Every day for the last several months my tall skinny teenaged son has left the house wearing a hoodie. When it was cold enough for a winter jacket, he opted for a hoodie. When it was warm enough for a tee-shirt, hoodie. He pulls the hood over his head and slouches forward, eyes down as he walks wherever he is headed: the bus stop, the corner convenience store, a friend’s house.
And never do I worry that he will be mistaken for a criminal.
This is what it means to live every day with white privilege. To be a white mother of a white son means that I don’t have to teach my son to watch his back. I don’t have to explain to him the life and death need to be extra-deferential to police officers or for that matter, other adults. Do I hope that he is always well-behaved and respectful in public? Of course. Do I worry that if he fails to live up to those expectations he’ll be shot? Never.
This afternoon I attended a vigil for Trayvon Martin in Asheville’s downtown plaza, in front of the courthouse and county jail. A jail, like every other in this country, housing a disproportionate number of young black men. Our African-American mayor stood in her hoodie, describing how it feels to be the mother of a nine year old boy in this community. The fact that she is the mayor does not make her family immune to our nation’s sickness.
In the writing class I’m taking this spring, we are reading Lost in the City, a book of short fiction by Pulitzer Prize winning author Edward P. Jones. Jones writes unsentimental stories of African-American families in Washington, DC, with clear-eyed prose. The stories are set in different decades over the last fifty years, but all of them are set in a milieu of despair. In the book black girls die, black boys have run-ins with the cops, black families suffer estrangement and hope, black communities pull together and apart.
To be reading these stories as I watch the news unfold is to know that however far we have come, we have not come nearly far enough. We can elect an African-American president or mayor, we can hire an African-American chief of police, we can sing songs of freedom while holding hands, but it is not enough. Emmett Till died more than fifty years ago. How many more black mothers will watch their boys murdered for the crime of being black? Too many.
Being at the town plaza today required nothing of me other than a split second of time. What will it require of me, of my hoodied son, of all of us, to stand up to racism? What will it take to create the beloved community dreamed into a vision by another murdered black man?
I can never stop living with the reality of my white privilege. But at the very least, I can pay attention to it. And I can teach my hoodied son to notice his, as well. It is not sufficient. But it is necessary.