It is May.
It marks graduation season in the United States.
And Saraah Brasch, a White student at Yale University, recently, called the police when she saw Lolade Siyonbola, a Black student asleep in the common area of their dorm. To Brasch, Siyonbola did not “belong” there.
Now, I am thinking about soon to be high school graduates preparing to enter college. They will be students like Brasch and Siyonbola, individuals with purpose as gifts to the world.
With this in mind, I am wondering what kind of gift much of America’s parents, particularly White parents, are giving to our high school graduates. In other words, who are the people are we sending to college? Can we afford to assume that our children have not learned any problematic racial messages prior to setting off to university life?
Much of White America’s gift to Students of Color is that while pursuing advanced education, they get the privilege of fighting to justify their very existence to those who fight ignore their racial privilege.
Although Braasch and Siyonbola are adults, they were not born adults.
This racist incident is indicative of other accounts of racism plaguing college campuses.
Incidents we keep ignoring or allow to grab our attention for a day or two.
Siyonbola’s words captured the contextual result of what I perceive as many of White America’s precious colorblind and White feminist parenting:
“I deserve to be here. I pay tuition like everybody else. I am not going to justify my existence here.”
This result is no different than overtly racist White parenting.
I do not want a gift receipt. This post is my returning this graduation gift of Napping While Black directly to the White people who gave it.
Po’ Mizz Sarah
I am returning this gift of Napping While Black because the incident reads like a nod to antebellum times. Believe it or not, I and a lot of Black folks are not collectors of Confederate memorabilia.
Upon hearing about the incident, at first, I felt angry, but unshocked. And I felt categorically indignant at Braasch’s use of the police, as if she was summoning her personal butler to remove the rubbish from her pristine lawn.
I agree that the police followed protocol. I can understand, from their perspective, the necessity in getting the IDs of both people involved to sort out the issue. Furthermore, they cannot afford to ignore calls about student safety.
The police needed to respond to preserve the safety of the students. I understand and appreciate their responsiveness.
If your child called the police because s/he was concerned for her/his safety on campus, wouldn’t you want them to respond?
Besides, had they dismissed the call, and something happened to po’ Mizz Sarah on the plantation, chances are there would have been more of an outcry from White people about campus safety than campus racism.
And this observation disturbed me because I conceptualize campus safety as much more expansive than the exclusive concern of preserving White femininity, White safety, or maintaining spaces void of People of Color.
Because I believe Students of Color deserve to have a college experience without racism, I do not think it is enough for Black people to only be grateful just to attend college. This disturbing use of gratitude reeks of manipulation. To dare attempt to silence a Black person about this incident is likened to expecting us to act as a racist caricature of the submissive enslaved Black person, with exaggerated thankfulness to Massa for giving us a piece of cornbread from his plate.
I am thankful for opportunities to go to college that my ancestors were denied.
I am thankful for progress, and I continue to want freedom.
Notice the “and.”
The “and” is critical.
We do not give up on the pursuit of freedom because of progress.
If anything, gratitude and progress fuel me to want it fully realized.
What about you?
We are Human, Too
Although it might hurt certain White people’s feelings to have their gift of Napping While Black returned to them, Black people have feelings, too. We are human, too.
We do not have to receive gifts that harm us.
And it is toxic to expect us to carry the load of something harmful to ease the conscience of groups of White people.
The initial anger over what happened to Siyonbola gave way to sadness and eventually to revealed what I was truly feeling:
The truth is: I felt scared for my step-son.
You see, my step-son graduates from high school next week. He will be out here in this world, in full color and afro. A world where some people still assume White people belong and Black people do not.
I felt afraid for newly graduated high seniors just like him, all kinds of glorious shades of browns, excited and nervous about starting college. The same kinds of feelings that White students have. We are all human.
I felt a collective fear that extended beyond the reaches of my soul. I felt the fear from other Black parents who do not want their children to go through any situation where the color of their skin signals deviancy or delinquency.
I felt the swirl of fear and anger that comes from weariness of how racism can possibly thwart the dreams and even the lives of our children.
I empathized with all the Parents of Color like me, who are releasing their children who are graduating from high school to go to college.
I empathized with Siyonbiola and her parents. I imagined my step-son in falling asleep studying. I saw a White mom’s son calling the police because he felt fear by his very presence.
I saw her son defending his actions because he really thought my son did not belong at the same school. I imagined a White mother’s son who is working hard in school, too, and had never used a racial slur in his life do something more damaging than calling my son a ni**er: Treating him like one.
I empathized with the concern and disgust of White parents, who do not intend for their children to grow up to be college educated racists, scratching their heads as to why these incidents persist.
I felt a knot in my stomach that would not go away. It was fear, knocking on my door.
I felt fear trying to choke the warmth out of my heart.
And I breathed.
I needed to keep breathing.
And I gave myself permission to feel.
And the more I felt, the more a feeling of peace began to mix inside me.
As I stood facing a mirror in my bathroom, I grabbed the edge of the counter, needing to hold something tangible, as I looked up to God, who I could not see.
The weighty thoughts throbbing within a heavy heart broke into tears. Not caring who heard me, I asked aloud, “What kind of world am I releasing him into?”
And then hope tugged at my heart.
For a moment, I felt annoyed by my hopefulness.
I wanted hopefulness to go away because it seemed unrealistic when a Black student’s alleged crime was falling asleep while doing the advice that sums of White people love to extol: Get an education and work hard because race no longer matters.
Haven’t you heard this superficially virtuous diatribe before? Race only matters because Black people keep bringing it up.
I guess falling asleep while Black counts as bringing up race.
As I surrendered the fear, I welcomed hope and peace to sit and break bread with my inner resolve.
And I find that part of my work as a Black person in the United States of America is to live freely, without being ruled by fear, anger, and grief—all the ways I could become captive to racism or White supremacy.
Creating a Different Gift: An Invitation for White Parents
I suggest that instead of giving Napping While Black incidents as graduation gifts, more White parents can be intentional in dismantling racism as part of their parenting practice.
One component of creating college experiences free of racism involves examining the actions of White college students. In the spirit of examination, if a White college student does something racist, chances are it did not magically begin during a freshman seminar.
Don’t get me wrong, it can, especially given the wave of White supremacist organizational activity on college campuses. Instead of assuming a fantasy world where we think our children do not have racial issues because we are good people, intentionality becomes indubitably critical for preparing children for college and life.
In other words, please stop assuming that because your child does not want a swastika tattoo that s/he is free from racial biases or problematic perspectives.
Intentional parenting when it comes to matters of race and racism has a ripple effect beyond our family and finds its way to some of our alma maters.
Think about it: What kind of world are you helping to create that still requires young, hopeful, Black people—People of Color—to justify their existence on a college campus?
How are you getting in the way or out of the way to help your child be person to make this world a racially better place? That is, are you letting your inner resistance to talking and dealing with race prevent you from helping your child?
More White people need to have intentional race conversations with their own children-the kind that disrupts notions the idea that White is normal, acceptable, better, and superior.
Many White people in the United States grow up with limited experiences in constructively talking about race, particularly within the context of substantive meaningful cross-racial/ethnic relationships.
It is not common for the discourse to range from overtly or thinly veiled racist jokes and comments to the good old “I don’t care who you are” colorblind playbook. I know that there are contexts where racial isolation makes the limited contact more than a matter of moving in and out of suburbia.
There are places in this country where you would need to drive a great distance before a White person can physically meet a Person of Color.
Regardless of access to diversity, racially isolated living often entails heavy reliance on influences of media, family, and local community. And these influences need questioning. By the way, questioning is not a dirty word.
You can travel and learn from different perspectives through an array of media forms. And the acts of thinking and questioning do not cost you a dime.
I am inviting more White parents to embrace intention in this area of race to think and determine what such a practice would look like. Intention will not look and require the same for all White people. You are different and your family needs are different.
I am inviting you to the journey of racial growth and the feelings that come with it. I invite you to stumble. I invite you to feel uncomfortable and inadequate, as you walk alongside your child to explicitly talk about and face issues of race.
I am asking you to not have all the answers–or to even try. I ask that you strive to model the kind of human being who chooses to be intentional in the world. By doing so, you give your child permission with your life to be imperfect and grow.
This aspect of elevating race in your intentional parenting might or might not call for moving out of our local community. As the saying goes, we won’t know until we ask. And this ask comes from examining your life.
Conclusion: The Gift of Hope
The bountiful gifts of Driving While Black, Sleeping While Black, Walking while Black, Starbucks While Black, Eating While Black, Playing While Black, Flying While Black, Shopping While Black, etc. come at price to Black people—to all people.
It makes for a horrible world.
These gifts ruin its celebration.
Humanity is calling for more White people to open their eyes, see race, and give a different gift.
I know from experience that intentionality does not guarantee our children will be nonracist.
We cannot control another human, including our children. Our children will leave the nest and make their own choices.
In our parenting roles, we can look in the mirror in good conscience about our intentional efforts to guide them to being humans who live inclusivity.
I want you to be able to look in the mirror, answer to God, answer to Black children who will be going to the same college as your sons and daughters, and say, “I lived with intention.”
As I ponder my hopefulness, I wonder if it is because we keep going.
By “we,” I think of people of different races, ethnicities, nationalities I witness who refuse to let racism rule the day. I hear and meet people from different walks of life who envision a world where diversity is appreciated and embraced, not shunned away and ignored to make White people comfortable.
I am hopeful because I believe that there is a growing number of people across race who are becoming more intentional in living like ware in this thing together.
And this is also my outlandish hope—a crazy hope that all of our children will grow up in a world where they are free to be with each other.
Where they can be free to go to college, take vacations, start their own families-live their lives. I hope this history around the color of their skin becomes an aspect of their lives that is honored, valued and cherished out loud.
I hope for a world where we transform our racist world into one where we mutually give and receive the gift of belonging.