Later that night he described how, as he pulled up to our boys a police officer pulled up at the very same time. My husband rolled down his window, smiled warmly, and in his kindest voice explained that the boys in the dark hoodies were his sons, and he was picking them up to take them home. As he described it, the officer scowled, subtly shook his head, rolled up his window and drove off.
“Abby,” he said, “do you realize what could have happened if I hadn’t gotten there when I did?”
And me? How did I respond to the man I love most in the world, the man confiding in me the knee-quavering fear only a parent understands when imagining harm coming to their children?
“Are you sure the officer really scowled at you? Do you think you’re maybe being overly-sensitive?”
Yep, it’s true. It most definitely was not my most-supportive wife moment. My husband looked like I had punched him in the gut, and when he reached out to his older brother for support, the advice he got was, “she just won’t ever understand, you can’t share that part of your life with her.” That had to be a horse-sized, bile-flavored multivitamin my husband was forced to swallow in that moment. Although I failed him at a time when he needed my empathy and compassion, it did prompt me to begin seeking more knowledge about the black experience in the United States. This experience marked the first rumblings of awakening for me.
Then, some months later my oldest son was the passenger in a car with some of his friends. Pulled over for speeding, the officer was convinced there were drugs or tobacco in the car. Though gentle and polite with his white friends, the officer physically pulled my sensitive, perfectionist of a son, from the car, pushed him against the passenger door and searched him…even not-so-gently pulling off his shoes in search of illegal substances that he did not possess.
Now, it was personal. The grizzly bear that resides in the soul of every mom and dad, ready to defend their babies to the death, awakened, and I decided that something had to be done.
So, I soaked up every documentary, podcast, audiobook and article I could find to educate myself on black history. I learned that soon after slaves were freed, they were arrested in mass for crimes as minor as loitering, and were often returned to their former owners as prison laborers. I learned that even as soon as 40 years ago, the war on drugs devastated the black community. Possession of crack cocaine, which is almost identical to powder cocaine but cheaper and more widely used by blacks, had a mandatory 5-year prison sentence for only 5 grams. It took a whopping 500 grams of powder cocaine, used more widely by whites, to warrant the same sentence. And I learned that even today, despite the fact that blacks and whites have comparable rates of drug-usage, blacks are still disproportionately arrested for drug offenses and our prison population for drug offenses has grown by over 1000% since 1980. The multi-generational consequences of this cannot be underestimated.
Also new to me were the predatory lending practices encouraged by the US government against communities of color. Beginning in the 1930s and spanning for decades, black families who wanted to own a home were banned from living in certain communities. Just as bad was the fact that banks were very reluctant to loan money to the communities where they could, in fact, live. Even black veterans who risked their lives for our country faced government-sanctioned housing discrimination, whereas white veterans were provided affordable home loans and other wealth-creating opportunities via the GI Bill. And then…to find that most of the wealth accumulated by American families today had its beginnings with home ownership generations ago. The result of these tragic inequalities remain with us to this day.
I listened to the audiobook, “Black Like Me,” an account of journalist John Howard Griffin who, in 1959, disguised himself as a black man and lived the black experience in the South. He described the hardness of his interactions with the white community who, in his natural form, welcomed him warmly into their restaurants and stores. He wrote about having to walk for miles simply to find a bathroom not designated for whites only. Later, as a result of the book’s release, Mr. Griffin was beaten with chains by a group of white men and even relocated his family to Mexico for a time in order to keep them safe. I often wonder at the visceral rage that arises even today when individuals simply talk about inequalities in the black experience. Why is the emotion so deep?
I read that even today black women are 3-4 times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women. And I took the Harvard implicit bias test and found that I (who couldn’t be racist…I mean, I married a black guy!) am moderately biased against black people…My heart began to shatter. I was and am…part of the problem. How is it that I could have gone decades of my adult life and been so indifferent to the experience of our black community? I believe at least a part of my answer came from a quote I heard at a teacher training.
“What you hear, you forget; what you see, you remember; what you do, you understand.”
Let me reiterate…What we do…what we EXPERIENCE…we understand, incorporate, into the deepest parts of our world-view. I believe that a driving force of my failure is that I automatically, and largely subconsciously, assume that the personal experience of everyone around me will mirror my own.
So, I work hard and reach my goals, or maybe don’t work hard and don’t reach my goals. That naturally means that if someone else doesn’t reach their own goals it’s got to be because they just didn’t work hard enough. And how dare they blame “the system” for something they were responsible for.
I didn’t grow up in poverty because my parents worked hard and were responsible with their money, and they were able to support me financially as I transitioned to adulthood. If someone else grew up in poverty, couldn’t afford higher learning and had no help as they transitioned into adulthood, it has to be because their parents either didn’t work hard enough, were irresponsible with their money, or both.
My experiences with police officers have been largely positive and I’ve felt protected and served, so that must mean that if someone has a negative, even fatal, experience with law enforcement, then they had to have done something to deserve it.
And on, and on and on…I discount the stories I hear from the black community because, since they are different from my own, they must be inaccurate, or at the very least, exaggerated. But my lived experience as well as the lived experience of my ancestors has been VASTLY different from the lived experience of a large majority of the black community – history unequivocally proves it.
So this is my new mantra.
- I will accept the fact that I have not experienced difficulty due to the color of my skin, but others have and do.
- I will lean into the discomfort that comes from ideas that challenge my ingrained world-view.
- I will be committed to being non-defensive and non-judgemental when listening to the black community and believing them when they describe the subtle and not-so-subtle injustices they face.
- I will expect myself to unintentionally make mistakes, act within my biases, say or do the wrong thing and when I do…
- I will be willing to accept correction and do my best to make amends
- I will keep learning, keep self-assessing, keep making amends…and repeat and repeat and repeat because I will never have arrived.
And for you? To my white brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers and grandparents. Do better than I have, who stayed ignorant and apathetic until it involved a biological instinct to protect my own children. Some of you have already done better than I have, and I am inspired. I relish the opportunity to walk alongside you to fight against racism in our world.
But if, on the other hand, you find yourself indifferent or even offended by what I’ve shared, I urge you to learn more about black history, be open to perspectives other than those that are in line with your personal experience, and to turn your gaze courageously inward in search of biases that I believe are an unavoidable result of living in a biased society. And if you see areas where you can do better, then do better and lead your children to do better. Our children, in just a few short years, will lead our world and the depth of our influence on their lives is immeasurable. Let’s lead by example so that they will change our world for ALL people, for the better.
Abby Jones is mother of Abel ('22) and Simon ('24) and an Upper School Math Teacher
If you're a parent at SAS and are interested in submitting a reflection on a personal experience, please email Kendall Evans (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Bridget Dugan Sullivan (email@example.com) summarizing what you would like to share.