I moved back to Minnesota ten years ago when my husband got a job in a small, rural town in the southern part of the state. This small, rural town was very white, very conservative, and very racist. Our neighbor believed President Obama was a Muslim. During the fight for marriage equality, nearly every yard had a sign declaring that marriage was only between a man and a woman.
One summer day, our son and his best friend decided to take their Air Soft rifles into the woods next to an abandoned skate park. Summer in Minnesota is hot, oppressively humid, and a haven for black flies and mosquitoes. These two intrepid teenagers lasted about half-an-hour, then made a beeline for that skate park.
My son and his friend perched atop a skateboard ramp, still holding their Air Soft rifles. And someone called the police. From a distance, it would seem, Air Soft rifles look like real rifles, even with the bright orange tip.
Eventually, one police car rolled up. One sheriff’s deputy climbed out, weapon holstered, and approached my son and his friend. He asked them some questions-names, where they went to school, home addresses-then had a nice chat with them about how fun Air Soft rifles were. He waved, they waved, and the deputy got back in his car, driving away.
My son arrived home not long after this peaceful encounter with a sheriff’s deputy. He told me what had happened, that he and his friend had never been scared, and that the deputy had been very nice.
My son came home. His friend went home. Because they had white skin.
If they didn’t have white skin, that call to the police might have sounded something like “There are two black men sitting at the skate park with guns.” The one police car would have turned into five, the one deputy would have turned into ten, and all ten deputies would have launched themselves out of their cars, guns drawn, yelling and screaming.
Or perhaps those deputies would have just gunned down my son and his friend without bothering to find out what was going on. That’s what happened to twelve-year-old Tamir Rice. Tamir was playing in a park with a toy gun, someone called 911, and the two cops who responded drove their car onto the grass and shot Tamir. They didn’t even get out of their cruiser.
Maybe instead of my son getting married this fall, with his best friend standing next to him, my husband and I would bring flowers to his grave every weekend. We would stare at photos, we would go for days without speaking for fear saying his name aloud would break us into tiny pieces of pain and anguish.
That is white privilege. My son came home, he survived an encounter with police that most if not all black teenagers would not. My son didn’t talk his way out of something, he simply lived because he’s white.
White privilege is real, it is tangible, it is a thing that exists in real time. Tamir Rice was killed because he was not seen as a twelve-year-old kid playing with a toy gun in the park. Tamir was seen as a black person with a gun who posed an imminent threat, no matter the truth, no matter the facts.
My child was seen as non-threatening, as was his friend. My child was able to graduate from high school, continue his education, and is currently thriving in an industry he has loved since he was a toddler. Tamir Rice didn’t have the chance to graduate from middle school.
I will admit, as a mother, I’m glad my son’s white skin protected him that day. But as a mother, as a human being, I am hyper-aware that two black teenage boys in the same situation would not have been protected. And so does my son.
We used our son’s encounter with police as a teaching moment. We talked with him at length about white privilege, about what could have happened if he and his friend were black. We showed him news stories about Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice, and we explained how many police treat young men differently based on their skin color.
Sometimes, late at night, I think about that day in southern Minnesota. I think about the black mothers who visit their sons in cemeteries, I think about Tamir Rice, just a little kid playing in a park. More recently, I think about George Floyd gasping “Momma! Momma. I’m through!”.
And I weep.