My friend Cameron has been unrelenting in Facebook posts about Trayvon Martin. He’s really mad. Incensed, actually. Bereft, I think, but he doesn’t say so. Sometimes, after reading a particularly indignant post, I worry about his emotional state.
Then, a little while later, I worry about my own because I feel so little of what he feels.
Don’t get me wrong, I was outraged when I learned how Trayvon died and that the shooter was not charged. I feel sick for his parents. Ocassionally, I even feel overwhelmed with grief for all that is wrong in our country when it comes to race and racism.
Mostly, though, after reading one of Cameron’s posts, I scroll down the page and look at a picture of someone’s adorable baby dressed in bunny ears. And then I spend some time deciding whether I should buy new sneakers now that I am taking tennis lessons. After that, I might obsess a little while over my seven- and nine-year-old sons’ development, future college applications, and marriageability.
My outrage and sadness over Trayvon fades quickly. Because it can. I’m white and wealthy, and don’t have to worry about my boys being shot by people who don’t think they belong in a fancy neighborhood.
In addition to having our boys, Jeff and I are unofficial guardian-types to Nafisa. She is an African American fourteen-year-old who lives with us most of the time. Our boys call her Sissy, and she is the same age as my stillborn daughter would have been. When her mother died and she came to live with us, I had no doubt that God brought us together.
Still, even my deep love for Nafisa does little to keep the Martin case in mind for long. Perhaps because I don’t worry about her either. She is a girl, afterall, and the statistics for black females in the US are far better than those for the boys.
Mainly, though, I think that I don’t spend much time thinking about and praying for justice in the Martin case because I don’t have to. To riff on the president’s quote in a manner in which I’m sure he did not intend his words to be used, Trayvon Martin could not be my son.
Of course, he need not be my son for me to fight injustice. I can chose to be a White Ally, a term I learned in grad school. White allies recognize their own unearned privilege and work with others to fight oppression and share power. I loved the term when I first heard it, especially because it gave me a clear sense of what my role should be in a messed up system I didn’t create but nonetheless benefit from.
Allies don’t pretend to be from the same country; they are simply fighting together in the same cause. I can’t know what it’s like to send my black boy to a predominantly white school or what it’s like to be a black woman turned down for a job she should have received. It would be insulting to assuming I can. But I can work to end racist beliefs, practices, and systems.
That was all well and good, but over time it didn’t quite fit. For one, I do very little explicit anti-racism work these days. But more important, the term ally doesn’t quite capture the truth of my experience anymore.
Allies are partnerships of convenience. Their interests are not identical. Allies shift as interests shift. Allies are neighbors, yes, but there are borders. Like I said, I know why it’s important to acknowledge that I am white. But Ally isn’t the right word for me anymore.
It’s here that my Pentecostal church provides me a better identity. There, I am called Sister Tara. As a sister, I stand not next to, but with my brothers and sisters. We are a family.
Sisters are not twins, but they are more than allies. I know because I have two sisters. I cannot know what Brenda experiences with Multiple Sclerosis, but I know that my heart aches for her in a way that can only be explained by sisterhood. I cannot know what it’s like for Jenny to work every day with young children who die from Cystic Fibrosis, but my heart swells with pride in a way that can only be explained by sisterhood.
In their short lives, the boys have called four other children brother or sister: Eliot, who is just as pasty white as they are. Sophia, who is bi-racial white and Chinese, Cutie Pie, who is bi-racial, born in the US to a Liberian mother and El Salvadoran father, and Sissy, who has lived with us for a over a year now. When other kids have questioned the boys’ assertions that one of the four was indeed their sibling, the boys fiercely insisted that he or she was indeed a brother or sister. When Eliot moved, Ezra was so upset that he told his teacher, “My brother was killed in the park last week.” That’s what brotherhood feels like.
When Sissy asked this week to take a picture with the boys in support of Trayvon and those who want charges to be filed, I worried that my black friends would be offended if I let my white sons pose for the picture: What do they know about the fear and anger that many young black boys feel? I also worried that my white friends would think I was using my kids as political tools: She’s brainwashing them to be liberal reactionaries.
The boys wanted to do it, though, and their reasons seemed right. When getting ready for the the picture, though, Ezra asked if he should try to “darken” his skin to better show that he felt connected to Trayvon.
“Oh, no, buddy, that would be really offensive.”
Then I gave all three kids a very brief history lesson on blackface. I went on to say, “But you don’t have to change how you look to let people know you are upset about what happened to Trayvon. You can be the white boy God made you to be and stand up and say that you are upset about what happened to him and that you want justice for his family. You say that as a white boy, Ezra, a white boy who in God’s kingdom is brother’s with Trayvon.”
Trayvon may not have been my son. But he was my brother. And yours as well.
Later this week, I’ll write in with some thoughts about how white parents might talk to their white children about the case. I’d love to hear how others, of all races, are talking to their kids about it.