When I was a child, “Officer Friendly” came annually to visit our (95% white) school. He (it was always a “he”) gave us basic safety tips, when we were a bit older, offered anti-drug lessons and sometimes passed out treats. But always, always, we were told that when in trouble, we should find a police officer, and that person would drop everything and help us.
It wasn’t until I was in my late twenties that I realized the police were not the good guys for everyone in my society. Some children were taught to avoid the police at all costs, and when a confrontation was unpreventable, to be as quiet and polite and conciliatory as possible, even if the police officer was in the wrong.
Those were the Black kids.
Now, as the white mother of Black children, I work hard to teach the “right” lessons about the police to my girls (the fact that they are girls takes a bit of the urgency out, but not all of it). What is the right lesson? I want my daughters to grow into confident women who stand up for themselves, know their worth and never let anyone question it. But I also want them to be safe, savvy and as much out of real trouble as possible.
Having grown up believing in Officer Friendly, it’s not instinctual for me to teach my girls caution where uniforms are involved. As a sassy, take-no-prisoners smart aleck who has been known to stand up alone in the face of injustice, my instinct is to argue when I feel I’m being wrongly accused or not given my full rights in any situation.
But I don’t want what happened to Henry Louis Gates to happen to my girls. And that’s a more serious danger than many of my white peers seem willing to consider. I personally know a Black man, who, like Gates, has a dazzling and impressive education, and like Gates, was arrested not before showing i.d. or for refusing to show i.d., but specifically after the cops in question saw his Ivy League academic i.d. After that, what began as a traffic stop for a burned out taillight became a call for backup and a full-blown arrest. My friend’s crime seems to have been a combination of knowing his rights (though he was never informed of them) and refusing to speak, and of being too “uppity” (the Ivy League i.d.).
My girls are growing up with a lot of privileges I never had as a child. They are likely to get elite educations and have professional careers. They will be well dressed and self-possessed. But they will still be Black women in a society that has a long way to go before it stops assuming Black people are more rowdy, more deviant, more prone to illicit behavior, more violent, more dangerous than white people. Look at statistics showing that when they are pulled over, Black and Latino drivers are more likely to be frisked, even though white drivers pulled over are much more likely to have weapons.
The fact that the president said the cops acted “stupidly” (not that they were stupid) in Henry Louis Gates’s arrest is not a bit surprising, shocking or inappropriate given the world we live in. Barack Obama is a good politician and ought to have reigned himself in. But not because he was wrong.
What will Sasha and Malia be told about his whole incident? What will I tell my girls? Right now, I just tell them to always use their most polite manners with police officers. I don’t tell them the police are good or bad, friend or foe. When they are older, I will have to calibrate (to quote the president) my message differently. Once they are able to walk down the street and visit the corner store on their own, they will need new lessons. For example, I know they are more likely to be accused of stealing than I was as a child at the corner store. Do I tell them this? Or do I just teach them extra careful behavior when in stores?
How do you handle these issues with your children? Are they old enough to be hearing about the Professor Gates incident? How do you explain?