Conversation between Mother and Son
A Conversation Between a Mother and Her Son: Walking While Black
By Karen Ashmore and Tristan Ashmore
Karen Ashmore: I have something in common with Sybrina Fulton. I am the mother of a black son. My heart goes out to her and the mothers of other young black men who have lost their lives needlessly. Mamie Till. Kadiatou Diallo. Wanda Johnson. Constance Malcolm. Mothers of sons who should still be alive today, were it not for racial profiling.
Tristan Ashmore: I have something in common with Trayvon Martin. I am a young black man. Unlike Trayvon, Emmett Till, Amadou Diallo, Oscar Grant, and Ramarley Graham, I am still alive.
KA: You are an amazing individual. You have overcome so many obstacles growing up and yet you shine in your abundant radiance. I love you. When I look at you I see a young man who has awesome potential with a goal to work in medicine, relishes helping others, and has a peaceful nature and brilliant mind.
But others may look at you and see a thug, basing it only on the color of your skin or the clothes that you wear. That makes me sad. And outraged. When someone is racist to you, it’s all about their fears and deficiencies. But you are the one encumbered by their problems.
TA: I know I have to make allowances for other people’s racism. That’s part of the burden of being a black man. I see the fear in the eyes of some people when I step into an elevator. I see women apprehensively clutch their purses when I pass them on the sidewalk. I know the anxious grip on the holster when I am pulled over by a police officer. Again.
Racism is a person’s way of seeing me as a threat, less intelligent, lazy, or prone to violence. A second class citizen. I know I am smart, ambitious, gentle and respectful. But they can’t see past the color of my skin.
KA: Yes in many ways, you have to present yourself better than they are. Look out for profilers who are prejudging you based on your appearance. Now you see why I am always telling you to pull up your pants?
TA: I have to constantly be aware of other’s perceptions and of my surroundings. I remember when we lived in a predominantly white neighborhood in Broomfield. I was about 14 years old and playing paint ball with the neighborhood boys. I was running down the street with the paintball gun in my hand, trying to figure out where the other boys were hiding. I remember you hit the roof. Sure it was just a paint ball gun but you frantically yelled at me, reminding me we live in a white neighborhood where they might shoot first and ask questions later. I got mad at you then but now I see you were right.
KA: I also remember when Nicholas (our white son) drove our family car and was never stopped while you were stopped within a week of getting your license while driving the same family car. The tail light was out so it was the car, not the driving behavior – but you were pulled over and Nicholas was not. That’s when I read an outstanding book by Kenneth Meeks called Driving While Black. Now after Trayvon’s murder, someone needs to write a book called Walking While Black.
TA: You made me read that book and I thought you were being over-protective at the time but the book has tips for practical survival skills. I know now that if I feel I am being profiled or followed like Trayvon, that I need to act by calling 911. I know there are times when cops may profile me but sometimes calling 911 could save my life.
KA: What if it’s the cops who are making you feel threatened? Well, then you need to back off. Don’t run away but make sure they can see your hands are empty and do everything they say. Don’t talk back. Don’t give them a reason to take you to jail or worse. They may be behaving unjustly, but their lives aren’t in danger. Yours is. You can tell your lawyer what happened later.
TA: As an African American, the George Zimmerman trial was personal to me. The killer was profiling an unarmed black teenager doing nothing more than walking while black. Florida is not the only state with Stand Your Ground laws that encourage racial profiling. AL, AZ, FL, GA, IN, KY, LA, MS, MO, NV, NH, OK, PA, TN, TX, UT all have Stand Your Ground laws. Where else can a man with a gun drive a car, follow a pedestrian, get out of the car, confront and shoot him, and call it self-defense?
KA: As the parent of black children and white children, you know that I see every day how my black children are treated differently than my white children. You and your black siblings don’t have the white privilege that many people take for granted. I always ask white people to examine their biases. After the Not Guilty verdict in the Zimmerman trial, many of us with black sons felt like it was saying open season on our sons is OK. That hurts.
TA: Yes, it hurts a lot.
KA: Another area to be cautious is the school to prison pipeline. Denver Public schools (DPS) supposedly re-wrote policies directing school officials to limit referrals to the police to the most serious offenses. DPS also requires schools to pay special attention to racial disparities in discipline.
But it doesn’t have to be limited to boys. All black students are at higher risk. Just two years ago, DPS Security took a look at your younger sister’s irritated attitude and her sister locks and had her arrested for defending herself against sexual harassment. She spent 3 days in jail and was just 12 year years old! I cannot imagine this would have ever happened if she was blue eyed and blonde. Thank God the female police detective who was assigned the case thought it was an ultimate example of blaming the victim and had the charges dropped.
And if anyone thinks there is no institutional racism in the justice system, just go to any juvenile court. When your Dad and I went with your sister for her arraignment, every single defendant in the courtroom was a child of color, most of them boys. Not a single white child.
Or go to any adult criminal court and look at the disproportionate number of defendants of color. Want to learn more? Read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.
TA: There is a lot of work remaining to be done in order to dismantle racism. Most large cities have good black-led programs for black youth. I think it makes a difference that they are black-led because the perspective is through a black lens, which is especially pertinent for black males.
KA: People can also make a constructive difference for change by supporting the Trayvon Martin Foundation started by his parents. The Foundation’s mission is to advocate that crime victims and their families not be ignored in the discussions about violent crime, to increase public awareness of all forms of racial, ethnic and gender profiling, educate youth on conflict resolution techniques, and to reduce the incidences where confrontations between strangers turn deadly. Let’s all commit today to be the change that makes a difference.