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Parenting in a Racially Unequal World

At a prayer vigil after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, President Barack Obama likened the joy and anxiety of parenthood to “having your heart outside of your body all the time, walking around. With their very first cry, this most precious, vital part of ourselves — our child — is suddenly exposed to the world, to possible mishap or malice.”

This sense of vulnerability is the shared experience of parenthood, although as the first U.S. President to be familiar with “the talk”- the conversation African American parents have with their children about how to interact with police officers- perhaps his words carry special weight. Obama added that parents “learn that our most important job is to give them (our children) what they need to become self-reliant and capable and resilient, ready to face the world without fear.” If this is the task of parenting- to prepare our children to face the world without fear, another goal is to attain, or retain a middle-class existence and live in security and comfort.

In that vein, parents -- if they are able -- typically seek to raise their children in safe neighborhoods with low crime rates and good schools, where leaving the front door unlocked is a matter of convenience. Parents strive to ensure their children have access to safe and expansive green spaces for play and are able to attend schools in which the teachers are focused on their academic and personal development.

Recurring episodes of gun violence at schools, concerts, and movie theaters have shattered this ideal. In the wake of the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida the vulnerability that Obama referenced above has been reactivated and become more salient for many parents. Tragic incidents such as Sandy Hook, Stoneman Douglas, and others, prompt questions about how to prepare children for the possibility of these life-threatening encounters that have intruded into their seeming safe middle-class lives. Is it to arm teachers, turn schools into high-security institutions, change gun laws, conduct regular active-shooter drills, or some combination of these and other measures?

Questions of how to prepare our children for dangers without compromising their childlike innocence have long been in the forefront of the minds of middle and upper-middle-class black mothers, who prepare their children to negotiate a world that may be hostile or present particular dangers from which even their middle-class status cannot protect them. I have been researching this question, how middle and upper-middle class African American mothers approach parenting their children for a book-length project. These mothers consistently expressed concerns about protecting their sons’ physical safety, preventing their sons from being “criminalized” and teaching their sons how to respond when they are perceived as criminals.

African American mothers commonly fear that if they have not prepared their children and, in particular, their sons, for interactions with police officers and members of the general public they might meet similar fates as Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Jordan Davis and many other young unarmed black boys and men whose lives ended under questionable circumstances. These names have been written together so many times that some may be desensitized to their meaning. These individuals were victims of gun violence of a different kind than the students at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida but no less devastating. And, in most cases, no one was held accountable for these deaths. But African American mothers shoulder the responsibility of preparing their children to navigate a world that is characterized by the enhanced vulnerability that the names listed above represent.

A poignant example from my research involved a mother who shared that a regular topic of conversation among her Black Mom’s group involved strategizing over how to anticipate and prepare their sons for interactions with police officers and at school. She said

With our sons, we talk about how can we prepare them or teach them about how to deal with a society, especially in a community like Oakland, where black men are held to a different standard than others, and not necessarily a better one. … When you are a black man and you get stopped by the policeman, you can’t do the same things a white person would do. …We talk about our sons who are a little younger and starting kindergarten. What do we have to do to make sure teachers don’t have preconceived ideas that stop our sons from learning because they believe little brown boys are rambunctious or little brown boys are hitting more than Caucasian boys?

Another mother described engaging in something she called “prepping for life” with her son. She said, “I talk to [my son] constantly. We do scenarios and we talk about stuff. I’ll pose a situation, like say, if you are ever kidnapped, what do you do? If the police ever pull you over, how do you need to react? So, we do scenarios for all of that, it’s just prepping for life.”

These sources of concern might seem surprising to other middle-class parents who likely view police officers and teachers as sources of support and protection in their children’s lives. These mothers counseled their children not to wear specific clothing in the hopes this would reduce their likelihood of being stopped by a police officer or assumed to be involved in illicit behavior. They also instructed their children to remain calm and not respond if they experienced racism at school, in interactions with police officers or elsewhere so together they could take the time to determine how to best address the incident.

Like the courageous and inspiring young student activists who have found their voice in the wake of the Stoneman Douglass mass shooting, the Black Lives Matters movement should be viewed as no less an outpouring of frustration with a political system that remains steadfastly intransigent in the face of human suffering and carnage.

One can imagine that upon hearing of the not-so-new proposed solution to arm teachers suggested by Donald Trump and his surrogates, and recently supported by the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature, African American mothers across the country made a collective gasp. The best solution to protect their children is not to have more “good guys” with guns. They know that arming teachers will result in an unequal burden on their children, but particularly their sons, and exacerbate the vulnerabilities that African American children confront in school settings. While it is contested that arming teachers with guns will make children in schools safer, others have suggested that arming teachers will result in more shooting deaths of unarmed African American children by the very people charged to protect and educate them.

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