When I was a child, I thought my parents were extremely unreasonable. In grade school, their strict rules kept me from going to classmates’ sleepovers, and any playdates I did have had to take place in our home. I attended a predominantly white Catholic school, and as one of the four black kids in my class, I already struggled to fit in. Being the weird kid who couldn’t go to anyone’s house didn’t help.
When I reached middle school, I watched my white friends receive more privileges with age, while my parents’ grip on me seemed to get tighter. When I’d ask my parents why I couldn’t stay over at so-and-so’s house or go to the mall with friends—without my dad coming and hanging out at the food court—the only answer I received was “You’ll understand when you’re older.” When I would argue that this or that friend had more freedoms than me, and that I was just as responsible and could be trusted alone, my dad would respond: “Well, you aren’t them.”
At the time, these rules felt annoying, but as I got older, I realized they were necessary. My parents had explicit conversations with me about how to behave with cops and about the racism I would face out in the world, the same conversations that many black parents across the United States have with their children. I came to see that their smaller everyday rules were coming from that same place of wanting to protect me from a racist society. I know every black parent hopes that police brutality and violent racism will never affect their children, but the recent deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor—and the police violence that has broken out in response to the protests about their deaths—remind me that my parents were trying to protect me from a very real threat.
My brother, who is seven years older than me, felt similarly about my parents’ rules. I remember how excited he was to get his first car and how quickly his enthusiasm faded when my parents told him he was not allowed to play his music loudly or drive with his windows down. He had already had the “What to do if you get pulled over by a cop” talk with my parents, but these rules seemed ludicrous to him. When he complained, my parents told him he couldn’t afford to be pulled over for any reason, and the only way to avoid that would be to not draw attention to himself.
When I was 11, I transferred to a more diverse public school. My parents started allowing me to sleep over at friends’ homes, but race played a big role in whose house I could stay at. My Latina and black friends were fair game, but I still couldn’t sleep over at my white friends’ homes unless my parents were friends with theirs. While my parents never mentioned race when they were issuing these decisions, it became obvious to me that something was off, and I finally worked up the courage to confront them. They told me it wasn’t that they didn't trust my white friends, but that they worried if we got into trouble, I would be more likely to be blamed. They didn’t like the idea of me being somewhere else overnight or for a long extended period of time without other people who looked like me to defend me, if needed. They even gave me a strategy to follow if I was ever falsely accused of something: Don’t argue. Try to cry to make yourself seem human. Don’t confront them for being wrong. Still, I felt like they were being paranoid—until my freshman year of high school.
During what was supposed to be a casual outing to the mall, I had to put my parents’ strategy into practice. My friend’s mom dropped the two of us off at the mall, now that I was allowed to go without parental supervision. I specifically remember my friend having $150 to spend (a lot more than the $15 my mom gave me to grab food). When we got to Forever 21, I noticed my friend slipping jewelry into her bag. I couldn’t make sense of why she felt the need to steal when she had more than enough money to buy everything she was taking, but I kept quiet. When she suggested I take something too, and pointed out how easy it would be, I felt embarrassed for some reason when I declined, and also nervous that we would get caught. After we left Forever 21 without anyone saying a word to us, I felt a huge weight lift from my shoulders. But then we stopped at a sunglasses booth and it happened again. I watched as my friend stole three pairs of glasses, in awe of how easily she did it. She seemed excited, not afraid. Again we walked away, seemingly unnoticed.
Then, as we headed toward the food court, the salesperson at the sunglasses booth came running after us, yelling, “You stole from me.” I was afraid for my friend, but I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong. But then the salesperson yelled, “You in the blue jacket, you stole!” and I knew this was the moment my parents had prepared me for. Don’t argue. Try to cry to make yourself seem human. Don’t confront them for being wrong.
A mall security guard came and searched me for the stolen sunglasses. I stood there in the middle of the mall with my arms raised while my friend silently watched, the salesperson yelled at me, and the guard patted my pockets and dug through my bag. I didn’t have to try to cry—the tears came easily as people walked by and stared. While the guard didn’t find anything, the salesperson kept assuring him that I was the person who’d stolen the merchandise, not once acknowledging my friend. At one point my friend said, “This is stupid; she doesn’t have anything,” but I guess she wasn’t convincing enough for them to let me go. Finally the guard told me that I would be arrested if I didn’t tell him where I’d hidden the sunglasses. I thought surely my friend would speak up to help me now. She said nothing. Then a woman who was watching from nearby interrupted the search to tell the guard that he should at least check my friend. The guard complied and immediately found the sunglasses and other stolen items in her bag. Instantly, the atmosphere changed. The salesperson seemed shocked, and the guard never mentioned the possibility of an arrest. My friend was let go with a verbal warning, we were escorted out of the mall, and not one person, not even my friend, apologized to me. Stupidly, we remained friends, and neither of us mentioned the situation to our parents, out of fear that we wouldn’t be allowed to go to the mall alone again.
It’s possible that I was accused, searched, and almost arrested for someone else’s crime because the sales assistant thought she saw me do it. It’s more likely that I was racially profiled because I’m black and she doubted that a white girl would do such a thing. Too many black parents have seen the same and worse happen to their own children. In just the past few months, they’ve seen black people lose their lives while jogging, while sleeping, and while begging for their life.
As protesters all over the world flood the streets to challenge these unjust killings, even at risk of catching the coronavirus, the rules my parents enforced feel like an appropriate reaction to the threats that faced their children. When the justice system fails you, when figures of authority harm you, and when your skin color endangers you, extra measures become a way of life. As a woman who hopes to have children of her own one day and watch them grow into adults, I expect my parenting style will most likely mimic that of my parents. If it doesn’t, it will be because we have created a safer world for my kids—which is all the protesters are really asking for.