Everyone has heard about the Trayvon Martin tragedy in Florida. Hundreds of columnists, TV pundits, and anyone with media access has written about how a black kid walking in his neighborhood was killed by a White or White/Hispanic man named George Zimmerman. Zimmerman thought Martin looked suspicious. Suspicious may very well have meant black.
Do you remember “Driving while Black” a few years back? It meant that if you were black and the police stopped you, your best bet was to adhere to a certain set of unwritten rules. Black parents handed it down to their black children. Some people call it the “Black Male Code.”
I was raised in a mostly white, neighborhood in the suburbs of Detroit. The father of my children—my former husband—was raised in a predominately white area of Ohio, but his family was black. He was also 15 years older than I, so his historic perspective of how a black male conducts himself in a potentially dangerous situation was different from mine. Civil rights strides had been made in those years.
When he went out running or even just working in the yard, he always had his identification with him. At first I questioned it; I was naïve. He explained to me that there was always a chance that he would be questioned or confronted by a white “authority figure,” meaning a cop. He felt safer having his identification stuck in a back pocket or a sock.
Being a white female, I had never thought about it, and certainly never worried about it. Then we had children. Then I got it.
When our multiracial son was about to get his driving permit, we had “the talk” with him. If he was stopped by a police officer he was to keep his hands on the steering wheel at the 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock hour positions. No sudden movements. Do not argue. If the police officer asked for some documentation, explain that you are going to get it out of your back rear wallet or the glove compartment. When you do move, move slowly. Whatever you do, do not be perceived as a threat and of course, always carry your identification with you.
He said, “You’ve always told me I was multiracial—two races—why does “driving while black” mean me?” I explained to him that his self-identification is one thing, but how he appears to someone can be completely different and yes, someone could assume he was black, so he had to act accordingly. Be on the safe side, son.
Parents of multiracial children are not stupid. We understand reality and we know we have to educate our kids about the reality of how people may view them. I know a girl who has a white mother and a black father and people are forever talking to her in Spanish because she “looks” Hispanic to them. They assume something that is not true. In fact, in this girl’s background, Hispanic is about the only thing she is not!
When President Obama came into office, he said he self-identifies as black. That is his right, his choice, and he has that option. What bothers me is the reason he gives for choosing to be black—because that is how people see him. Yes, it makes me feel less comfortable with a world leader who is so easily swayed by what other people think. Think about it.
Then there is the other reality. Obama said publicly that he thought of his children when he thought of Trayvon Martin. He said if he had a son, he would look like Trayvon. The reality is that DNA is a funny thing and sometimes genes have a way of skipping generations or making someone’s brown eyes blue. We all know someone who looks absolutely nothing like their parents or siblings. The truth is that our President doesn’t know that his son would look like Trayvon or anybody else.
In a perfect world, the color of someone’s skin would not matter. But consider that in the 1990s, when we were fighting to have the ability to check more than one race on our census forms, one of the possibilities our United States Census Bureau was considering was a “skin gradation chart.” Think about that one.
After we finished talking to our son about driving while black he assured us that he understood and would take our advice to heart. “But,” he said, “I call it driving while multiracial.”