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Passing on the Code

by Wendy Rhein March 29, 2012

By: Wendy Rhein

The murder of Trayvon Martin has consumed the media and many a mind these last few weeks. The death of a child is always a tragedy but this one has taken on a larger grief because of its racial foundation, its avoidability, and its shocking reminder that the death of a young black man at the hand of a person who believes himself to be an authority is not new. Not by a long shot.

I am a white woman raising two young black men. I’m well aware of that. I’ve been accused of being overly aware of it. I can’t tell you how many people have told me that that they just don’t see race, or that race isn’t a factor anymore.

(That’s just not true. And it bothers me when people claim to not see race because it is an intrinsic part of identity and pride. Don’t negate my sons’ race by saying you don’t see it. Celebrate it. Welcome it. Cherish the fact that difference exists everywhere you find it.)

I digress.

There is this thing called the Code. I’ve been told about the Code. I’ve asked scores of not-so-sensitive questions about the Code and how to share it with my sons someday. I am incredibly grateful to the men who have been willing to talk to me openly and honestly about what to say and how, acknowledging my limitations. I could have left this alone until they are older, ignored it until absolutely necessary because that certainly would be less confrontational for me. But I want to be prepared. I want them to be prepared. And I admit to a level of shame about the need for the existence of the Code that I need to deal with too.

Generations of African American families have sat around thousands of kitchen tables and shared this sad reality with their sons. One day, my dear child, you will scare someone just because you are a young black man. They will question your presence in their neighborhood, at their school, late at night at a traffic stop. Pay very close attention to your environment, to your surroundings. If you feel uncomfortable, pay attention to that and leave. Over time you will develop a sixth sense about these things, I’ve been told. Be respectful when you are stopped by a police officer even when you have no idea why. Don’t be submissive but don’t challenge. Find respect in humility and self preservation. And please know that not all white people will be like this, you have a wide and loving group of examples that prove otherwise. Don’t let these indignities make you angry or hateful because that’s not who you are. Be aware that others fear and judge based on their issues; it has both nothing and everything to do with you.

My boys are too young, thank God, for this discussion but I know it is coming. It is hard for me on many levels. I see the internal battle between teaching them to be wary and questioning and creating distrust and bitterness. I want them to live in a world that is full of love and creativity and purpose, not labels and misconceptions and genuine danger. How do I balance raising them to be self confident and powerful young men while also telling them to be careful about going to a Stop n Shop after a football game? How can I tell them to be who they inherently are and yet plant this insidious seed of self-limitation and self loathing?

I wish I could say that I’m shocked and surprised that a 17-year-old black man who tried to shield himself from the night’s rain with a hooded sweatshirt was gunned down in his neighborhood. Instead, I’m shocked and surprised by the shock and surprise of so many others. This is the reality for many black male teens. For those who say they don’t see race, please understand that others’ experiences are not yours and we need to acknowledge that racial reactions still exist, whether in high profile situations like Trayvon’s or the more subtle indignities faced by black men daily. I don’t know how so many of these parents have talked to their sons over the years without erupting in rage over the very fact that we still have to have this conversation. I don’t know how I will.

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Wendy Rhein
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