My 10-year-old son came into the room while I was watching the news yesterday. On screen, they were talking about Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy who was shot and killed by police in Cleveland.
“Why would the police kill a kid, Mom?”
I stumbled around for answers I didn’t have.
“Well, I guess he was carrying a BB gun and the police thought it was a real gun.”
“My cousins have BB guns. Are they going to get shot?”
I thought about his ginger-haired cousins for a moment. Freckle-faced country boys who weren’t likely to run into any police as they trudge around my parents’ farm.
But, what if they did? What if they happened to be in town, goofing around with their BB guns, and a cop spotted them? Would he shoot at them? Kill them? The thought seemed ludicrous. And yet.
Little creases began appearing on my son’s forehead. He sensed my hesitation to answer and it was making him nervous. I gave him a reassuring hug.
“No, you don’t need to worry about your cousins. They’ll be fine.”
His forehead relaxed a little, but his jaws stayed clenched. There was more on his mind that needed to be worked through.
“I saw on the computer that a man was choked because he was black. And a lot of people were really mad about it.”
Oh, this conversation. This conversation that we, with our light skin and European features, have the luxury of putting off until far too late. Sure, being Jewish can sometimes seem like a mark against us in the big world, but it’s a mark we wear on the inside, not emblazoned on our skin.
Watching the video of Eric Garner being choked by a police officer made my stomach turn. There is no understanding that kind of brutality, no way to rationalize it. The idea that a man could be treated so inhumanely and then have the perpetrators walk away unpunished is gut-wrenching.
Eric Garner reminded me of my best friend in college, my cousin in New York, my dearest neighbor in Providence. Very different men who have little else in common but the color of their skin. I wondered how many times each of them had ever felt threatened because of it.
I thought back to how my college friend used to get nervous when he was the only black guy in the room. It seemed silly to me then. Hadn’t I grown up as the only Jewish kid in town? The only one with a dark-skinned Israeli mother? Sure, I felt different sometimes, uncomfortable often, but I wasn’t ever afraid. Not really.
But, my friend… my friend, who is one of the most brilliant and wildly successful people I know. My friend who is soft-spoken and gentle. My friend who could crack me up even during my most melodramatic college moments. That amazing guy who is a gift to anyone who knows him would feel nervous in a crowd of white people.
I wanted to be honest with my son but I didn’t want to scare him. I wanted to help him feel compassion, but not pity. I wanted to inspire him to speak out against injustice, but not view the world through a lens of distrust.
I didn’t have a clue how to do any of it.
We talked for a while. I explained to him that often people are judged by things that they can’t control, like the color of their skin, or the neighborhoods they live in. I told him that people, even police officers, can feel afraid, and sometimes that fear can result in terrible decisions. I encouraged him to think of all the wonderful people we know, of all different ethnicities and skin colors, and realize how impossible it would be to make generalizations about any of them.
The conversation went on for a long time. After a while, I realized I was talking in dizzying circles, trying to make sense of something that didn’t make any sense to me at all.
I stopped my rant for a moment, and looked at my son’s face. His eyes were scrunched down into anxious slits and he was chewing on his bottom lip.
“What do you think about all of that?” I asked.
He shrugged his shoulders and looked down at the ground.
“I still don’t get it.”
I smiled and gave him a big hug.
“Neither do I.”