Monday, July 15, 2013

Guest Post: Parenting in a Post-Post Racial Society -- Teach Your Children Well

Opening up the space to guest-bloggers may become a more regular thing this year. This post comes from Elizabeth Ferries-Rowe (the seldom posting +Elizabeth Ferries-Rowe or @wishbabydoc), mother of 3 and Chief of OB/GYN at Wishard Memorial Hospital in Indianapolis, IN. She happens to be married to me, but after reading her thoughts this weekend, I felt it was important to expand her audience beyond FaceBook.


Being a parent is scary. You keep your kids close for a short time, and you teach them what you can to keep them safe when that time is up. Sometimes, though, that isn’t enough. When I heard the verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman, my first thought was of my friend Rana. We’ve known each other for years. We were residents together, and we joined the same practice after graduating residency. We’ve had our kids together, and we’ve shared the struggles of raising a family as busy full-time moms. We’ve swapped stories of pumping milk for our babies between C-sections at 3 a.m. and laughed as our precocious kids learn to speak like grown-ups through tiny mouths. Of course, as our kids get bigger, we’ve started to see where our parenting experiences will differ. I have three girls, and Rana has two boys. Also, Rana’s family is black.

The early commentary on the verdict has been revealing. From a legal standpoint, the verdict seems to be justified in light of Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” law*. The law permits deadly force and does not require a person to attempt to escape a situation where he or she is threatened. The problem, of course, is that the degree to which one feels threatened is subjective. George Zimmerman reported to police that he feared for his life, and a jury of his peers believed that he was right to fear. What was it about that night that justified his fear in the eyes of a jury? Trayvon, 160 pounds and armed only with a bag of Skittles, was not perceived as a credible threat based on superior physical strength or overwhelming firepower. The jury accepted that Trayvon posed a threat because he was young and male and black. Of course, some will argue that Trayvon was a bad kid, and that bad outcomes are inevitable when you make bad choices. After all, he had a history of marijuana use and fights at school – as if those would justify his death. When George Zimmerman aimed a weapon at him that night, though, he knew none of that. He knew only that a young black man was walking through the neighborhood after dark - and that alone was enough to justify following him through the night, and ultimately killing him. If Trayvon had been anything other than who he was – white, or female, or elderly – and all other facts in the case remained the same, I doubt that Zimmerman would have been acquitted. If Zimmerman had reported fear for his life when faced with a 16-year-old white girl, the jury simply would not have believed him. Not that this theoretical 16-year-old white girl and Trayvon Martin would be meaningfully different in the threat they posed – only that Trayvon’s very person made him legitimately dangerous to those determining Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence.

The crime of being young and black is hardly news, despite our self-congratulatory claims of being a post-racial society, and I do not pretend to understand how it must feel to raise children under that cloud. We all face our parenting challenges. As my eldest hits puberty and only gets taller and blonder and tanner with every passing day, events like the sexual assault and social media humiliation of a teenage girl in Steubenville, Ohio last year make me wonder how to best protect my girls. Should I tell them never to attend parties? Should I tell them to be afraid of boys as they grow into young men? Should I tell them to be cautious that the way they dress doesn’t imply openness to sexual advances? I shouldn’t have to, but part of parenting girls in our society is teaching them that they can’t count on others to treat them as human beings, and that they must make smart decisions to protect themselves. The difference between me and Rana, though, is that I can teach my girls how to minimize the risk. I can teach my daughter not to wear short skirts, lest some young man conclude she was “asking for it”. How can Rana teach her boys not to black? Why should she have to try?

On the night of the verdict, I sent Rana a text: “Thinking of you tonight. Give your beautiful boys a hug for me, too.” She responded: “Thanks E. I’ve already cried…and will continue. My babies are not safe.”

I don’t know where to go from here. The case highlights the flaws of the “stand your ground”, but to focus only on that is to miss the bigger picture. There are a multitude who are more learned and more articulate that I am on the stereotype of the Angry Black Man in America, but I know that until we find a way to see a 16-year-old boy in a hoodie as just a 16-year-old boy in a hoodie, our society will continue to be constructed around fear. Rana’s boys are smart, funny, unique little people. When she sends them out at night in a few years, though, they will be smart, funny, unique young black men. It’s up to all of us to find a way to help her keep them safe.

* In light of the attention this article is getting today (Thanks, FARK :) ), the author (and wife) pointed out that she had corrected the Stand-Your-Ground line on her Facebook page as the details of the case were being publicized. Since I am not on FB much, I missed the update: 
"The early commentary on the verdict has been revealing. From a legal standpoint, the verdict seems to be justified based on the premise of self defense. The law permits deadly force and does not require a person to attempt to escape a situation where he or she is threatened." 
There is probably some room for discussion about SYG influence given the statements of at least one juror (example HERE), but I will leave that topic for the Fark message board. :)