#5: Did I Do the Right Thing?
In 2014, a few weeks after 12-year-old Tamir Rice was senselessly murdered by a Cleveland police officer while playing with a fake gun on a playground, I took my nine-year-old nephew Miles, and his friend John, to one of those horrible bouncy parks in the mall. Like Tamir, Miles is an adorable brown boy with big sweet brown eyes and irresistible cheeks. John is equally cute, with blond hair and blue eyes, and about a head shorter than Miles.
In the car, they talked incessantly about Pokémon, speaking a language I didn’t understand. They shoveled fist-fulls of Cheez-Its into their little mouths, oblivious to the dusting of bright orange crumbs all over my back seat. I reminded them to be aware of parking lot traffic, as they carelessly bounded out of the car. They entered the mall in true little-boy spirit, jumping from one colored floor tile to another, trying not to land on any white ones, or in their world, “trying not to fall into the red-hot lava.”
When we passed Citizen’s Bank, they renamed it Cheez-It Bank. Both boys pulled up the hoods of their sweatshirts, stuffed their hands in their pockets to look like they were carrying guns, ran up to the bank entrance for a pretend stick-up and yelled, “Give me all your Cheez-Its!" They ran away in side-splitting hysterics.
My heart dropped.
This kind of innocent moment, shared by two sweet friends, could get one of them killed. And that one is my nephew, the child who stole my heart the second he entered this world.
I was present for Miles’ birth. As he exited my sister’s body, he was facing me with his left hand above his head, as if doing the breaststroke from an alternate universe, right into my life. I felt a sensation I had never felt before and haven't felt since - like I had been turned inside out, as if his spirit passed through my body as he entered this world.
Overwhelmed by this sensation, I nearly passed out and threw up. I knew if I did that, and took the attention away from my little sister, right after she had just given birth, I’d never hear the end of it. So instead, I slowly backed up into the corner of the room and lowered myself into a chair, put my head in my hands, took some deep breaths and cried.
My love for him is tremendous. It wasn't until I met him that I felt the physical sensation of heartache – the stretching of the muscle – expanding into this new level of all-encompassing unconditional love. There’s a heightened level of anxiety that accompanies deep love for a child. They put their arms around you, squeeze and tell you how much they love you. Out of nowhere, you imagine them falling off a cliff or running into the street to retrieve a ball and getting hit by a car. In these moments, and there are many, I remind myself to be where I am, to focus on enjoying the hug or the Legos or the drawing we're working on together.
But, because of Miles’ complexion, there are a slough of rational fears as well.
Miles and John ran away from the Cheez-It Bank. They looked behind to see if I would let them go any further. I often let them walk far ahead, as long as I could see them, so they could feel independent. But on this particular day, I stopped them in their tracks.
“Boys, come back.”
As they walked toward me, I had my first glimpse of the way the world would soon be receiving Miles as he transitioned from a cute little brown boy to a young, strong, black teenager. His sweatshirt now a hoodie. His existence, as an innocent little boy, somehow perceived as a threat.
“Listen to me. This is important.”
I waited until Miles was looking directly at me. “You can never pretend to be carrying a gun. Ever. A little boy was just killed by a police officer and all he was doing was playing with a fake gun on the playground."
This was their first time hearing a story of such injustice. They could not believe their ears.
"A police officer killed a kid?" Miles asked. "I thought they were supposed to protect us."
As kids do, they quickly forgot what I had told them as soon as we reached the bouncy park, refocusing their energy on a game of tag. But I couldn’t let it go.
Did I do the right thing? Is there anything I can teach him that will actually protect him?
Be strong. Be quiet. Be submissive to authority. Stand your ground. Don't ever break the law, not even a little bit. Don't play that game. Don't wear that sweatshirt or drive that car or listen to that music.
In the end, none of it matters.
Black boys aren’t being killed because of their fake guns, sweatshirts or taste in music. They're being killed because they're black.
Will there ever be a generation of black children who can grow up in this country and know what it means to be free? Freedom to play, explore, come into oneself, to thrive, to be safe?
White people don't talk about race because we're afraid we'll get caught, that we will uncover our own discreet racism by saying the wrong thing, that our blind spots will be pointed out. The best thing we can do is welcome the insight, be willing to view our unintentionally racist points of view, and work actively to replace them with informed knowledge, deepened compassion, and an active commitment to work for justice for all.
When you hear these stories, the stories about Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, the six women and three men gunned down in their place of workshop in South Carolina, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and countless others, listen with your child-self, like you are hearing your first story of injustice. Let yourself feel the outrage it deserves. Let the stories call you to action. Speak up. Take risks. Let go of privilege. Use what privilege is left to eradicate racism.
Fight for your life for black lives. They wholeheartedly matter.