Racism, Trayvon & my kids


I was dismayed by the Trayvon Martin verdict on Saturday. I’m quick to admit that I don’t know everything that happened that night. The only two who really do are Zimmerman and Trayvon.  Maybe if I’d been the juror, I’d not have found the evidence convincing enough to convict Zimmerman either. I don’t know.

But here’s something I do know, and it’s the reason I’m writing. Racism is alive and well in America.  There are a lot of people who think it is practically extinct, or that it’s a small issue that ‘some’ folks are trying to whip into something big.

Those folks are just plain wrong.

I have adoptive-momma friends who tell me how often their black sons are pulled over driving to the grocery store. And how their white sons aren’t.  I’ve watched videos like this with my mouth hanging open.  I’ve read how African American families routinely teach their kids how to respond to police in non-inflammatory ways.  Because it’s necessary.

I’ve given my own kids some of that same training.  When I send 2 or 3 of my (minority) teens together into the dollar store, I always remind them to be on best behavior, be polite, don’t even look like you’re trying to pocket anything, and never give a store clerk the tiniest reason to be suspicious. I’ve told my kids that most people are kind, but that some see a lot more in skin color than is fair or true.  It’s best to behave carefully.  Sometimes that means not wearing hoodies or walking outside after dark.  And yeah, that reality stinks.

But what can we do?

I do believe that most folks want to treat people fairly, that they’d like to be a part of the solution instead of part of the problem. If that’s you, then here’s a great place to start:  Not Guilty: Now What?

No matter whether we agree with the ruling of the court or not, we cannot sweep a whole lot of people’s experiences under the rug.  We need to be wary of making that mistake especially if we’ve never experienced racism personally. (3 Things Privileged Christians Can Learn From Trayvon)

We need to work harder to make friends with folks of every color, even if sometimes that mean stepping out of our little comfortable bubbles.  Living life around folks who don’t ‘match’ us colorwise helps us see folks as individuals, hear their stories—for example:Race, Trayvon Martin, and Our National Wakeup Call— even if the truth is hard to hear, even if it doesn’t jive with what we’ve experienced. (Reflections on Being a Black Man in America).

We’ve got to be aware of what’s really happening in the world  (the real one, not the one we WISH for)  because our kids are absorbing what we teach, learning from the experiences we give them.  While they’re young, they are living lives crafted by us.  They’re spending time with folks we choose, and they’re learning to be comfortable around the children we place them with.  This is certainly true in the tiny years, but to a degree (based on where we choose to live, and who our family associates with, and where we go to church and school) we as parents still affect the lives even of older children. Why not give them diverse experiences?

Four of our six kids still at home are Ethiopian.  Two are Korean.  (We’ve also got four white kids who are grown.) They were all homeschooled, all taught and raised and fiercely loved by the same white parents.  But they each go out into the world wearing the skin they were born in.  And that skin DOES affect how they are seen by some.  So I will continue to tell them that most folks are kind, that they have a world of opportunity before them, that they can trust God and work hard and enjoy life.  But I’m also preparing them for the fact that a few folks may judge them based solely on the color of their skin.

Because –even as we work hard to try to change it, even as we wish it were not so–that IS the kind of world we live in.

And the sooner we can face facts, the sooner we can get serious about working to make it better.

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  1. Thank you for these strong, good words, Mary. I appreciate your experience.

  2. Racism makes me so made, especially the people I know that say they’re believers in God and that all are created equal and are completely blind to the way they treat people differently. I agree with you that we need to not ignore the fact that there’s racism, but realize it exists just like all other sins.

  3. Very well said! As the Mom to 2 dark-skinned Asian-born teens, we live this every day. It makes me so sad to have other white parents minimize what my children go through, as though I’m making it all up. It also makes me very sad that my children have to endure this behavior.

  4. Sue from Buffalo says:

    It breaks my heart that there is so much racism but in this case, it was fueled by the media and unjustly. The media called George Zimmerman a “white hispanic” thus creating a new description. The media edited the 911 call to portray Zimmerman as racist when all he was doing was answering a direct question. I despise racism of all kinds. I don’t know how we, as a country, are going to fight racism successfully when there are so many in power who have a vested interest in keeping it going.

    • Sue, I really feel you hit the nail on the head here. While truly Mary DOES have to guard her children against others’ stereotypes of skin colors, this case is one in which the media (and the federal government, even!) went too far the other way, perpetuating their own version of racism. “Since he was dark, he could not have been in the wrong or that would be racist” was the mindset of the media; and that was wrong.

      I don’t think this case is a good example of racism against dark-skinned people…

    • Yes!! The case turned racist because of the hype in the media. The government also had their fingers in it. It was simply awful! Many people benefit both politically and financially when they can keep racism going.

  5. Once again, you hit the nail on the head! You have such a firm grasp on the issues of ethnicity that still exist today. Thank you for sharing. Not only for your children & mine, but for my sake. At (almost) 46 years old, I still experience racism.

  6. Very insightful and well-written post. I don’t know all the happenings of the night of the incident you started with but the jury members that were selected in this case made their decision and we live in a country that has decided that their decision is the one that settled the case.
    It is unfortunate that Zimmerman’s immediate family will probably live in fear in parts of our country for the remainder of their lives. Maybe moving to another country will be best for them all. Sad that that is something a person has to consider.
    With children who have lived in other countries and as the minority there, they find themselves very much accepted and no hint of the racism they see in this country. Sad but true as we have seen.

  7. Mary, as always, your posts are right where we live. I spent most of yesterday in tears as I recognized the racism that exists within my own church family judging by their harsh posts on facebook.

  8. Well said, Mary. Thank you for writing and sharing this!

  9. Thanks for this thoughtful piece!

  10. Excellent post Mary. I do think it’s naive to not recognize the part that race has played in this whole tragic event. And once again, we have missed an opportunity to talk about gun violence and responsible gun ownership without everyone freaking out and retreating to entrenched positions.

  11. Thank you!

  12. Kristen says:

    I have always told my 14 year old Ethiopian born son that the world will view him differently. That people will sometimes assume things about him because of his skin color. That some people will pigeon hole him as an “angry black man” as he gets older. That statistics are not his favor. But in the same breath I tell him he cannot harbor anger about racism. That he needs to be better than that. A more upstanding citizen. A more respectful teenage boy. He needs to show the world what he wishes they would see beyond the color of his skin. Because as his mother, the best thing I can do is to protect his heart.

    • Yes, that is so much of what I want to do for my kids too. Prepare them for what they might encounter, while also protecting their hearts and encouraging them not to be bitter…

  13. Mary, the media and government made this case about race. The jurors sat through the many days and hours of testimony and the one juror who has talked said that she was surprised by the racial component the media was making this case to be. Racism happens to EVERYONE and is not something that just happens to non-whites. As a reader for several years I am saddened that you fell into the media and governments race baiting trap. I really thought that you would have done your own investigating before commenting. I just expect better than this from your postings. Having watched Sharpton and Jackson over the years and the race baiting and stirring that they do time and time again and are quiet when it comes to black on black crime- something much more real and needing to be talked about in an open and honest way and black on white crimes. I was told many of the things that you tell your children growing up and it’s called good parenting. Prejudice is everywhere, but this case was not about it and I am disappointed that you didn’t do more research before jumping on the race train.

    • Dawn,
      Maybe you’re right: maybe this case had nothing to do with race. Tho I didn’t state it in the post, I do understand that people are unkind to each other for LOTS of reasons, and also that racism goes all sorts of directions: black against white, white against black, Hispanic against black, and on and on. We live in a world full of sinners, who find all sorts of reasons and excuses to discriminate against each other. Sometimes it’s true racism and sometimes it’s other forms of hate and unkindness.

      One tiny example: a Korean friend told me that in Korea, the most homogeneous society in the world, darker-skinned Koreans are looked down upon, enough that women in Korea bleach their skin, wear sunscreen obsessively, and use umbrellas to avoid any hint of the dreaded tan.

      But here’s my point of concern (and the point of my post): there are folks who will in the future probably refuse to hire my good-hearted, hard-working kids because they’ve fallen into the trap of believing stereotypes based on the color of their skin. There are folks who will be sure a burglary is on the brink of happening because my friend’s innocent (but hoodie-wearing) son is walking outside after dark. There are folks who may become emotionally unstrung if their white sons dare fall in love with my black daughters. That’s unfair and it’s wrong and it’s racism.

      That’s the kind of thing I’m protesting against, and what I want all of us to think a little more deeply about, and speak a lot more passionately against. We need to judge people on the basis of attributes that are really important, not on the color of their skin.

      Thanks for being a reader all these years. Sorry I’ve managed to dismay you with my current opinion. 🙂

  14. Thank you for this article. My husband and I are hoping to adopt from Ethiopia. I’ve been doing tons of research, but I never once thought that we might have to warn them about going in stores because people might assume they are shoplifting. Where I used to work we often had shoplifters, but the majority of them were white male teens. So much for stereotypes.

  15. Jeanette says:

    Somewhat off topic, Mary, but have you seen the movie “42”? It is the true story of Jackie Robinson, the first black Major League Baseball player, during the time of segregation. Mid 1940’s. Accurate portrayal of what you had mentioned you said to your kids about being above reproach. Really brought this out in the movie.about doing the right thing, even when mistreated. You might want to preview it before letting your kids watch. Some instances of language are in the movie. I have great respect for what this man went through with grace and integrity. I think this movie is available for purchase at Target or Walmart.

  16. chantel says:

    Excellent post. My husband and I are a white couple, with white children, preparing to adopt through the foster care system. There is a black teenager that we have been in prayer about adopting and I truly feel the Lord leading us to adopt this precious child. I never even though about how I would need to prepare them for racism. My own teenagers have a huge variety of friends that come over frequently from black, Hispanic, Asian, and white. I can honestly say that I have never judged these kids by the color of their skin but on their character. My nephew is 1/2 Korean and my niece is 1/2 black. To think that they will judged by the fact that they are of darker skin color discourages me greatly. I realize that I have been extremely naïve in my thoughts of racism still being present, and being displayed, in the ways you have described.

    • Chantel,
      I think that many (probably most) folks aim to treat people of color kindly and fairly, and try to base their decision-making on the character rather than making snap judgements, especially in close circles. We live in Idaho, and it has been a great place to raise our own kids. We’ve had only rare issues, and those have been people who don’t know our kids. But it is smart to warn kids that not everyone is kind. And in the case of the teen that you are considering adopting, they’ve really probably already experienced the spectrum. It’s just a matter of supporting and encouraging them and reminding them of their real worth if they feel glum over unfair treatment.

  17. Julie B. says:

    I am a Canadian mom to 4 African-born and 2 Vietnamese-born children. Thanks for the opinions and links; good food for thought/discussion. I have always appreciated the gracious and realistic/hopeful undertone to your blog. Blessings.

  18. We judge on appearance across the board and I am guilty of this as well to be brutally honest. A few years ago I was in Home Depot with my nephew who at the time was sporting long hair which wasn’t always looking clean and well kept. A man walked by and made a comment – I was speechless. My nephew is smart kind and funny – a truly GOOD kid…respectful and polite yet he was clearly being categorized by his hair.

    I don’t know anyone who doesn’t judge on appearance at some degree, whether it is hair length, tattoos, piercings, skin color, way someone dresses, etc. Not just race.

  19. Personal appearance matters to everyone. It is sad that many people don’t get past their initial reaction. I will say though, that EVERY teenage boy, white or black, wearing a dark hoodie at night looks like trouble, and I will be telling my boys not to wear one.

  20. Thank you. I was looking for the cabinet staining blog and found this nice piece instead. Thank you for seeing the truth and spreading the word. God Bless.

  21. You are right on here, Mary. Our adopted kids are from India, and are young enough that they don’t go out on their own yet. My girlfriends of color and adoptive moms with older girls have helped educate me about what can happen during the teen years. I’m kind of dreading the days when my girls are followed in stores, or propositioned by (mostly Caucasian) boys because of their assumptions about dark-skinned girls . . . And my mom friends with Indian teen boys, and young adults — well, their sons are assumed to be terrorists every single time they set foot in an airport. They are flagged for full-body searches and luggage searches EVERY time they fly, and run through the computers, solely because of their darker skin color, and “middle eastern” looks. I understand that 9-11 has created fear, but how wounding and insulting to them. I love your attitude here — that most people will be kind, but it’s inevitable that our kids will run into people who aren’t. And we need to help them be ready for both.

  22. I, too, was very shocked to see that you fell into the trap that the media set for all Americans regarding the case.
    You can’t say you were just generally speaking about racism and use the Martin case as evidence. NO TRACE of racism was found in this case. As a matter of fact, Mr. Zimmerman never even mentioned the race of the young man until he was ASKED.

    Very disappointed in this post. If you are concerned about your children being treated differently, then I understand that. But the Martin case has absolutely nothing to do with that.