When Life Isn’t Fair: A Mother’s Perspective on the Trayvon Martin Case

by Mary Semela
Director of Development, YWCA USA

Mary Semela and sons Nelly and Mohapi

Left to right: Mary Semela and sons Nelly, 24, and Mohapi, 18.

I am a white parent of young African-American men. Every parent of these young men in the United States either has a memory of “the talk” with their children, or is anticipating it with a depth of sadness I can’t even begin to explain.  How do you tell your child that life isn’t fair, and is in fact stacked against them?  I can’t fully understand the enormity of the burden this places on my husband and sons, but I am learning more every day.

Nelly Semela and Mohapi Semela

Nelly (left) and Mohapi Semela

Charles Blow, editorial columnist at The New York Times, added to my understanding when he discussed the Trayvon Martin case. I never thought about the constant physical exhaustion that black men carry as they monitor their every move in order not to make white people fearful. Something that affects the three people I love and live with every day was invisible to me.

In fact, black people often comfort us when we are dismayed by the products of our racism.  On NPR recently, a white teacher shared the story of taking his predominantly black class on a field trip. As the kids came out of the bus, a white woman clutched her white daughter closer to her in an obvious display of fear. It was clear to the students that their teacher was very embarrassed. One of them comforted him. “Don’t worry about it – we get it all the time.”

Other stories are more personal for me. On the way from his bus stop to our home in Queens one evening, my oldest son (then 17) was thrown against a police van and told he was lying when he gave his age and address. Since Amadou Diallo was shot 41 times the same month we moved to New York seven years earlier, my son knew to move slowly and extract his license with great care, explaining his every move. When he came home, he was shaking. But what he said was that he’d gone through his initiation and was now truly a black man in America. My youngest son, who turned 18 last month, happens to be a fan of Skittles, iced tea, hoodies, running out to the store for snacks and talking on his cell phone. His story — held down by one white kid while another white kid with a documented history of using racial invective against my son beat him in the face (both confessed, neither prosecuted) – is common.

When are we going to learn that this is a national tragedy that demands a white effort to reverse it?  Denial and cover up have to stop. We can’t bring Trayvon back or take away the personal pain that his death brings to all he knew, but we must do more than make this a teachable moment – we must demand change. We can start by insisting that George Zimmerman be arrested and held accountable.

Mary Semela is director of development at YWCA USA.

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2 Responses to When Life Isn’t Fair: A Mother’s Perspective on the Trayvon Martin Case

  1. Paula Penebaker says:

    I was deeply moved by your story. I have a son and we have had “the talk” as has every mother I know with boys of color. Just a couple of weeks, ago, my son was pulled over on the expressway for a burned out headlight. Three deputy sheriff squads responded to the call. He shared his anger and frustration with me AFTER the incident, explaining that he was very polite during the encounter. “But three squads! Don’t you think that was excessive?” was his lament. It’s so sad!

  2. Sherry Laible-White says:

    My 28 year old son is bi-racial. He wears long dredlocks down his back and has light beige colored skin and seen as a black man. He bought a Harley Davidson motorcycle recently. He financed a portion of it at the credit union. Leaving the bank he was pulled over within minutes by state police who began to handcuff him. He showed the officer his insurance and other papers so he was written a warning ticket for speeding. Not long after that he was ran off the road by an SUV while he was driving his Eclipse convertable. My son called the police and he arrived, “that is your car?” He refused to write a ticket to the guy driving the SUV. My husband and I both pointed out these things wouldn’t happen if he had short hair. Then again, they would probably still happen because, he is African American. They don’t picture my son as working to make an honest living for himself, his wife and their two kids. He accepts it, I don’t.

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