On Michael Brown

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.

Lesley McSpadden and Louis Head, the mother and stepfather of Michael Brown, on August 9th.

Lesley McSpadden and Louis Head, the mother and stepfather of Michael Brown, on August 9th.

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.

Amani and AsanteThey 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.”  Amani  and Asante

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.

Michael Brown as a child

Michael Brown as a child

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 Black Lives Mattercolor 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.”

MC_i am a man w gunsOur 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.

MC_riot policeMC_hands up






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.

MC_love demonstration

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.

Lesley McSpadden and Louis Head, the mother and stepfather of Michael Brown, on August 9th.Michael Brown as a child

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.

MC_is his life worth more


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.

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21 Responses to On Michael Brown

  1. tim english says:

    Uggh, hard to read this and then read up on the original case. I realized that the things I knew about this case were few- it was another young black male killed by a police officer, it was related to the Ferguson riots, maybe that’s it. It happened during a period of years when I rarely followed the news. Not sure if that’s technically a privilege but it’s definitely a way of avoiding.
    So in reading about the case and the discrepant reports, I got informed- and at the end of it all it sounds like there is still dispute about the young man’s and the officer’s roles in the death. And I think my white brain wanted to get hung up on “He caused his own death by doing x, y, and z”- however that will not be my point.
    I don’t think Michael Brown’s death began at the store where he stole some cigarrillos; I feel sure- I can’t know for sure, but I’d say it’s very likely- that life had not presented him (or his parents, or theirs…) with anything like the opportunities I have received which have allowed me to feel safe, to enjoy life, to get my foot in the door at schools and jobs, to feel like a valued or at worst neutral-value part of society. That’s messed up, the way that opportunity is doled out here. And to realize how I remained comatose for my first forty-plus years about the injustices of it is painful, and humbling, embarrassing.
    So this is a post about mothers of children who aren’t white, I guess more specifically here we are reading about African-American boys. What is a mother who has not had the dubious luxury of coma to think, to feel, when she witnesses the hatred and fear so many of us have aimed at people like her, like her brown-skinned boy(s)? Those feelings (the mothers’) are what I have been protected from throughout my life. They’re still kind of easy to ignore.
    Yet these mothers (fathers aunts grandparents brothers) must send their boys out into the dangers of the white-oriented world, knowing that severe harm could be just a corner away, just an unexamined fear away. How would one do that without living in a chronic state of trauma? Another place where privilege is lacking. It’s not that I think that African-American kids live in war zones where the tension is always amped up and where death is imminent- I’ve seen too many of these kids having a blast with friends or being loved on by adults. But I know enough to believe that this danger, which turned into the worst for Michael and his loved ones, is exponentially closer at hand for these kids than it is for me or for kids whose skin looks like mine and who talk like me. I’m not surprised at my almost instinctive pull back to unconsciousness.
    Your call, Mollie, to pause, slow down, FEEL whatever arises here is welcome. I will do it, and do it now.
    And I will lean in more. This injustice may never end, it may only grow- but the reason I have been doing this work for ten years now is that NOT looking no longer works. So I won’t do this work in an attempt to change the world, but I can do it because it is the right thing to do.
    Thank you for the support here.

  2. Chavi says:

    Thank you so much for your powerful words Mollie.

  3. Mike R. says:

    Thank you, Mollie, for your courage, in being willing to speak from the heart about such a painful reality. When the series of publicized shootings were going on, I had intense reactions of outrage and sadness, but over time those have faded – because I have the luxury of forgetting. Your talk, and the UNtraining, are reminding me to not forget.

  4. Jeni says:

    Thank you Mollie. There is much I don’t have words for, my heart has been breaking in so many new ways over this past week, month, year. I appreciate your urgency and addressing the numbing out. I take in so much information and am unable to process it or act, and suddenly I’m obsessing over something menial or dissociating to clickbait online. I admire your capacity to feel it all, to not get lost in the panic and overwhelm and to share yourself with all of us.

  5. Victoria Nicholsen says:

    Mollie, deep sigh…thank you for your tenderness and brave passion in your writing. Through your sharing, you deeply invite others to share in the collective pain with a strong sense of holding. I was very aware of my own desire to read this post quickly and to move on, and I quite intentionally slowed down, to really hear your voice, truly see the photos and take them in, which inevitably, allowed me to feel. Thank you for this piece and the encouraging reminder to feel my own heart.

  6. harper putnam says:

    hi mollie – much gratitude for this post and all the accompanying photos, yes michael browns mothers eyes, your beautiful sons, the protesters, the militarized police. i know what i want in my world and i want out. beautiful innocent children with a whole lifetime in front of them, people standing up for decency. YES!! BIG YES!! militarized police? big fucking NOOOOOOOO!!!!
    i think of the suffering of any parent that loses a child but when it is so wrong and unnecessary? it would be tragic and traumatic enough were it illness or an accident. and impossible to bear. but at the hands of the police in this brutally racist society. i so wish that were not a part of our collective realities, of my reality.
    i found myself envious at your courage to just feel and be with the heartbreak.
    i was acutely aware of my tendency to try to titrate the taking in of the horror. as you went further into the realities of people of color in this country, i could feel myself shutting down and stiffening up, trying to keep it at bay, trying to keep it at a distance.
    i have suffered too much with feeling responsible, with feeling guilt and shame for my familiy’s heartless, shameful racism and anti-semitism even though i actively stood up against it from the age of 9 on. it was probably the most severe child abuse i suffered, to be raised in that kind of hatred with having to listen to that kind of poison on a daily basis (and i grew up with physical, sexual and emotional abuse as well). but i felt contaminated by that, i deeply cared, and i felt like this stuff got into me without my permission and against my will. it was for sure the most excruciating suffering of all, to find myself with racist thoughts.
    but my shame and guilt has prevented me from bringing my passion and love into the world.
    now that i have enough psychological healing, i am moving forward.
    it is my hope and conviction that as i am able to open and grieve for what happened to my own innocence, that i too will be able “to keep my heart open in hell” (as my first teacher stephen levine used to say).
    and feeling and being with heartbreak is not something i relish experiencing, its the truth and the compassionate response. i give myself such a hard time when i feel myself shutting out a reality i know people of color don’t have a choice to as they are assaulted in multiple ways on a daily basis. it will be a relief i think when i’m able to open more fully and stay with FEELING as you plead for us to do.
    i respect your heart, your willingness to feel, your example to your students. i gratefully look forward to working with you over the next 6 months in the Untraining.

    love ~ harper

  7. Ann says:

    Dear Mollie,

    Thank you for your heartfelt and thoughtful article. Just looking at the photos of Michael Brown’s grieving mother and stepfather, your beautiful and innocent sons, the protestors, and the police (who are supposed to serve and protect yet are outfitted for military assault) put human faces on the impact of racism in our society. It astounds and saddens me that a young black boy feels the need to wear a sign saying he’s a black teen and his life matters or protestors in past years wore signs saying “I am a man”. I appreciate your courage and insights and look forward to learning more from you, the other teachers, and students in the UNtraining. My goal is to recognize my own white conditioning or racist thoughts or feelings and to be able to step forward and speak up when I see or hear those kinds of behaviors or communications around me.

  8. Shekinah says:

    Dear Mollie,

    Thank you for your deep and intimate article. It touched me deeply. I particularly loved the reminder to stop and Feel, instead of to go numb. That is helpful in those times when I just don’t want to know and want to hide myself and not be a part of this world. Reading your words, I am feeling more that I want to be more active in my responses and behaviors. I want to feel and be a part of life and living and knowing that these behaviors occur way too often in our culture, and for me to turn toward them, not away so that I maybe able to somehow say something or take an action that will bring us all close to open our hearts to all people, especially those of color. You have helped me open my eyes and heart wider. For than I give Thanks.

  9. Shekinah says:

    Thank you Molly for this deeply personal piece. It touched me deeply. I appreciate the reminder to “stop and feel” instead of going numb. That helps me as the pain sometimes is too much, and I want to learn how to feel and be with that pain and sorrow and hopefully move through this and be more resilient in the world and culture that I am currently living in. You have given me some more to think about as I navigate my own feelings and thoughts as a white women.

    In Deep Gratitude.

  10. Sarah Dandridge says:

    Dear Mollie,
    Thank you for your heart-felt, authentic article, “On Michael Brown”. I know your words and feeling touched my feeling because I had to keep getting up to walk around and eat almonds while reading your blog…lots of feelings. My heart aches and tightens when think about all of the mothers and parents who have lost children, sons especially, to racist violence. When I was working in a Berkeley elementary school quite a few years back, several teachers and the principal all told me that by 4th grade they had lost the attention of the African American boys: they had already gotten the messages that the school system was not on their side, did not have their best interests at heart. That staggered me. I had just had my first son and could not tolerate feeling that happening to my son. Another staff member of color with whom I worked closely told me that Black mothers put their sons down verbally as a remnant of slavery days when mothers denigrated their sons to the masters so that their sons would not be sold off and separated from them. Just writing this now, true or not, makes my heart clutch in sorrow.
    I am very grateful that you and tThe UnTraining offer me a chance to become a more conscious, active mother and fellow human being. Thank you.

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  13. Tessa says:

    “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.”

    Thanks so much for this post. So often, because I have to live and exist and function in this world, it feels necessary to plow ahead without pausing to give a moment to the pain and heartbreak that can and will take generations of healing to stop being tender. But just plowing ahead doesn’t change anything. Thank you for the reminder to pause and feel into discomfort.

  14. Thank you so much for sharing this. I am a white person and currently taking a course on “UNtraining liberal white racism” through http://www.untraining.org which is nudging me towards a lot of important and uncomfortable truths, like what you mention. I agree that the #1 thing we need to do is FEEL and that noticing and sitting with that discomfort is a place to start and learn from. Even if we as white people don’t intend to be racist, there is a lot of “white conditioning” or “white training” we have in society that we’ve absorbed simply by living in society as it currently exists. It feels overwhelming to consider how we might “change the system,” but as one person recently told me, there’s a quote in the Talmud along these lines: “It is not necessary to complete the work, but that doesn’t mean you’re allowed to stop doing it.”
    Let’s all keep doing the work.

  15. Compliments on this post. I really appreciated it. I’m going to use (and attribute) the photo with the two signs saying “Is his life worth more/less than mine” if that’s OK with you. I will link it back to your site! (ours is UC After Cruz, a collaborative blog by UCSC alum, and there is a post on the Black Lives Matter movement).

  16. sunnysuze52 says:

    My daughter and her husband became foster parents several years ago. To their surprise, they kept falling in love with the children. Many were able to return to their families of origin, but five were not; they have adopted all five. Only one of them, the youngest, happens to have brown skin. She’s been a member of our family since she was two days old. My son-in-law is a stay-at-home parent, so my granddaughter has not yet been in school. I worry what it will be like when she goes to kindergarten next year and children start making comments about how different she looks from her white parents and sisters. There’s nothing wrong with being different; each one of the girls is very different from the other. It’s just that I know she will feel value judgments about her differentness, and it breaks my heart. I struggle about whether it was fair to her for us to adopt her, but there wasn’t a family of color available for her; surely being in a big, loving family is better than a childhood bouncing from foster family to foster family (most of which would have probably been white anyway). I wish I knew how to think of it, and how to help her navigate the challenges she will face.

  17. Rae Mary says:

    Thank you, Mollie, for loving your sons and helping us all to feel for all people and to act and speak out. It hurts us all to allow our unconscious cultural racial training to harm any human being. Thanks, Janet, for sharing.

  18. Christine says:

    Thank you.

  19. mcarter198 says:

    Beautiful, brave piece. Thank you for sharing your heartbreak and reminding us all of the way to nurture our human connection.

  20. Geraldine Messina Smith says:

    Thanks, Janet – very touching and we both really ‘feel’ the pain. Thanks for sharing it. Hope you have a lovely Thanksgiving Jerry

  21. Carol Barre says:

    Thank you Mollie; and Janet for forwarding. I have forwarded to our local YWCA which seems to be one source for local change.

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