Necessary Conversations About Race, Identity and Bias

by Tamara Fyke

Last week my 21-year-old son was robbed at gunpoint at college. The masked stranger demanded he hand over the $150 cross necklace he was wearing. As he stood there with the gun in his stomach, his first thought was for his friends who were back in the house just a few feet away where they both had been and where the masked stranger re-entered. My son wanted to get his friends out to keep them safe.

 Although he told me about the incident, my son didn’t immediately report it to the authorities.  When I asked him why he wasn’t coming forward he said, “They are not going to do anything about it. I’m black. The guy who stole from me was black. They are just going to slap him on the wrist and tell him not to do it again.  Now if I was a white, it would be a different story.”

My heart broke. I knew there was truth to what he was saying.  As I shared his story with black male friends of mine, they shared their own stories or their sons’ stories of being beaten, falsely accused, or held at gunpoint. “This is the reality of being a black man in America,” they said, the same words echoing in separate conversations.

 After being encouraged by the football coaches at his D-1 school to talk to the police, my son reported the incident. As expected, the officer tried to shake him down: “Something in your story isn’t adding up! Were you drunk? Were you high?” 

My child tried his best to keep his cool, “No, sir.” He calmly repeated the same facts over and over again. 

“So if I gave you a drug test right now, you’d pass?” the officer pushed.

“Yes, sir,” my son responded.

Thankfully, a member of the coaching staff had accompanied my son to the station. He told the head coach how my son was mistreated. The head coach promised to call the Chief of Police. 

“Exactly what I thought would happen, happened. I was so upset, Mama,” I could hear the pain and frustration in his voice as we talked on the phone that night after he visited the police. 

“I’m so sorry, sweetie,” I said as I wondered what it would be like if I, his white mother, had been with him that day. Would they have treated him differently?

We know of the disparities. African-American boys are more likely to be disciplined severely for infractions in school than any other segment of the population.  Studies show this is due to implicit bias. Many of us are working to break the school-to-prison pipeline. This negative thinking impacts our schools and our society at large.

Two of our core values as a family are faith and diversity. I have taught all three of my beautiful biracial kids from the time they were toddlers that we are all God’s children. They have learned how to get along with rich kids in one of the wealthiest counties in America as well as struggling kids in urban communities. They have been surrounded with adults and family members of every race. Through all of this intentional exposure and community building, I have taught my kids their own inestimable worth. “You are loved! You are fearfully and wonderfully made,” I crooned as I tucked them in bed at night when they were little…or even now as I kiss them goodbye before they walk out my door.

My mama heart wants to scoop up my brood and carry them off to the mountains where we can live away from the ugliness of judgment and racism. I know this is impossible, but I would do anything to keep them safe. 

So what can we do to keep all children safe?  We adults are the gatekeepers, and we are the same kids who grew up on Sesame Street, where diversity was celebrated for the past 50 years. It’s time for us to put all we have learned into action. 

1. Have the conversations. – As difficult as it is, we must show up for the conversations with our children and with other adults about race, identity, and bias. Let us give each other space to process and ask questions.

2. Provide representation. – Through media and through real life relationships, we must provide role models of successful people of every race and ethnicity. 

3. Establish a culture of character. – We need clear communication about our expectations for how we treat others and ourselves. This requires explicit instruction about respect, responsibility, courage, honesty, kindness, and more.

4. Explore and create alternatives. – Traditional discipline methods are not serving us well. How can restorative practices, such as Youth Courts, be implemented with fidelity? What other means are available for dealing with issues? 

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