Always being able to breathe
My oldest son won’t turn five until July. He’s been desperate to turn five since he turned four. He’s been excited for kindergarten for a year. He is strong willed, stubborn, and will negotiate fiercely for what he wants. He’s also kind, sensitive, and aware that he is luckier than many — two parents who adore him, a brother who (mostly) adores him, and a house full of toys, food, books, and love. He is aware that there are kids who live with less, and that we must do our part to help other children and families who need support.
But since protests broke out across the US — and the world — in reaction to ongoing police brutality, systemic racism, and the latest rash of killing of innocent black men and women, I can’t help but feel he is one of the unlucky ones. My son is biracial; I am white and my husband, from Haiti, is black. At first glance my boy is light skinned and might be hard to label. But his hair gives him away — his scarlet letter of tight ringlet curls that scream out his blackness.
I have known since he and his brother were born that they would navigate a different world than I did — than even my husband did growing up in Haiti. Their experience as biracial boys in America would inherently be different than mine of a young white girl. Until five years ago, under the veil of my own privilege, I didn’t appreciate just how different their world would actually be. My son wasn’t born when Trayvon Martin was innocently gunned down; I was pregnant when Tamir Rice was shot. During my son’s short life, the names of innocent black men and women killed by police has only grown. Some names we turned into a hashtag and other stories haven’t made the national news. In my son’s five years, the world hasn’t gotten easier to navigate for a boy like him; it’s gotten harder, more brutal, and as his mother, infinitely more terrifying.
Yesterday evening, after a near perfect day of late spring weather — sunny, blue sky, warm — we decided to go for a family walk and bike ride after dinner. My son — whose major victory during the COVID-19 quarantine has been to master a two-wheeler and an alarming comfort with speed — put on his own helmet. It was a bit crooked when he buckled it and he joked “I can’t breathe. Help, I can’t breathe.” He thought it was silly. I nearly screamed. Or cried. I’m not sure which would have happened first. He has not heard the news lately; we have not shared the painful story of George Floyd or any of the other black men and women who lost their lives too soon. He thought he was being funny. I thought a knife had been stabbed into my heart. The sheer reality that those words, under different circumstances, could be his last about undid me. What is a mother to say to her biracial not quite five-year-old about those words? About his place in the world? About how society will see him — not as a bright, inquisitive, funny kid, but as a threat, older than he appears, potentially dangerous? How do I put that burden on him ahead of a glorious evening bike ride? How do I put that on him, ever?
And our reality is that although we talk a lot about race and have so many books with characters that look like him, nothing will ever prepare him — or us — for the conversations we have to have about his place in this world. That he must be better, different, politer, above it all because his life is on the line. I am not ready for this conversation. We’ve talked about where babies come from but “the conversation” about race, justice, and his life, is one I am not ready to have yet. My husband fixed the bike helmet strap. But we cannot fix the system. We can not unbuckle and reposition the helmet he needs to navigate our society as a black boy in our world. There is no helmet.
Mothers of black children have faced this pain for centuries. As the white mother of a biracial child, I am lost. I cannot relate to the struggle he will face. I cannot guide him using my own experiences. I am out on a limb, navigating my own white privilege, but painfully aware that how we teach him to handle this injustice could determine his fate. I am also aware that I have a job to do; to use my voice, my privilege, my ability to step up when others cannot without fear, to try to fix this mess. To do my part to make it better, so that by the time my baby isn’t a baby anymore, this isn’t the society he faces. He’s not even five. This racism, injustice, and violence does not have to be what defines the life he has ahead.
I want my biracial boys to always be able to breathe. To always know that they are not less, but they are equals. They have the same rights, the same life value as anyone else — regardless of the darkness of their skin or the curl in their hair. I want my boys to put on their helmets and go flying down the road breathing, really breathing, knowing they are safe, loved, and valued. That they are equal and that they belong.