An advice column for folks who don’t like to be told what to do.
I am generally a very kid-directed parent. If my kids ask for my opinion I’ll give it, but they know they’re free to make whatever choice they make. They live with the outcomes and take responsibility for their choices.
At this point in my kids’ lives they know they don’t have to ask for permission for anything. Sometimes they ask my advice and I give it, and then they do what they think is best. Of course, they don’t always make the same choice I would make, but I honor and respect the choices they make and support them 100% whatever they decide about anything.
Right this minute I feel really torn because, though both my children have made life and death decisions in the past, I’ve never been as scared as I am right now. My younger son, who is white, is participating in protests against police brutality, where the police are heavily armed and literally death is on the line. I am happy for him that he is standing up for his values and participating in protests that relate to race and the police. At the same time, I’m really worried about everything — his own anxiety increasing from not focusing on his schoolwork and feeling behind, to literally dying in a protest.
I know it’s his decision. I’m just trying to decide how to be a good mom and handle my own fears through this. Of course you see young people protesting in the news, but now it’s my young person and I feel conflicted. I would honestly rather him not do it but that feels selfish because the issue needs to be protested. I just don’t want my son to be one of the protesters and I know that’s not the right way to feel, but I’m his mama.
How do I process all of this and support him?
By taking the time to write this letter to me, specifically, I’m going to assume that in your own way, like your son, you are prepared to risk jumping straight into the deep end of the pool. I hope so, because I’m not the one you want if you’re looking for a gentle beckoning into the water. I’m more of the Baby & Me swimming instructor who knows that we all have the capacity to swim deep in our DNA and lets go, trusting that baby will rise.
I believe you can swim, so let’s jump in.
By taking the time to write this letter, I’m also going to assume that you see the inherent privilege in your position; that you get to feel conflicted about whether or not your son chooses to protest racism, rather than fearing whether or not he will come home every day when he leaves the house. Or, like Breonna Taylor, will die before he ever leaves his house, while still in his pajamas, bleeding out in a hallway.
Can we just sit with that together for a moment and let it sink in? Your child, who you birthed, nursed, raised, taught and celebrated, will face police with weapons of war who might indiscriminately target a crowd of protesters, or specifically target your son. He might be beaten, hog tied, confined, gassed, shot with “non-lethal” rounds that leave him permanently damaged.
There are also counter-protesters, armed vigilantes, who might decide to show up and take matters into their own hands. He might be run over by a vehicle or shot, like Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, or Anthony Huber in Kenosha.
Your baby might die.
Does it turns your bowels to water when you let that fear in? Does the thought of getting that call bring you to your knees?
Now, let in the fact that black, indigenous and other people of color (BIPOC) feel that, not just when, or if, their children choose to participate in protests against systemic racism, but every day. There is no safe place. There is no safe day. There is no choice of whether or not to participate in a world which will kill them with no remorse and little to no recourse.
Can you sit in the enormity of that terror and powerlessness?
I’m not just inviting you to engage in a thought experiment here. I’m inviting you to use your own fear as a gateway into radical empathy for the depth and peril of BIPOC’s experience under white supremacy. I think if more white people allowed themselves to develop that kind of radical empathy, systemic racism would begin to crumble.
From that place of radical empathy the conversation changes, I think. It’s not that the fear for your son disappears, because it is grounded in reality. It is that it exists in proportion to the dangers of systemic racism for black, indigenous, and other people of color.
Here’s another thing for you to sit with. White supremacy is, and has always been, enforced via violence. From the genocide of indigenous tribes and the Middle Passage, when human beings were literally chained and stacked on top of each other in the holds of ships, to slave patrols and lynchings, through which black people were tortured and murdered; from the Civil Rights Movement, when protesters were targeted with fire hoses, dogs, and death, to the Black Lives Matter Movement, when protesters are met with tear gas, rubber bullets, and assault rifles, the powers that be will always resort to violence to maintain their power.
Whether or not we who fight white supremacy should also engage in violence is a whole other level of conversation, but there is no debate about whether or not, if we choose to fight white supremacy, we are going to be met with violence. So, to my mind, if your son has decided to fight white supremacy, one, you have to accept that he is going to be confronted with violence, and two, you have to help him think critically about how he is going to do that.
I grew up with activist parents. They were pacifists, but their pacifism was not academic or theoretical. When my mother participated in the lunch counter sit-ins in Chattanooga, TN she was spit on, hit, pushed, and had cigarettes put out on her. She trained and prepared, along with the black young people of that city, to withstand violence.
When I was in college and there was any kind of mass protest going on in D.C., where I grew up, my parents would open their doors to me and my friends. They would wake up early the day of the protests, make us all pancakes, and then my father would hold forth about the mechanics of non-violent direct action. He would teach my friends how to go limp in the arms of police so that they were harder to pull away from the barricades. My friends were enraptured. I was mostly embarrassed, because he was, y’know, my dad.
Still, despite my embarrassment, there was a lot to be said for my parents commitment to engage with us about what we would potentially be facing. They expected us to think beyond our youthful exuberance and indignation to the realities of what we might encounter and how to deal with it.
I would encourage you to engage with your son about what he is experiencing at the protests, so that you can gauge his level of understanding about what he is confronting. Is he bringing protective gear — masks, shatter-proof goggles? Does he know how to spot the medics? Does he have, and carry, a simple first aid kit? Does he have a back up charger for his phone, and know his rights around filming law enforcement? Does he carry milk or water in his bag to flush his eyes if he gets tear gassed or pepper sprayed? Is he traveling with a group of trusted people, or a buddy, and working with them collectively to protect and keep track of each other? Does he know to write emergency numbers on himself with Sharpie in case he is incapacitated and cannot tell people who to call? If he requires any kind of medication (inhaler, Epi-pen, etc.), is he carrying it on his person? Does he have a plan if he gets arrested?
You write that your sons have made life and death decisions in the past, but maybe they were in arenas of life where you are more familiar with the risks? Part of working your way through this emotionally may involve you educating yourself about what is happening on the ground in the city or town in which he is protesting and then talking to him about it. You may well find that he has already engaged in a fair amount of risk-assessment and safety planning. Or you may discover that he is charging in with both barrels and no plan at all.
Discovering he is prepared may assuage some of your anxiety. Discovering he is not prepared gives you a chance to point him to resources, and also to challenge him to confront the privilege he carries, that would allow him to think going into such a situation unprepared would be okay. To be clear, it’s not okay. It will put him, and the other people at the protest, in greater danger.
I feel you, mama. Fighting oppression seems noble and like, of course we would all choose that, until it is our children in front of the police line. Then the mama bear in us may want to rear up and drag them right the hell out of there, back to safety, back, in this case, to whiteness. But here’s the thing I think we have to remember, from author Glennon Doyle:
There is no such thing as other people’s children.
George Floyd died calling out for his mama. Every BIPOC that dies at the hands of white supremacy is somebody’s child, is my child, is yours, and we need to act like it. Maybe the great thing that will come out of this, for you, is that you will find within yourself that conviction, and figure out the way you’re going to fight white supremacy. Maybe your son will lead you to that. Wouldn’t that be something?
I know you’re scared, but that’s exactly what white supremacy wants, to keep white folks at home and silent, prioritizing their own safety, their own fear. It’s past time for us white folks to stop taking advantage of our privilege to keep only our families safe, so that all our children can be safe.
Thank you for walking this journey with me. My family and I are with you. Love to you and yours.
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