That Brown Boy

News of the shooting of Trayvon Martin broke the day after my husband and I were married. We were catching our flight to the Bahamas while our home-state was becoming embroiled in one of the most controversial cases of racial injustice in recent memory.

When we returned from our honeymoon we followed the case with some interest – as an interracial couple we paid attention to these kinds of stories. As a middle-class white woman, now married to a black man, I was only just becoming aware of the extent of my privilege. The death of Martin and subsequent trial of George Zimmerman became foundational to my learning about racial injustice and white privilege. The fact that it took place in Sanford, FL, only twenty minutes from our home, made it all the more poignant. My heart broke over the unnecessary loss of life, railed at seemingly pervasive systematic injustice, and wondered how we would someday raise our children to both protect them from real danger and empower them to make real change.

Fast forward three years to find my husband and I celebrating our anniversary by welcoming our first son into the world. It is not lost on me that we delivered him in a beautiful, peaceful birth center in the heart of Sanford. For nine months I made the monthly, then bi-monthly, then weekly drive through this town so familiar with heartache. I prayed for every black man walking the streets – a prayer somewhat like holding my breath – “please God, don’t let him be next.” I prayed for justice and reconciliation to become hallmarks in this place of deep division. I wondered how and when I would tell my son about the history of the town in which he was born. The country in which he was born. I now know my privilege only protects him so far – he will not be sheltered the way I was. This knowledge brings about a unique tension. As a parent, I long to protect my child from the harsher realities of life, though I firmly believe protecting him from this reality will not yield the justice or reconciliation our culture desperately needs.

I’m still learning to navigate a world where race matters – a world beyond the well-intentioned colorblindness with which I was raised.

Fast forward a few years more to find my sons and I on a playground overlooking the St. Johns River in Sanford, passing time until my next birth center appointment. My oldest is now three and a half, and just becoming aware that people come in all shades and colors. As soon as we arrive, he is singled out by another young boy who follows him around, mildly antagonizing him as they explore. Eventually they get into a little scrap – the other boy swats my son’s face, my son shoves him squarely on his butt. At this point the boy’s dad and I intervene, and together we encourage our sons to use words, make apologies, hug it out. As boys do, they went on playing like nothing happened. Only later, when my son tells his dad about the events of his day, do my ears perk up as I hear him say, “That brown boy on the playground was bothering me – he put his hands on me and pushed me.” And every conversation since has started with my son saying, innocently enough, “That brown boy.”

What I recall from this exchange is that brown boy’s daddy, in the middle of the Florida summer, wearing a black pullover sweatshirt. It struck me as odd, and I vacillate between gratitude that this man felt safe enough in downtown Sanford to wear a black sweatshirt, now iconic from the Martin case, and skepticism. I still hesitate every time I dress my son in his favorite black Star Wars hoodie, and he’s only three – still young enough to be a cute mixed boy instead of a dangerous black man. I stammer over my words trying to understand what exactly my son means when he calls another little boy brown. Does he realize that he himself is brown? Does he attach any meaning to being brown, or to the fact that his daddy is brown and his mommy is not? Am I over-analyzing? Probably.

But the reality is this: what was once my privilege is now my handicap. I am reminded every time we drive to the birth center, now preparing to welcome our third son, of the weight of our responsibility and how inadequate I feel to carry it. I was not taught to engage conversations around race in a thoughtful, constructive way – I am piecing it together as I go, and I don’t want to get it wrong. My little brown boy’s life might depend on it.

Kayla is an aspiring writer with a background in counseling, currently working for her 3.5 and not quite 2 year old sons (with a 3rd boy on the way). She dabbles in many creative pursuits, but loves words the most. Her greatest joy is creating opportunities for people to connect more deeply with themselves and each other through meaningful conversations, and she can talk all day about being a #boymom, an Enneagram 9, and a recovering perfectionist. You can find her blogging (sometimes) at Letters to a Young Idealist.