I am the proud mother of a 17 year-old black boy. Like all teenage boys he is a mixed bag. We can have amazingly deep conversations and two hours later he is pouting like a toddler. When interested in a topic he is laser focused. When forced to do something, he can dig his heels in and mentally and emotionally check out.
Admittedly I really wasn’t really prepared for this moody stage. My sweet little boy, always so eager to please his Mommy, was starting to chart his own course and it was disturbingly circuitous. Somehow I conveniently forgot the changes I took my own parents through as I hurtled toward womanhood. Yes, I too could be annoyingly moody, self-centered and tough to deal with. Now that work I in the field of youth development, I recognize that these behaviors are simply what teens do. If they are lucky, they get to make all of these mistakes in safe environment. Their major screw ups are usually mitigated by caring parents and a soft place to land. It is part of the rites of passage.
As I watch my now 6’5 athletic looking son turn into a man, I am starting to observe how others respond to him. He is a good looking kid (if I may say so myself), with an easy style and quick wit. As a voracious reader and political junkie, he can usually hold his own when he interacts with adults. Somehow he has developed into a super patriot, deciding to skip college for a few years and join the Marines (Eeeek!). He dreams of protecting America and engaging in all kind of testosterone laden behaviors that only a 17 year-old boy can dream of.
Yes, this is the boy that I send out into the world every day. It is becoming disturbingly apparent that not everyone sees what I see. Although he is quite tall, he has a smooth baby face that makes it obvious that he is a child. I have noticed in the last few years however, baby face or not, he makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Indeed women, mostly white women, actually seem to be afraid of him.
I noticed this as early as his 11th birthday. We would often take 3 day weekend drives together to visit museums, historical sites, and unique hotels and restaurants. On one of these trips we ended up at the Cincinnati Zoo. I handed him a dollar so he could get himself a soda while I used the restroom. Hurrying, because I didn’t want to leave him alone, I witnessed a woman quickly pull her purse to her breast and haul butt as he approached the vending area. I wanted to rage, “That is my baby, how dare you treat him that way!”
Most recently I sat in my car at my daughter’s school waiting for him to escort her out of the afterschool program. I was entranced in a story on NPR and didn’t notice them coming out of the door until a women loading the trunk of a car in front of me caught my eye. She had stopped her task, and had begun to scowl at the exit door of the school. She looked so disturbed that I tracked her glance and noted that my son was the subject of her distress. Her whole demeanor changed as she settled in to protect her territory. She was a teacher at the school and she immediately concluded that somehow my son was a threat. Even after she recognized my daughter, she remained tight and angry, arms folded across her chest watching him until he got to our car. Then she saw me looking at her incredulously she quickly looked away. My boy entered the car and before he could shut the door asked, ‘What the heck was that about? Why was she ‘mean mugging’ me?” I was almost too stunned at this point to give him a decent answer. When I regained my senses and moved to say something to her, he intervened saying, “Mom, don’t sweat it, I get that look every day. You just get used to it.” I think that hurt me worse than anything he could have said. How do you ever get used to that?
If you ever want to see me rolling down the aisles in hysterical peals of laughter, start talking to me about post-racial America now that Obama President. Obama’s election should have helped facilitate not only serious dialogue on race but intentional changes of attitudes and behaviors (can’t a girl dream?) but I’ve not seen evidence of any of these pendulum shifts. Instead black teen boys get up every morning, shower and dress, and then put on their armor of protection that allows them to function in a world that sees them as predators. Who are their advocates and what serious conversations are we having about their treatment?
Parents can only do so much to ensure that their black boys self-esteem stays intact and they don’t become bitter. America wants to see itself as a place that puts ‘family first.’ Unfortunately ‘family’ is narrowly defined and my dark-skinned boy is seen as the crazy, criminal cousin you want to dump out of the gene pool. Sadly he, and thousands more who look like him, clearly understand their place in this highly dysfunctional family. I am clueless of how we tackle this issue on a broad scale but as an individual I would like to offer a tiny suggestion. It isn't earth shattering but it may make a child rethink his place in our society. The next time you see a black teen walking toward you, offer him your piece of your humanity. Give him an affirming nod or a quick smile, regardless of his size, level of sagging pants, defensive posture, or hue of skin. You might be surprised when he smiles back and tells you to have a nice day. It's a start.