When my privilege won't protect my child - for Parents and Allies of non white childrenJun 07, 2022
Recently my 21-year-old daughter and I went with a friend to the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro, NC. For $25 a person you can go on a guided tour. I have never gotten so much out of $25.00.
I recommend this tour for all white parents of non-white children. While we saw many kinds of people there, of all ages, I am not sure at what age I would take a child. You cannot take pictures, much of the spaces are original and several times people on our tour were asked to not lean on the walls – I say this not to discourage, but to prepare you for one sitting break in a 2-hour tour. There are elevators, and I believe it felt very accessible – including parking and good sidewalks.
This recommendation comes from so many places, but the one I want to share is because of the children we are all here for.
There is a point in the tour where we talk about trains and transportation. Our tour guide, Gloria shares the experience as one travels from the North to the South. If you have ever traveled internationally or moved from one state to another the experience of moving from one cultural norm to another might sound familiar. During Jim Crow the first thing the traveler experienced upon entering the South would be 2 arches, one that said white and one that said ‘Colored’. We got to walk under a replica of the one that said ‘colored’.
Before I share the rest, let me take a moment to describe the people on our tour.
We were a mixed crowd. Race, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, and so much more were either easily identified or things I was privy to. Gloria (our guide) is a Black woman whose hair was braided back into a single afro-puff of vibrant gray curls. Her energy feels amazing, it is balanced between informational, lived experience, sensitivity to the content she is sharing and yet, I guess I would call it an air of accountability. Something in the family of truth telling with care, but not making allowances.
She stopped and looked at us through her light pink glasses and explained all about the replicated arch we were about to pass under that said ‘colored’. She flat out told us that if we were not WHITE, this would be the only place one could enter. It didn’t mean ‘Black people’. I saw and heard sounds of surprise from some non-white/non-Black people. She had us consider where we would have to enter. Like I imagine most of you would respond, I wondered where my child would go.
I thought of Trevor Noah’s story – as he talked about being a young child during Apartheid and how he could not be known to belong to either of his parents – and how reading that had made me feel about children navigating white / nonwhite spaces and the not belonging in either of those.
You might say, Carter, there weren’t any/many bi/trans-racial relationships going on during Jim Crow. I say false. Google says the Jim Crow timeline went from 1877 to 1964. It also says the Loving case was decided in 1967. Pretty sure interracial couples existed prior to the end of Jim Crow if legalizing interracial marriage occurred 3 years after Jim Crow officially ended.
Anyway, I digress. My real point to you, to us… is this. A short time after we pass through the arch, we walk into what I call ‘the difficult room’. In this room we hear and see many human stories in images that are life size. Being in that space with the images, hearing the stories from someone who lived through Jim Crow herself, changes the energy in the story for the listener.
Especially those of us with children we love who are in harm’s way simply because of the way their race is experienced by other people.
I feel like we all know the story of Emmett Till. But there is perspective for us in that story. Hidden in the nuances that I don’t hear spoken out loud is a warning for us to urgently get the parts right that we can in preparing our children for the ‘real’ world. That world where our privilege does not protect them, that world they navigate alone.
The story Gloria told us went like this. Emmett grew up in the North. He played and interacted among all kinds of people. He had not experienced the cultural differences of the American South during Jim Crow. As she shares details about his childhood, I hear all the things that we (parents) intentionally find ways to provide our children. Diverse neighborhoods. Inclusive playgroups. Education, the arts, sports… all of it, with diversity and inclusion at the core. It sounded exactly how I tried to create space for my child when she was young.
Emmett wanted to visit his grandparents.
Do your children visit relatives? Maybe more pre-covid, but for me - I stayed EVERY summer with my grandparents. These were the BEST days of my childhood. I feel strongly that all children should get the advantage of intergenerational relationships.
Emmett was 14, and he wanted to go. Gloria tells us his mother (Mamie Till Mobley) tried to tell him not to go, to change his mind, and knowing that, I am sure she shared her fears and gave him ‘the talk’ (probably again). Even though they were ‘just a train ride away’ the things a Black man needed to know and do to survive would be very different. Yes, I said Black man, and that he was only 14 in the same paragraph. That is how Black teenagers are almost always treated by our justice system and our own internal bias.
So, Emmett went. He took the train, went through the ‘colored’ arch, and while he was there, visiting his grandparents, he ‘whistled at a white woman’.
But did he?
He had a speech impediment. I had recently heard that somewhere else, and here it was again, in Gloria’s account of his murder.
She then told how the word ‘rape’ during Jim Crow, when applied to a Black man did not mean forced sex had occurred. It meant that the Black man had ‘looked a white woman in her face’. What this saying means is this. All Black men could be accused of anything the minute they were perceived to be out of line… and remember, a 14-year-old is an adult when he is Black.
In the end, Emmett Till was brutally murdered because he responded to a white woman in a manner that would have been his acceptable cultural norm where he grew up. Meaning, he looked at her while in the store, and due to his speech impediment, and her own cultural norms/bias she interpreted him as ‘whistling at her’, and then sent in motion the events that would culminate in the cold-blooded murder of a child.
There are many things to learn from Emmett Till’s lived experience, but only one I hope all of you take away today.
It is IMPERATIVE that we prepare our children to understand their cultural norms in relation to others, and how to navigate the spaces that are different.
I hope you join us while we share our best practices, learn new tips and tricks, and share our journeys as parents and caregivers while we center the safety and growth of our non-white children.
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