One day he comes into the kitchen and tells you that the other kids wouldn't let him play their game and told him it was because he is the wrong color. He is five years old. And you think, Here we go. Even before kindergarten, it begins.
All mothers are nervous before the start of Kindergarten. I know this. We are all concerned about mean teachers and mean children. We fret that they won't eat their lunch or will have trouble making friends or will struggle with homework. We are anxious that school will kill their curiosity and enthusiasm about learning.
But mothers of Black sons, and other sons of color, have extra worries you may never have considered. Will he be excluded from games because of his race? Will my child get blamed for something another child did because he is Black? Will normal childhood behavior get him labeled as the bad kid when the same behavior in a white child would be tolerated? Will he be expected to speak for his whole race whenever something about Black people comes up? Will he have to sit through tone-deaf lesson plans and listen to teachers spout racist nonsense unaware of their own biases? And these are just the threats to their hearts and souls. There are also the threats to their bodies, from strangers who will make racist assumptions about them, perceive them as threats even before puberty.
The beginning of school is the start of their lives in an outside world where we cannot any longer protect them from those who will see them as stereotypes instead of as people. Even before they can read or reliably tie their own shoes, Black children are more likely to be suspended or expelled than other students. We know that Black boys are estimated to be much older than they actually are. That problem may have contributed to the murder by a police officer of a 12-year-old boy in Cleveland. The world is simply more hostile for our sons, even the world of school, where they ought to be safe.
These are the realities that Black mothers have lived with forever. The fact that white mothers of Black sons are starting to talk openly about such things shouldn't make people take it more seriously. Sadly, perhaps it will, so here I am talking about it.
I am grateful that my son is extremely well-behaved in public and focused in preschool. He is polite and friendly and endearing and happy and, for a few more years at least, very cute. But I know that isn't enough to protect him. Respectability is not enough to protect any of our sons, but we cling to it anyway, because it's better than nothing, because we know they'll have to work twice as hard as everyone else to get the respect they deserve. I am grateful to live in a part of the country that is no longer majority white, and in which overt racism is socially stigmatized. I'm grateful that we chose a neighborhood in which the school is fairly diverse. I'm grateful for our church community full of adults and older children of color who provide role models and advice when things happen.
I am also afraid. I fear that I won't be there to defend him the first time someone calls him the N-word. (I know we are lucky it hasn't happened yet.) I fear that when he gets into an argument with a white student, it will automatically be the tall Black kid's fault. I fear that my white privilege cannot protect him when he isn't holding my hand. I fear that by the end of 5th grade he will be a scary Black man in the eyes of strangers.
But I am not paralyzed by my fear. We prepare him as best we can. We talk about racism. We talk about what to do if someone calls him out of his name. We talk about in the fact that he doesn't have to answer people's questions about his family if he doesn't want to, that he can decide how to tell his own story. We talk about not wearing your hood up and how you talk to police, how you behave if you get pulled over. We don't obsess over the dangers. We don't teach him to be terrified of the whole world. But we do speak honestly and openly about race and racism. He has already been excluded from games because of his color, after all. To deny that reality would damage him as much as the obnoxious children who excluded him, maybe more.
I am also not consumed by my fear. I still talk with excitement with him about his new adventure. I still stand grinning in the back-to-school section looking at lunch boxes. I still get his wardrobe ready and hope for a good teacher and gossip with my mom friends about all the changes in store. I still love that he loves his new backpack and insists on wearing it around the house. But the worry is still in the back of my mind, even then.
Now, I know that some of you think I am borrowing trouble. Some of you think this is a post-racial America, and racism is over, and talking about race makes me the real racist. Some of you don't talk about race with your kids because you want them to be "colorblind." Refusing to discuss or acknowledge racism only allows it to perpetuate. Perhaps if more white people would speak up, with their kids and with their friends, we wouldn't have to be so scared to see our sons growing older.
Racism isn't just hoods and burning crosses. We are all products of a culture that teaches that white is best, and nobody grows up in a culture like that without being affected. No power structure is immune from that influence, be it police department or church or school district or classroom. So many people want to deny this reality, perhaps for fear of accepting blame.
So we allow our world to continue to kill Black kids and then try to find a reason they had it coming. He should have been more polite. Why did she mouth off like that? He shouldn't have run. It's his parents' fault. Look how trashy they are. He should have gone straight home. Never you mind that a white kid in the same situation would still be breathing.
And so mothers of Black sons are afraid sometimes, and we have to be brave, because that is the world into which we send our beloved sons on the first day of kindergarten: a world in which they are at the very bottom of the list of which lives matter.
A.M. Manay is a writer and mother. Her novel, She Dies at the End, is available on Amazon Kindle. Follow her on twitter (@ammanay) or Facebook (facebook.com/ammanaywrites).