As an Asian American female born and raised in the United States, one thought that never crossed my mind was that I could be perceived as threatening or dangerous by others just by my presence. Because it wasn't something that came up, I had the luxury of going about my daily life not realizing that it was an issue that impacted many in our country...
Until I worked with African American boys that is... As a therapist, I became a part of these boys' lives and had the privilege to get to know them and their families on a close and personal level. After some time together, these boys showed me their true colors. Most of them were sweet, kind, caring, active, and intelligent children/teens. They weren't the "defiant," "rude," "bad" boys and young men that they were described to be when they were referred for therapy services. While some did put up a hard front in order to survive the environment they were in, many were misunderstood. At times, their actions were perceived to be more aggressive and confrontational by teachers and school staff, than say if it had came from a girl, or maybe by someone of a different ethnicity or had looked different physically.
Over a long period of time, I began to see a common thread in what I was hearing from mothers of these young African American boys/teens... Safety was an issue. Not just staying safe in the unsafe neighborhoods that they were living in, where gangs and drugs run rampant, but remaining safe from the very people who I had thought would keep me and everybody else safe from harm, the police. Initially, I didn't understand how that could've even been a concern. But then I did. I remember hearing African American boys express fear whenever they would see a police car driving by because they had witnessed altercations and shootings between police officers and neighbors. To them, the police was not a sign of safety, but of fear or threat. Their mothers schooled me in what it was like raising African American boys on the streets. So because of that, as a therapist, I had to have heartbreaking discussions with my clients, where we talked about life-preserving techniques if they were ever stopped by police officers. Stopping everything they were doing, making no sudden movements, remaining calm, and not arguing or contesting the reason they were stopped. We discussed and role-played how to communicate assertively without being aggressive, how to express ourselves with words rather than our fists, and the possible short and/or long-term consequences our actions can have not only on us but also our family and friends.
I wonder... When will mothers of African American boys have the luxury of not having to worry about their sons just because of the color of their skin? When will these mothers no longer have the burden of talking to their sons about staying safe from police officers, in addition to gang members, drug dealers, and strangers? When will these mothers be able to sleep easy at night knowing that their sons will be protected by the ones who said they are there to serve and protect?
If each of us could just imagine for a minute what it would feel like to have these conversations with our own children, niece, nephew, God-daughters and God-sons, maybe we would be able to briefly experience just a small fraction of what it is like to be in these mothers' shoes. There is so much work to be done, and we all have to come together in order for us to be able to move forward and ensure that safety and equality truly is available to all of us.
“Until the great mass of the people shall be filled with the sense of responsibility for each others welfare, social justice can never be attained.” –Helen Keller