My 16-year-old son has a fluency with, let’s call it, “truthiness.” Did you brush your teeth? “Let me check,” he says. Did you do your homework? “The teacher must have lost it.” How clean is the litter box? “I cleaned it yesterday. Wait. Let me check.”
Sometimes I let it slide. Sometimes I don my parental armor and dive, once more, into the breach. Sometimes the battle is played on his turf, not mine.
“The game is cheating.” No, it’s not. It’s a computer.
“The kids aren’t playing fair.” No, they’re just winning. There’s a difference, honey.
“I got stopped for walking while black.” No you—wait. What? What do you mean, you got stopped for walking while black?
“I was walking home from the grocery store. The bags were heavy, so I stopped to take a break. And a cop came by and asked me what I was doing, if I lived nearby.”
Tell me more. Tell me everything. What happened? What did he say? Exactly. Tell me exactly what he said.
Shrug. “He just stopped me, Mom. He stopped me because I’m black.”
How do you know? Shrug. “I just do. It’s not a big deal.”
Not a big deal? Of course it is! It’s a huge deal. Not just because this is my son we’re talking about. That anyone can be—is—stopped because of the color of their skin appalls me. That my son can shrug it off and accept its inevitability horrifies me. And I have no way of parsing this out. There’s no toothbrush to check for wetness, no litter box smells wafting through the house.
It’s not that I think he’s playing fast and loose with the truth here. I know that he’s telling the truth, as far as he sees it. But helping him to dive into it, to understand perception and reality, helping him to bend the light a bit differently on what happened—I can’t.
I’m white. My son is black. And the chasm our society has created and maintains based upon skin color is so infinitely wide, it may be unbridgeable. How can I cross it—not to judge or deny, but to help him understand his reality in relation to the world around him? This is a parent’s role, but I have no experience with it, so I have no voice.
Did he get stopped? I’m sure he did. Was it because he’s black? I don’t know. It could have been, although we live in a community that prides itself on its diversity. It’s just as possible he was stopped because the officer wanted to make sure he was OK: it was hot, he had a bunch of bags, and he was sitting on the side of the road.
But to my son, there is no question: He was stopped by an officer of the law because he is black, and the color of his skin resigns him to this reality. It is a constant stumbling block, a bar that separates him from a white community that moves so freely and without impediment, a society whose members can walk two-and-a-half blocks from grocery store to home without fear.
Though I am his mother, the color of my skin makes my ability—my right—to question his perceptions of this event absolutely impossible. I will never be a black man in America. I will never know what it’s like to be stopped because of the color of my skin. I will never know what it’s like to live with that fear and that resignation. If I pick and probe at it, am I merely wallowing in white privilege? Does my questioning of it dismiss his experience, a tacit disavowal of reality in favor of some fantasy world of racial equality and the kindness of strangers?
How can I guide my beloved son if I cannot bridge this chasm?
There are places I cannot go. This path he has no choice but to take is invisible to me. We parents strive to send our kids out into the world, armed with everything we can give them, so that they can walk fearlessly and boldly on roads of their own choosing, roads we may have never even dreamed of. But that’s different from this. I hate the invisibility, the inability to see even dimly the pitfalls he may face along the way as much as I hate the reality that creates a separate and wholly unequal road that he must navigate without a map or a guide.
I don’t have an answer. We talk about the world and its brokenness, of poverty and ignorance and hatred and inequality. We talk about our responsibility to work for justice, that we, as Jews—as human beings—cannot stand idly by. We talk about the need to practice tikkun olam (repair of the world), that this work is long and we may not complete the seemingly insurmountable tasks before us. We talk about how this doesn’t preclude us from acting, that act we must. We talk—and we do what we can to create change.
It is so much easier to talk about broken and repair and what is just and right in the abstract! But this is my child who faces incredible, systemic, and endemic injustice, and for all the action I take—and I have a long history of working for social justice and change—I am at a loss. I have no answers for him. So for right now, we talk about it. For right now, I listen to him. And for right now, this will have to be enough.