Today’s post is by guest blogger Erin Koewing. Thank you for your bravery in writing such a moving, heartbreaking, and thoughtful piece.
I never really understood how much racism there still is until I had a brown child. Sure, I knew there was racism and obviously that was awful, but I saw it as individual people, individual acts. I had brown and black friends and I heard them talk about how they were treated and I hurt for them. But I didn’t get it. I dated and married a black man in the south and I thought I knew then what racism was, how much it hurt. He was pulled over so much it was ludicrous. Driving a minivan. Waitresses refused to serve us. People said nasty stuff. I started to avoid making eye contact with people in public because I didn’t want to give them any opening to hurt me.
And then I had a brown child. A really noticeably brown child. People stared. All the time. It was exhausting. But I had the luxury of stepping away and being white. I remember being relieved to go to work, to go in a store without my husband or child because I was invisible. No one stared, no one made comments. I wasn’t an object of curiosity or disgust. I was just a person. And so ashamed that it was such a relief to just be a white middle class woman.
The first time anyone said anything racist directly to Wesley he was three. Three years old. And another kid in his preschool class told him every day, “I can’t play with you because you’re black. My dad says you’re black like Obama. My dad says our family don’t play with black kids.” My sweet boy told the teacher the kid needed help learning his colors….the boy kept calling him black and he was brown!
Do I worry about my kid’s interactions with the police? Absolutely. He told my mom that there’s a cop that drives up when they are playing air soft sometimes and sometimes follows him when when he rides his bike. That whenever he sees the cop he makes sure to smile really big and wave and say hi so the cop doesn’t think he’s bad. My ten year old is trying to make sure this cop doesn’t see him as a threat. I guarantee none of his friends are worried about that. I know in 36 years it’s never crossed my mind.
But, statistically, he’s very unlikely to be killed by a cop. That’s not what keeps me up at night. What I really worry about are the daily interactions that are soul destroying. That put him on high alert all the time. That make him feel like he is less than, that he has to fight just to be seen as equal.
It’s my 8 year old crying in the middle of the night asking me why teachers think black kids are bad, why they give white kids more chances. Ashamed that he told a new teacher that he was Indian so she wouldn’t think he was black. It’s the lowered academic expectations. It’s the assumed negative intent for all behavior. It’s the perception of my almost never angry or rough kid as “behaving aggressively” when he does normal stuff that would be dismissed as playing around if he was white. Its people asking him over and over and over why he’s brown and I’m white. All he hears is “why are you different? You aren’t like us.”
It’s kids at the pool making him the captain of the black team when choosing teams and telling him no one wants to be on the black team. No one wants to be like him. It’s telling him “your kind doesn’t belong in this neighborhood.” It’s not being invited to birthday parties because “my dad says we don’t let *** in our house.” It’s being on the defensive all the time to keep himself from being hurt worse. It’s my 10 year old telling me that I shouldn’t say he’s brown anymore, I should call him black because “that’s all that people see anyway.”
And I still don’t get it. I have no idea what it’s like to live in his skin with that kernel of fear all the time. But I know what it’s like to watch him navigate it. I know that my kid is scared. I know that it’s not right that he has to grow up this way. I know we have to stop pretending that childhood for me was the same as it is for him. He matters. Making change matters.