When my husband and I came to Chicago from Israel so that I could go to graduate school, we had no intention of staying here permanently.
But then the second Palestinian intifada happened, and the Israeli government’s entirely irresponsible and deadly response to same, and we came to a conclusion: We no longer wanted to raise children in Israel.
At the time, we only had the one child, a round-cheeked toddler boy, but the fact of his boy-ness sharpened the point. Our choice came mostly out of a desire to educate him differently, to not sacrifice his up-bringing and our values on the altar of occupation and settlement, but there was an unavoidable sense of having also snatched our son from the jaws of war — because in Israel, of course, every 18 year old boy is drafted into the military. Girls go, too, but they don’t see combat. They don’t die.
I bring this up now because I’ve been thinking a lot about all the parents of African American boys who are holding their sons a little closer today in the wake of the horrible, heartbreaking Trayvon Martin case.
My aunt is one of those moms — white as me, but mom to a black man who was once young, a young black man who was stopped for jogging in his own neighborhood, a young black man for whom she would tremble a little whenever he went into the city.
Like every other parent of a young black man, my aunt knew that my cousin could be frisked, arrested, and even killed for little but his youth, gender, and skin.
Like Trayvon Martin.
Like Travares McGill.
Like Sean Bell.
Like Amadou Diallo.
Like Oscar Grant.
Like Orlando Barlow.
Like Aaron Campbell.
Like Steven Eugene Washington.
Like Kiwane Carrington.
Kiwane Carrington was 15 when he was killed. Steven Eugene Washington was autistic. Orlando Barlow “was surrendering and on his knees.”
All were killed by people charged with protecting them, whether as law enforcement or law enforcement support of one kind or another. None were armed.
When I look at my boy — on the cusp of adolescence, at the brink of a teenager’s certainty and stupidity, about to try on the world in the guise of a boy-man — I can imagine what might have been: We might have sent him to the Israeli military, he might have worn that uniform, we might have sat by the phone and trembled in fear.
But we removed him and ourselves from those might-haves. We stayed in a place where just being a young man did not by definition mean offering yourself up to die.
For Trayvon Martin, Travares McGill, Sean Bell, Timothy Stansbury, Jr., Amadou Diallo, Oscar Grant, Orlando Barlow, Aaron Campbell, Steven Eugene Washington, Kiwane Carrington, and countless others, however, there was never a choice.
These days, Americans spent a lot of time arguing about “white privilege” — if it exists, what it means, what its consequences might be.
But I think I know what white privilege is.
White privilege is never being frightened for my son’s life, simply because of the color of his skin.
Update – please also see:
What is white privilege, pt II – “If you watch the following and realize that you have never needed to share any of these tips with anyone you love, you’re living with a very particular kind of privilege.”