by Mary Semela
Director of Development, YWCA USA
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.
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.