Thursday, July 25, 2013

Reflections on White Privilege While Raising a Child of Color, Part 2: I Am Not Trayvon Martin's Mom

Yesterday, I wrote about how the Onion tweet about Quvenzhane Wallis made me confront the intersection of recognizing white privilege while raising a child of color. Today, I want to explore how that intersection is driving my reaction to the Zimmerman verdict and the larger topic of recognizing that I have a privilege I cannot give to my child. 

I remember the very first time that I felt the complete and utter helplessness of motherhood, the ability for the flipside of all that love to bubble up as terror at the thought of what you cannot control. My daughter was two days old, and we were checking into a hospital because she had elevated bilirubin levels and needed some time on the UV lights. I hadn't slept for more than thirty minutes for over 70 hours, and I had just given birth. When the nurse told us we were being admitted, I burst into tears. All I could think about was how much I wanted the tiny baby I was clutching to my chest back inside of me where she was safe. It was a children's hospital, and I watched the helicopter touch down on the landing pad outside our room. It was carrying some other parents' nightmare, and I realized just how scary and immensely huge the world had suddenly become.

Elizabeth Stone once said “Making the decision to have a child - it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body. ”


But that doesn't quite capture it, not really. See, if my daughter needed new lungs, I would want to rip mine from my chest and give them to her. Of course I believe that I am an autonomous person who has an important identity outside of motherhood, but--at the end of the day, when the chips are on the table--I would die for my daughter. Being a parent is raw and all-consuming. It makes the simple joy of watching bubbles pop in the front yard into a profound act of spirituality, but it also makes every revving engine and nearby pond into an ominous threat.

What does this have to do with being the white mother of a child of color? Well, that's what I hope writing this post will help me figure out.

I've turned to the public forum of blogging in the past when I've had something to unpack that has been difficult for me. That's what I'm doing here, and I hope that I can do it with grace and finesse, but I think I'm on a particularly precarious tightrope, dangling at the intersection of parenting and race.


Since the Zimmerman trial, many people have taken to the public outlet of social media to vent and channel their anger and pain in a productive way. Some even hypothesize that letting our voices be heard on Twitter and Facebook helps prevent riots in the non-cyber world. 

Among the most touching and heart-breaking pieces I read in the wake of the verdict were posts from mothers of black children who reflected on what this outcome meant for them and their families: 

  • Nadirah Angail wrote at My Brown Baby about the fear she felt when she found out the child she's now carrying is a boy:
I’m having a little brown boy, a member of the most targeted and feared demographic group in the country. That’s when the fear and worry set in.
  • Melissa Harris-Perry talked about the relief she felt over having a daughter and how messed up it is to live in a country that makes her wish her sons away
Reid also remarked that while black families are accustomed to warning their children about being suspected by police, now the conversation will have to include civilians.
  • This powerful quote from bell hooks  Audre Lorde (sorry, had the attribution wrong!) started making the rounds on the internet: 
Some problems we share as women, some we do not. You [white women] fear your children will grow up to join the patriarchy and testify against you; we fear our children will be dragged from a car and shot down in the street, and you will turn your backs on the reasons they are dying.
As I was reading those stories of parents who felt the visceral fear of watching their children grow and interact with a racist system, I also found moving stories of people who recognized their own privilege during the aftermath of the trial. Most notably, the We Are Not Trayvon site became a landing place for people to tell stories of how their own racial and class privilege has kept them from getting the treatment (both by Zimmerman and the public at large) that Trayvon Martin received. And (as I wrote about when it happened), I read some great Twitter conversations about how important it was for white allies not to appropriate the story of Trayvon Martin. 

And here I am, on the tightrope. 

I am not Trayvon Martin. I am not a black woman. I am not a black mother. 

As blue milk wrote about recently, white parents are often in for a wake up call when they see the fears and worry that go into raising children of color--fears and worry that they never have to face. She titled her post collecting some links on this topic "More hard thoughts for white parents." And that's me. I am a white parent. 

I am privileged and naive and only able to understand the depths of the system I am fighting against in little flickers of recognition. 

But my daughter is not white.

Just as I would have given anything to put her back inside me when she was hours old and hurting, just as I would rip the lungs from my chest if they would let her breathe when she needed to, just as I would die for my child because she is the world to me, I would--if I could--give her the privilege of walking through the world the way that I did, the way that I still do.

In one of the conversations following the verdict, someone said that even indignation was a white privilege because people of color aren't naive enough to trust the system. I'm sure this isn't true for all, but I was definitely indignant as I watched the jury render their verdict, and I am definitely privileged. 

There are, indeed, many hard lessons for white parents in this story. It brings to light that the world is unfair in ways we may have never imagined.

But the lessons for those raising children of color are even harder. If children are our hearts beating outside of our bodies, the Zimmerman verdict demonstrates that they are walking through the crossfire of a barren war zone. 

I am learning both lessons at the same time, and it is hard. I know that does nothing to strip away the privilege that I have, and I hope very much that I am not appropriating the pain of racial victimization because I am not the victim. 

But I am hurt, and I am scared. 


  1. Very powerful post!!

  2. Thank you for sharing this...and all the great links! :)

  3. I am right there with you. I feel everything you are saying in this post. I'm a white parent, but my black son could be Trayvon. My whiteness won't protect him from suspicion when he becomes a teen. It is heartbreaking. And why does it feel like it takes a personal connection to a community of color for white people to see their own child in Treyvon? So many mothers I know cannot see themselves in this situation, but how could I not? I'm not black, but my children and my husband are and so I do see this as my fight as well.

  4. FYI, the quote: "Some problems we share as women, some we do not" etc is from Audre Lorde (in Sister Outsider), not bell hooks.

  5. Thanks! I fixed it. I've only read Zami. I need to read Sister Outsider.

  6. Yes! And it's so frustrating to not know how I would react if I didn't have this personal connection. We can't wear every pair of shoes, so we have to find ways to empathize more completely.

  7. The quote from Audre Lorde gives me goosebumps.