am going to have to prepare Tarik for. I have been told by friends who grew up in the United States that I am going to have to give him lessons on how to behave around police officers. I am going to have to somehow get him to understand, though he certainly cannot wrap his mind around it now, that people will see him as a menace simply because of the color of his skin.

But here's the thing--I don't want my son to grow up with these thoughts in his head. My parents never had to give my brother or me these survival tips, and so we were able to grow up blissfully unaware of racism, at least the American variety. I want the same for my child. It is such a burden having to live by a different set of rules, knowing that society at large views you as "less than" because you are black, and male.

While I understand all these well-intentioned warnings in the media, I think we are focusing on the wrong conversations. This is not about what I should be teaching my son in order to keep him alive. This is about getting the others, the people who will think him dangerous because he is black, to change their perceptions. I think it is the white parents who should be having conversations with their children, so that those children don't grow up to perpetuate the racism that has plagued this country for so many hundreds of years. I want the people who cannot recognize their own biases to take a closer look at themselves. I've had white friends admit to me that they sometimes cross the street or clutch their purses closer when they see young black men on the street. And you know what? I'm not angry at them. At least they can admit those things. The problem, for me, lies with those who cannot, the George Zimmermans of the world who insist that they could not possibly be racist because they are half-Latino or, the old standby, have black friends.

So how about an article that focuses on "How to Talk to Young White Children About Trayvon Martin"? The other night on AC360, Anderson Cooper shared interviews with young children that showed how their ideas about race are shaped. While black parents speak about race with their children early on--likely preparing them for discrimination they might face--white parents do not have these very necessary conversations with their children.

Out of this tragedy, my hope is that we parents, black and white, can all have honest conversations with our children about race and figure out a way to truly tear down these barriers that separate us. I know it is going to take time. But I cannot put an end to racism by telling my son to beware, to be afraid; the best that will do is give him the street smarts so that he won't get shot. Like all those thousands protesting around the world, I want to do whatever I can so that we won't have any more Trayvon Martins. But the focus, really, should be on having no more George Zimmermans.

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Lisa Armstrong is a journalist who covers humanitarian issues around the world. She has written for The Washington Post, National Geographic, Parade, USA Weekend, and O, The Oprah Magazine.

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