The following piece is by a guest writer, my friend and UNtraining colleague Mollie Crittenden. Mollie is the Director of Community Engagement at San Francisco University High School. She read this as a part of UHS’s PERSPECTIVE series at an All School Meeting in September 2014.
It’s 3:53 a.m. on Friday morning and I cannot sleep. Images of Michael Brown and the indescribable sadness in his mother’s eyes will not leave me. I lie awake, feeling heaviness in my heart and fear in my soul that I cannot shake.
I realize that the pulling physical sensation I feel in my heart and the subsequent pain in my throat are familiar to me. I realize I am actually experiencing heartbreak.
This time, my heart is breaking not from the pain of experiencing the betrayal of a lover, or the fear of what my life will be like absent of this person’s love, but because, once again, our society has betrayed the life of a young, black male, and I am fearing the possibility of life without my sons, who face the reality of being betrayed in this same way.
I am the mother of two black boys.
They are biracial, and already undoubtedly receive a certain amount of privilege based on the fact that they have a middle class, white mother and are lighter skinned than some. Created out of the love between their dark-skinned African American father and me, they are blessed and cursed with the beautiful brown skin that instantly slates them into the “non-white,” “person of color,” “Black” or “other” category the moment anyone sees them.
My boys both came to a realization on their own at the age of 3, when they each told me at different times, “I’m brown like Dada, not white like you, Mama.” Already understanding that although they equally came from both of us, other people would see and treat them as a person of color, and never perceive them as being white. This realization was followed by more heartbreaking statements from my three year olds such as, “I want to take my skin off,” “I wish I had white skin,” and “she’s bad because she has brown skin like mine.”
These direct quotes, which I carry with me always, began after innocent and unknowing white children right here in the Bay Area openly vocalized their racial socialization by asking my sons with disdain in their voice why their skin is burnt, laughing at or wanting to touch the unfamiliar corn rows in their hair, consistently casting them in the “bad guy” role in their games of cops and robbers, or telling them I couldn’t be their mommy because I am white and they are brown. However unintentionally harmful these statements were, my boys learned very early on, that they are somehow “other” and “not normal” according to people around them.
My boys, Amani, who is 8 and Asante, who is 5, live the meanings of their names, peace and gratitude, every day in small and profound ways.
They do this through the hugs and kisses they give to one another when they’re hurt, enthusiastically thanking their Grammy for teaching them how to knit while extending their arms around her, or giving all the money in their piggy bank away to the person asking for money on the street. I could go on and on, but the point is that both of my boys are precious. They have a light and spirit that is both unique to them and shared in common with all of us.
I give you these details about my sons not to bore you with the stories of a doting mother, but instead to make the point that these same stories would be told if they could, by every mother of black boys and young men whose lives have been taken in the betrayal of our society.
These are the same types of stories your parents would tell about you to convey how precious your life is. Unfortunately, Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown, did not recognize the connection in the humanity between them. If he did, he wouldn’t have killed Mike Brown, an unarmed teenager with his hands up. It is our collective disconnection from these realities of others, regardless of how different we may seem, and the many fears that are rooted in our individualism, materialism and greed that enable us as a society to continuously betray the lives of some while systematically benefiting those of others.
Ferguson is not new. Countless lives have been taken by law enforcement, as people of color and in low income communities face the reality of police officers who threaten the freedom and very existence of people in their communities every day, rather than acting to protect and serve them.
Unfortunately, police brutality and assassination are just two of the many reasons black and brown people are responding to Michael Brown’s killing by displaying signs that “Black lives matter.”
Eerily, these signs are reminiscent of protesters in the Civil Rights Movement who carried signs that read, “I am a man.”
Our society repeatedly communicates that black and brown lives don’t matter when children experience substandard education in facilities that look similar to or worse than prisons and do not enable them to fulfill their dreams, when disproportionately, people of color don’t have access to health care, are exposed to life threatening environmental toxins and pollutants in their neighborhoods, and are arrested, prosecuted, and incarcerated at rates multiple times those of their white counterparts. Our society betrays all of us when mainstream news portrays criminalizing images of people in black and brown communities rather than the strength, resiliency and connection that exists there, and when our government responds to people exercising their first amendment right to protest with militarized police force; the list goes on and on.
I am here, before you, as a mother who lives with the knowledge and the fear that my son’s lives will be betrayed in subtle and life threatening ways throughout their lifetimes, just as their father continues to face this reality right here in San Francisco when he is harassed and arrested while walking down the street, and held in jail for over a week for fitting the description of a black man who allegedly committed a crime he had absolutely no knowledge of, when he needs to alter his hair, clothes, and speech to not seem “too black” when trying to get access to a job, scholarship, loan, or other resources we all need to succeed, or when he receives negative, patronizing, suspicious, unwelcoming, or blatantly racist behavior and comments from waiters, store employees, police officers, colleagues, teachers, bank officials, doctors, and my own family members.
This is all happening here and now, and is a widespread experience. It’s not just happening far a way in some other less progressive area, because of a fluke or a few “bad apples” that are completely unlike ourselves. It is being enacted all the time by people, like ourselves, who don’t consider themselves to be racist, and are simultaneously, mostly unconsciously, acting in ways that result in both subtle and overt systemic, individual and life threatening racial discrimination.
I am here as an educator, who also has hope for what we can become as people, and more importantly, the belief in the tremendous positive power and potential you all have, if you choose to use it, to make positive change in the world we live in. Someday, you may be in positions to make major decisions to influence foreign or public policy, criminal justice, our educational or health care systems and so on. My not so secret hope is that you will be in these positions and use your brilliance for the benefit of all lives in the future. Please don’t think you have to wait until that “someday” in order to make a difference. What I want to ask of you is that you start now with things you do have control over. Even though it may not feel like it sometimes as a teenager, we all have power and can act today.
The first thing I want to ask you to do today is to FEEL. One of our avoidance mechanisms when we are exposed to sad injustices that keep us paralyzed and disconnected from acting in accordance with the authentic goodness that is within all of us, is to numb out. We turn the channel when Ferguson comes on because it’s too much of a downer, we distract ourselves with countless other trivial activities, we over-intellectualize the less significant details of what’s happened in order to avoid feeling the reality of this and many other tragedies that occur. Please resist those tendencies to stay in the comfort zone of self-centeredness that we all reside in, myself included, and begin by simply pausing and FEELING.
It is only when we take the time and energy to stop and take in the sadness in Mike Brown’s mother’s eyes, or the pictures of him as an innocent boy like mine are now, and sit with that emotion, that heavy heart, that discomfort, that we will find the motivation and courage to reach out to others and move beyond a place of guilt, disillusionment, anger, or complacency.
It is from this place of feeling that we connect with our own humanity, and perhaps more importantly, to leave the realm of this subtle or in some cases profound sense of emptiness and disconnection that resides deep within many of us in our quiet moments regardless of the contented exterior we show others, and into the hope and peace that comes from within when we connect to and act from our true, compassionate, selves, and begin to take actions that communicate to the world that everyone’s lives do matter.
At the conclusion of this presentation to a largely white, economically privileged audience, Mollie received a standing ovation. Her piece also appears in POCIS Visible Voices, the online newsletter for People of Color in Independent Schools of Northern California. Thank you, Mollie, for sharing your heart with us.