Are We Teaching Kids the Wrong Lessons About Trayvon?

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.


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 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.

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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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