Why I no longer police my Black son’s behavior to make the world more comfortable
My attention was on my son when it should have been elsewhere.
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By Rann Miller
It was our last evening on a family reunion trip and my father treated us to dinner at Don Shula’s Steakhouse in Tallahassee. The thought of waiting for food at a steakhouse with a 4 year old, a 1 year old and a 3 month old was scary, but my kids ended up being just fine between watching Netflix on a cell phone and coloring. It also helped that my wife and I had my parents and the godmother of our kids with us.
Our family was one of the very few Black people in the restaurant. There was a white couple seated in the corner with their two children. Unfortunately for them, they were without the support of godparents and grandparents. Their children were loud and rambunctious. The restaurant staff stopped short of applauding when the family left. I felt for the parents. They look stressed and embarrassed.
At the end of our meal, our server came to us when he returned the check and complimented us on how well-behaved our children were. Prior to his complement, an older white couple who had finished their meal stopped at our table and said the same thing.
While waiting for the valet to return with our vehicle, two older Black women also came up to us. One of them put her hand on my shoulder and said, “We heard those kids making all that noise. I am just glad it wasn’t none of us. Glad to see those folks see that Black children know how to behave.” She smiled and laughed in satisfaction at our beautiful Black family and our polite children in the sight of white people.
The words of that older lady personified what I grew up hearing – that my little ole self represented my family and my race; that my actions and choices had the potential to reflect positively or negatively on Black people I never even met. For a long time, that ethos was reflected in my parenting, particularly with my son, and it was never worth it.
Black children are already over-disciplined in school. I am aware of how Black boys are viewed, that they are considered a threat and menace no matter the age when compared with white boys. The deaths of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis and Tamir Rice was a reminder that one’s childhood does not shield them from their Blackness. I used this as an excuse to do what my parents did with me and their parents did with them; I policed my son before he was policed by a society and justice system instituted by racist ideas and maintained by racist policies.
I would get very angry with him when he “acted up,” especially when in public. I attempted to scare him into acting “good.” He responded as I wished. When in pre-school, he was always well-behaved, according to his white teachers. I was pleased.
But when my son was 6 he asked his mother, “Why is daddy always mad with me?” It shook me to my core. Couldn’t he see that I was only trying to protect him? Didn’t my wife see it? Better that I punish him and be angry with him – I am his father… better me than the world that awaits him. But I was beginning to carve a chasm between myself and my son that held rules in higher regard than relationship.
And for what? To make white people comfortable with my son so they wouldn’t kill him? Black respectability never saved anyone from racism. And Black respectability certainly wasn’t bringing my son and me closer together. We needed that to survive too.
Black respectability was preached to me my whole life. I had to work twice as hard as a White person to earn the opportunities I deserved as a human being. I couldn’t get away with any bad behavior because I didn’t have the “complexion for the protection.” That whenever I did anything bad or good, I represented Black people everywhere.
I was passing this burden on to my own son; my son who was a gift from my God after his older brother was called home from the womb of his mother. My son who came to be at a time when his very being healed broken hearts in our family. This child who looks like my father and acts like his father… what was I doing to him and our relationship?
The behavior of Black people is not responsible for the racist ideas of white people or anti-Black violence. That Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Oprah and Barack Obama have excelled in spite of racist policies in K-12 education, higher education and criminal justice isn’t proof that we need to be more like them, it only validates how harmful racist policies are. The policies explain why Black children are routinely harmed in schools by law enforcement, like the 6 year old girl in Florida recently arrested for throwing a temper tantrum—something 6 year olds do.
My attention was on my son when it should have been elsewhere.
I had a heart to heart conversation with my son – the best I could with a 6 year old – and I apologized.I explained to him as best I could that some people will assume him to be one way because of what he looks like but that he should just be who he is. If he is ever confronted for it, mommy and daddy will handle it as best as possible. I told him that I was his daddy and not the police. Two scoops of chocolate ice cream later, he forgave me. He’s a tough negotiator.
Now, as my son embarks on his 9th year around the sun, my new approach to curbing bad behavior is a bit better. It’s not rooted in respectability, or even fear, but rather in love. We talk more. We have conversations before bedtime. He shares more of his thoughts and I get to see inside the soul of a child who just wishes to be.
I often prayed for the world to see him as God sees him. My prayers have since changed. I pray for my sight as well.
Rann Miller directs a 21st Century Community Learning Center, a federally funded after-school program located in southern New Jersey — one of 63 statewide. He spent 6 years teaching in charter schools in Camden, New Jersey. He is the creator, writer and editor of the Official Urban Education Mixtape Blog. His writing on race and urban education has appeared in Education Week, Hechinger Report, and the Progressive, where he is an education fellow. Follow him on Twitter:@UrbanEdDJ and on Instagram: @urbanedmixtape