The Value of Black Bodies: talking with my Black son about race based violence
This past weekend my family watched the start of NBA free agency, when NBA players choose their teams and as players moved to new cities, we watched fans display their indignation by burning jerseys. We have been trying to make meaning over the rabid nature of fandom with our seven year old as we talk with him about sportsmanship. Why do fans feel like they own their players? Why are we outraged when we learn that others will profit from the (more often than not) Black bodies we thought were ours?
Those questions were still with us when we woke up to the news about a Black life that had ended in violence at the hands of those who have sworn to protect all citizens. The juxtaposition of the Black bodies we revere for physical feats in sports arenas and those we see as threats has stayed with me. Black bodies are revered when they win rings and they are expendable when they are living quietly.
As I dressed my sons this week and put lotion on their legs to bring out the glow of their skin, I have been thinking about how others will value or decimate their bodies. I wish I could be sure that I will be able to protect them, but my husband and I have each been struck by our powerlessness. I am fearful that my Black boys will not be able to safely live their lives because of their skin color.
My seven-year-old has been experimenting with limits, in a developmentally appropriate way, but tonight we had to talk about why that was dangerous for him. We debated burdening him with the weight of racist acts but we were not sure that we could avoid it. At seven, he is at a turning point where he is beginning to be viewed as a threat by others and we felt that he needs to know what that may mean for him.
This was not our first conversation about race nor was it our first conversation about how the police sometimes interact with people of color, but this was the first time that we brought his safety into our conversation.
“Have you heard any news today?”
“No, why what happened?”
“There was another Black man who was shot by policemen. The man didn’t do anything wrong, but we need to be careful about how policemen see our actions.”
“Is this why you have been telling me not to talk back?”
“Yes, we want you to be safe and policemen can misunderstand why people are asking questions or the force in your answers.”
Later on that evening, his father said more:
“Daddy had a rough day today.”
“Well, I am just upset that these two men were shot by the police and I wanted to come home to talk with you to see if you had questions and to give you a hug.”
“Was it racism?” he asked.
“What we know is that people view Black people differently than White people…today I just felt sad and angry. And I wanted to be with you and your brother. I know you and your mom were talking about your behavior earlier and I want to be clear: It is fine for you to be upset when something happens but you cannot react or act out.
I watched my son’s eyes dim just a little and my heart broke for him, for me, and for all of us. I cannot promise that I will succeed in keeping my boys safe, but I can commit to remaining engaged in conversations even on weeks like this one where I feel very little hope.
Lori Taliaferro Riddick facilitates interactive workshops/webinars and small group workshop series on how to talk about race with young children with Raising Race Conscious Children. Lori also consults with public school districts to develop effective leaders. She formerly served as the Executive Director of Policy and Practice Services at New Leaders. Lori identifies as Black/Bi-racial/Multi-racial and is a mother to her seven-year-old son and newborn son.