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I am not Trayvon Martin’s Mom

I distinctly remember one of the days I had to really own my racism. Yes, that’s right. I’m a white mother of 2 black boys and I’m a racist. Shocked? You shouldn’t be. As a white person with white privilege, it’s in the very air I breath.  I am owning it. I can speak it, “I am a racist.”  I try not to be, every single day. But, I am. submerged

How do I know I’m a racist? There are a lot of examples, but I’ll share one. I was teaching high school. 9th grade, cultural anthropology. One of my black students, ‘Hank’, called me out. I am grateful for his courage.

‘Hank’ was a B-/C student. Nice kid. Charming. Liked to tell stories about his mom. Football player. Low cut with a nice line (he taught me the value of that for my sons). He did OK in my class — he was fairly engaged in discussions, did his homework (mostly). He was a good talker. I wanted him to stretch his conversational skills into written work, because he could do some good thinking out loud, but needed to build his writing skills.  In my class of 24 kids, he was one of 2 students of color, 2 black boys, to be precise.

I noticed one day that ‘Hank’  was furiously writing in a notebook with his head down, writing on and on and on and on. Since he was not an engaged note-taker, I knew what this meant. In a word: GIRLFRIEND.  I walked around the room, as I always did, confirming as I walked past him that he was indeed writing to his ‘girl’. I did nothing to interrupt the writing (clue 1). Day 2 the writing continued, and while I called on ‘Hank’ for a discussion point, I did not saunter over and casually close his notebook (clue 2).  On day 3 I ignored ‘Hank’, thinking to myself, “he’s doing ok in class, he’s a C student. That’s good for him” (clue 3). Day 4 and I figured ‘Hank’ must really be ‘into’ this girl. And still, I let him write (clue 4). I remember thinking, “he’s a B-/C student, I’ll intervene if he drops to a D.”  Yes, I thought that. On Days 5.6,7  I started feeling a little worried about ‘Hank’. I started to get uncomfortable. It slowly dawned on me that I was letting this kid slip away right in front of me, and I had let thoughts drift around that undervalued him,  valuing him differently than his peers. I WAS VALUING HIM DIFFERENTLY THAN HIS WHITE PEERS.  

After nearly 2 weeks…TWO WEEKS, at the end of class I gently tapped him on the shoulder and asked him to stay after the bell. My request was quiet and friendly, but he knew (clue 5).  As soon as the class emptied out he looked me right in the eye and asked, “What took you so long, Ms. Plum?”  He had me. It’s all he had to say to let me know that he KNEW that I didn’t value him like my other (read: majority white!) students. I felt my heart sink to the pit of my stomach. I had waited too long. I had let him slip away. My inaction had conveyed to him that I saw him in a more mediocre, expendable,  “he’s doing ok for ‘him’ (read:black boy)” kind of way. My actions WERE the actions of someone who valued him, his black skin, his future, LESS than my other students. He caught me. And then I caught me. My only response was to look him right in the eye and speak from my best and truest place, “I’m sorry ‘Hank’. You are right. I took too long to tell you that you are an important part of this class. I took too long to tell you to put that pen and notebook in your bag and get back to work.I’m telling you now. I’ll see you tomorrow, ready for class.”  

That was it. It broke me, in the best kind of way. ‘Hank’ and I went on as usual, he was one of the first, but not the last, to remind me of my racism. But I know, I KNOW that I am one cut in his 1000 little cuts, in his world of constant microaggressions. I went on, changed. He went on, his understanding of himself as a young black man confirmed, yet again, by me. That sucks for me. It sucks worse for him. I’m not the victim in this story. 

His words set me on a more intense journey filled with daily practice to intercept and intervene when my ‘purse clutching thoughts’ step forward. (You all know what I’m talking about? When you pass a group of black boys and you hold your purse a little tighter and walk a little faster? Yes. That). 

I remember hearing one of my mentors and white privilege heroes, Tim Wise, speak. He said white privilege and racism are in the air we breath. Tim Wise, who has committed his life to teaching/writing/leading work on white privilege shared the story of walking down an airline ramp and noting his pilot was a black man. He said the very FIRST thought that came to him was, “I sure hope he knows how to fly this thing.”  What a sick relief it was for me  to hear that he too was a racist.  Years and years and years of dedication to his work and still he inhaled this stuff, as did I. He said his job (and by extension, my job) was to spend my days getting in front of these thoughts and dismantling them with awareness and deliberate action. 

I went on to get deeply involved in working on being an ally at the high school where I taught. I got  more courageous. I spoke up. We had a terrible “racial incident” (that’s what people called it) in our high school.  Many, many people at the high school were furious with me for speaking about racism the way I did. I recall one day in the staff lounge/lunchroom I was admitting (thoughtfully, really!) to my own racism. The conversation was friendly (ish?) and I said, with a smile, “We should put a white board in here and title it “Racist things I did or thought today.” Absolute stunned silence. But I could have filled that board. And I tried damn hard NOT to be above the fray — to be a part of the problem, not somehow enlightened enough to be ‘healed’ of my own white privilege and racism. But it reached my ears, “she thinks she is an expert now that she has black sons.” No, not an expert. Not even close. But filled with more courage, more earnestness, more humility to do this work.  I am more like my white flawed peers than NOT like them. 

I have tried to do the work well.  I read a ton, have qualified and experienced mentors, take classes, make sure I have input and support from black local leaders. I learned, quickly, that even one mis-step in this work is costly. I have had a few mis-steps (who doesn’t?) in the work, and  I did get called to the principal’s office. “You are taxing your leadership skills”, the principal told me, “some people are angry.”  Some people = white colleagues offended by the words ‘racism’ and ‘racist.’  I try to do it well — following Jay Smooth’s advice on ‘how to tell people they sound racist’.  But really, even if I shout my complicity in this, it sets white people off into defensive and hurt postures.  There is NO amount of trying that will NOT end up with anger or tears. (In my husband’s case, there were tears). When I walked into one of my mentor’s offices, shut the door, and spoke this to him, he said, “This is the experience of we black people every single day. We are not believed. Now, as an ally, you know what it feels like to be doubted and your leadership questioned not because of your qualifications, but because you are an ally.”

I am not Trayvon Martin’s mom. I’m a mom to 5 kids. I am white. 2 of my kids are my black sons. I have a freakin’ lot of work  to do. I’ll continue to do it. I hope you’ll respect that it’s a journey for me too. I don’t have answers. But I do have the most amazing small sons, who will grow up to be ‘scary black men’. I’m angry about that. I know that  some of you, my white friends and family, are seeing my sons like I saw ‘Hank.’  I am angry that some of you are seeing my sons like George Zimmerman saw Trayvon Martin.

I’m am not Trayvon Martin’s mom, because I’m a racist white mom. That makes me incredibly uncomfortable to say.  It makes me sick to my stomach. But I can’t heal it if i don’t own it. And for these glorious sons of mine, and for all the black children (and brown children), I MUST OWN IT and HEAL IT. 

photo (20)

And hey, ‘Hank’….I love you man. Thank you.  

 

47 responses to “I am not Trayvon Martin’s Mom

  1. Beautiful, poignant. Thank you, Mrs. Plum, for owning your privilege and helping me own mine. Together, we’ll all do the real work so our sons and daughters, friends and relatives can also “see”, do the real work and we all benefit…

  2. This is such a powerful post. I hear you and I too feel similarly. Your writing truly puts into words the truth we as white people live (many without ever fully recognizing)- and what we must do to learn and change the direction of the world. The thought that your sons will someday be “scary black men” is such a powerful message, and I too know that someday in the near future, my beautiful, vivacious brown daughter won’t be looked at as a cute little girl with long braids, but something else, something more sinister and needed to be watched when she enters a store. Thank you so much for this post- I would love to share it.

  3. thanks girl. trying to own it and change it with you.

  4. This is so honest and brave of you to write. So well said. I think you should submit this to a magazine. There are a lot of truths here.

  5. Pingback: Woman Admits to Being Racist in an Open Letter Titled “I Am Not Trayvon’s Mom” | Around the Way Curls

  6. I read your post. Can’t agree on everything you have said. That’s the major problem in the states, we all talk, act like we are not racist, but yes we all are! Lets begin with where we live, who lives in a black neiborhood? We all look for white neiborhood to live at, because crime rate seems to be less there right? Also, we got to keep in mind that racism cant be inherited, it grows in us as we see the actions of others.

    • We do NOT “all look for white neiborhood (sic) to live in.” My family looked for and found a mixed race neighborhood to live in, and we love it. As for crime rates, certain crimes correlate with socioeconomic status, which in turn, correlates with race; that does not automatically mean white neighborhoods have less crime.
      And by the way, I agree with the original post – I can think of two racist thoughts I caught myself thinking just today. It IS the air we breathe.

      • Aren’t you still being racist by looking for a neighborhood based on racial make-up then, regardless if it’s an all white, all black or mixed race? How about finding a neighborhood based on location to work, schools, family, house type, amount of land, etc.

    • We looked for places to live that were diverse and specifically avoided all-white neighborhoods. To answer Melissa: no, it’s not racist to look for a diverse neighborhood to live in. I avoid all white neighborhoods because my black children would be harmed living in that environment, not because white people are inferior to people of color but because white people look at my children as being inferior. We live in a diverse community, not because the adults in the community are better than other communities but because I want my children to have friendships with children who are like them. So that they have allies that they can lean on for support when the times get even tougher than they are now.

  7. When we learn to shift OUR PERCEPTIONS OF PEOPLE, PLACES AND THINGS from being material to being SPIRITUAL IN NATURE, we are healed instantly.

  8. Wow. Just. Wow.

    Thank you for sharing. Thank you.

  9. This is so beautifully written, and stirs so many things in my heart. I’m a mixed (black, european, native american) woman, raised by white parents, now raising a black (as the world sees her) daughter… Yes, racism is in the air I breathe, too. There is always more work to do.

  10. Thank you for speaking truth. I am married to a black man and we have two beautiful brown baby girls. I am in a constant state of awareness that the world they walk in, is decidedly different, more dangerous than the world I walk in, as a white, blonde woman. I, too, catch myself thinking horrible things, like how I hope my girls marry a white boy because their life will easier….how racist of me. This was a hard post to read, thank you.

  11. Wow. When and where I grew up, race was irrelevant. My generation was after The Civil Rights Act was in place. TV shows and cartoons were specifically interracial in my childhood, and my school and neighborhood were mixed. My favorite actors and singers were from many different ethnic backgrounds. Growing up there was no differentiation except to make the point not to be racist. I had to be taught in school what racism is, and then it took me until I was 13 to actually grasp the concept. Don’t get me wrong. We all have judgements about each other. In order to learn, our minds identify patterns and apply them to future experience. So when one sees a repeated pattern, they tend to create an assumption. In the case of a person, this pattern could be called an archetype or a stereotype. A child lost in a grocery store looking to an adult woman for help because she reminds him of his mom, is an example. Stereotypes based on clothing are just as common if not much more common than those based on race. I’m sure we can all admit that we make judgements about people based on what they are wearing. A man I know well was approached at a bar more than once in the same night (by people of different ethic origins) who harassed him, and called him a skinhead, a racist and a white supremacist . They went as far as to physically intimidate him with the utmost aggression. He is Lakota Sioux. They did not react to his race. They reacted to his spiked mohawk and his shirt that had printed in German: “Beer-Fest Munich”. In addition to discrimination based on race and clothing there are many others, and all of these come from a common base. When we learn, we mentally segregate things. *(I’m using the scientific definition of the word “segregate, not the historical connotation). We learn that a square is not a circle, because a circle is round and a square has four sides and corners. Later in life we call many shapes circles because they are round, regardless of whether they are a circle or an oval or an ellipse, It is this general association without intentional awareness of the individual shape and its discerning characteristics that is the root of the stereotypes and judgements that lead to racism, and sexism and several other problems in our society. I do not believe racism is in the air. I believe that stereotyping in whatever form is part of human nature. By being more attentive as the above author has described is a great way to help balance a basic thought process (in this case an acquired behavior), and furthermore to help alleviate oneself of conclusions contradictory to the person’s true beliefs. In order to avoid making conclusions based on general experience, one must be open-minded in opinion and aware of individuals rather than grouping them together based on characteristics in common. The point is to be open to possibilities instead of anticipating a specific stereotype. You can’t judge a book by its cover.

    • Hi Eric. I can’t imagine a time when race was irrelevant. But I know I am not the expert on that question — I have to refer to my black friends and mentors to tell me the relevance of race for them. In almost all of my reading and speaking and listening, race is always relevant. I do understand the distinctions you are making about prejudices and discrimination, they certainly exist as well. Racism caries power — covert and overt. I appreciate the conversation. Thanks for commenting and sharing your point of view.

  12. Eric: You beautifully wrote exactly what I was thinking. I also grew up in a time and place where I didn’t have to deal with much outward racism. That being said, people pre-judge others based on criteria. Yes, race can be one, but I’ve found that I judge people based on their clothing, the way they look at me, the way they present themselves, the way they speak and even the neighborhood I’m in far more than their race. Should I pre-judge people? Sometimes yes, it is used when historic instances have taught me to not make the same mistake that I or someone else, has made in the past. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that.

    • Hi Melissa. Thanks for your comment. I responded to Eric. One does not need to display “outward racism” in order to be engaging in racist thoughts and behaviors. The nuances here are like those I wrote about — just a quiet, or even covert, dismissal or passive injury to people based on skin color. Purse clutching is a good example — perpetuated fear based on racist thoughts. Of course there are prejudices and other biases. Racism, as a practice, involves power (both personal and institutional). There is a difference. I appreciate being in the conversation. Thanks.

      • Sure I’ve done purse clutching. The time that sticks out the most, the time that I truly feared was when I was in London, a man was standing at a bus stop in a non-tourist neighborhood, once I passed he proceeded to follow me. I clutched my purse and quickly stopped & stepped off the sidewalk to let him pass, made sure he noticed I was watching at him. He then walked into the next store continuing to look back at me. He was white. My gut was telling me that something didn’t seem right so I was protecting myself. I really don’t care if he thinks I was judging him. What I’m getting at is that a perpetuated fear does not have to be based on racist thoughts. To assume I, or anyone else for that matter, clutch my purse because of one’s race is doing the same disservice that you say needs to be eliminated. I’m not arguing that it doesn’t happen. You made no sweeping generalizations about everyone doing it. And I’m not say that I’ve never done it as you described. I’m just offering an alternative view or reason as to why it might happen. It was a good article to put out there. It makes people be aware of their own actions.

  13. Thanks for this. Most White people will choose not to believe you. It’s hard. I love the truth of it and that it’s so well written. I will say, I think there are levels of hurt. There are things we can do as parents to raise anti-racist children. It is possible. My parents, unwittingly, did some pretty amazing things which, I believe, helped me repel some basic racist feelings. My mother especially was anti-racist. It makes a difference. Truly it does.

  14. Being racist is a hard, hard, thing to accept. There is so much shame attached to it. As the mother of a beautiful black boy, I, too, am racist. I benefit from being treated differently in my society. If I see a group of black, male, youth, I do think twice about my safety…the fact that I think at all is racist. It’s a hard thing to deprogram when I lived it my whole life. My son has made me more aware of it and it’s prevalence in our society. I’ve personally observed white children at my son’s school (I teach at the same school) treat him differently. There’s a “look” on their faces when my friendly little black boy approaches them…a cautiousness they don’t have with friendly little white boys. He seems to have to prove himself more before he is accepted. My colleagues, his teachers, have and do treat him differently…case in point, all of his math tests in 1st grade were the highest score he could get. At the parent/teacher conference, his teacher commented that “he’ll need to work hard to catch up”. I’ve learned not only that I have to be an advocate for him, but also of the prejudices I have for the children of color in my own classroom…thank you for your honesty!

  15. Any idea of what became of Hank? I’d love to know that he is doing well.

  16. Any argument that ends with if you don’t agree with me, it is because I have not said it correctly is patronizing and allows for no difference of opinion. Does racism exist-yes and it is awful but being told by this woman that no matter what she is right and all white people are racist IS racism in its purist form.
    I am a white person, and she is judging me by the color of my skin, not the content of my character and I imagine that is why her colleagues can’t stand her.

    • SH, I appreciate your argument, and it is very familiar. First, your words, to me, are a very good example of white privilege, and they are quite similar to the objections of my colleagues. I am certain some of them felt attacked and were hurt and angered by my work. The truth is, my own culpability is clear. While my egregiousness with “HanK” was solely my own and unique to me in its specifics, I am clear about the fact that these microaggressions and tiny cuts were and are committed all the time — unknowingly, by good people, very good people, and people with good intentions, and people committed to educating ALL children. But intentions do not erase institutional racism, nor do they erase personal racism. That is the place from which I work, and I hope that as I get better at it my community will not feel judged, but rather will feel interested, curious, and reflective about how they live in the world, and they will strive to do better. EDITED TO ADD: My biggest work is doing better myself. Ultimately, mine is the only work I can insist on. And, to live by example.

      • You are doing it again-your argument is if you don’t agree with me, you simply don’t understand except now you are even privileged enough to know how I feel. You don’t know how i act even though you would like to assume how I act based on my race–pocketbook clutch anyone? so you walk by me and you say she is a racist because i am white. That is JUST AS RACiST! You don’t seem to understand this argument you poor thing (feel patronized?)

      • SH – you are right. Intolerance manifests at either extreme. But you’ll never convince her. Sometimes I don’t know which is worse. The blatant bigots where it is clear what they’re doing, or the ones who wrap themselves in a cloak of righteousness as the author has done.

  17. This is my first time reading your blog. I want to commend you on your bravery to write this post. I am a white woman married to a Black man with two Black children. I strive every day to erase my personal racism. One of the biggest issues I see for us as a community is our inability to talk about it in a meaningful way- mostly because it feels shameful to admit to racist thoughts (we know they are wrong), and also because it is scary. Thank you for starting the conversation.

    I read books, I go to seminars, I watch movies; I try so hard to educate myself to be an ally. As a White woman of middle upper class socioeconomic status, I will never experience what it is to be Black in America. I am not Trayvon Martin’s mom either- but, like you, I am heartbroken about the implications of this ruling.

    I will definitely continue to read your blog now that I found you!

  18. Michael Brosmith

    Ms Plum your story brought tears to my eyes and has made realize that I too am a racist and racism makes me sick. But you are so right that without owning it and having self awareness it is impossible to change. Starting today I will work on this and do my best to make others around me aware of the same. Thank you so much for writing and posting your blog :-)

  19. I’m wondering where the line between prejudice and racism lies. The stories you bravely tell about facing your own beliefs seem more like prejudice to me than racism. Both are dangerous. Both are worth changing. But one is more malicious than the other. And I guess I’m wondering if the distinction matters. Maybe not.

    I’m curious what you think about it.

    • Hi Learned Happiness. I think racism has to include power. And, because racism is prevalent in our institutions, it carries enormous power outside of my own every day actions. I certainly have prejudices as well. I think my job is to work at understanding both better, and working to be a better person in light of both. Thanks for the question and the opportunity to think about it more deeply.

  20. Truth is: white is white. No matter how badly you/I want to declare yourself/myself a safe space, you’re/I’m living a different set of experiences than you/I would if you/I weren’t white. You’re right. Awareness is a process and a practice, not a final state of being. And sometimes it’s a very uncomfortable process.

    • Freerange, thank you. The ways I am not free from constructions about race – they are so insidious, and damaging to all of our humanity. This is truly a process, and one that it appears I am willing to embrace and make public.

      • I found the Trayvon Martin verdict to be a strong reminder. It was an emotional verdict for me, and it made me think deeply about double standards and my friends and family. But it didn’t occur to me how deeply it would be a kick in the gut and a “you don’t matter” message to so many people. I watched a black male teenager talk about how he wasn’t surprised about the verdict on TV, and, although it was really upsetting and true, I had the luxury of not being able to personally empathize. That luxury put me in a completely different place, mentally.

        I struggled intellectually to wrap my head around the jurors’ thinking and decision making. I grew up in the Midwest, and I don’t remember hearing racist language or remarks. The racism wasn’t overt. But that just means that it is often harder to uncover. I remember the first time I drove through some “bad streets” in the city I grew up in, only to see that they looked the same as every other street I knew, just with more black people and fewer whites. Now as I return to that city with my multiracial family, levels of divisions and judgments and practices are visible to me that weren’t before. “Safety” means something else entirely.

        I wonder sometimes if the people who think they have nothing to uncover came from backgrounds like mine.

        There really does need to be more honest conversation- nobody is “good” or “bad,” and few people are “racist” or “not.” We are all struggling, with varying degrees of awareness. Too often the backlash against conversation just gives rise to the negativity and fear.

  21. Thank you, thank you, thank you. You are the kind of white woman I want to be. Rock on.

  22. After reading a post I wrote about this very topic, a friend linked me to your post. Thank you for writing this. I believe the more people share such stories the more change can come. My own story, of being a racist mom of 2 black children, is at http://www.lakeschooling.com/2013/07/i-am-not-trayvon-i-am-racist.html

  23. Beautifully written and sadly true. We have to be so aware to do no harm,

    • Hi Vaughan. I really like the phrase, ‘do no harm’. On the one hand it recognizes the prevalence of the struggle, and it gives a goal to work towards. But how do we work past ‘do no harm’ and move into a place of more proactive agency, in terms of dismantling a system? Thanks for commenting!

  24. I am a teacher and a parent of an AA child. I read it a few days ago and it really resonated with me. Thank you for writing it and making us all better/more aware people for having read it. I wish that I could get all of my colleagues to read it too!

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