Gimbling in the Wabe – I Have a Son

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I have a son.  He’s 26, works the late shift in the medical pharmacy at the University hospital.  Sometimes at night, instead of taking public transit home, he runs from work to his apartment near downtown – a couple of miles.  His apartment is not in the best part of town, but he likes living there, close to the center of the city, not too far from where we live in South Minneapolis, where he grew up.  Our neighborhood is diverse, his new neighborhood is diverse, as well.

Of course, I worry about him, because I’m his mother.  It’s what mothers do.

My son shakes off my fears for his safety.  The fears I have as a mother.  He says that he does not feel afraid when he runs to his apartment from work, in the night, through places that are dark, that are remote, that are run down and impoverished.  He tells me that he refuses to be afraid, that he will not be forced by fear to curtail his life.  He is brave.

But also, he is white.

I read about the killing of Philando Castile by a St. Anthony police officer less than ten miles from my house.  It happened during what has been called a routine traffic stop; the car Philando was in had a broken tail light – that was the reason given for him being pulled over. But police scanner transcripts show that the tail light was an excuse to approach Philando.  Apparently he fit the description of a suspect in an armed robbery from a few days earlier.  Because he had a wide nose.

Oh, well, this was old hat to the gainfully employed Philando (a well loved nutrition services supervisor at a local elementary school; he’d worked for the St. Paul Public School District since 2002) – over the years he had been pulled over more than 50 times, and issued over 80 citations for such things as not having an adequate muffler, not using his seat belt, driving without proof of insurance… driving with a broken tail light.

After all, Philando was black.  Young black men get used to being pulled over, even in a supposedly liberal place such as St. Paul, Minnesota.

On July 6, one of the police officers walked up to the car, and talked to Philando through an open window, asking for his identification.  When Philando reached in his pocket to produce the requested ID, the policeman saw a gun and immediately opened fire, striking Philando four (or was if five?) times.  Philando bled out in the front seat of the car.  It didn’t matter that the gun Philando carried was legally obtained, and that he had a permit to carry it.  It didn’t matter that he and his girlfriend did exactly what the policeman told them to, even after Philando had been shot.  It didn’t matter that the girlfriend’s four year old daughter was in the back seat of that car.

This would not have happened to my son.

Make no mistake – the only reason Philando Castile died was because he was black.  Not because he had a gun.  Because he was black.  If anyone thinks otherwise, they are blind, or willingly ignorant, or very, very lucky that they were born white.  There can be arguments thrown about with “he should have” and “if only he had” as an opening volley, but Philando Castile is dead because of rash judgment grounded in racial profiling and systemic prejudice.  My heart knows this, my mind knows this.

I think of Philando Castile.  And I think of my son.  I think about what it would be like for my son if I was not white, but black, if my family and my husband’s family did not come from a long line of white Europeans.  If my son was not pale skinned and blond, but dark skinned, with black hair and brown eyes.  Everything the same but the color of his skin, his hair, his eyes.

What would his run home be like then?  If he were a young black man, running in the middle of the night?

I shut my eyes and try to imagine what it would be like to be the mother of a black son.  Almost immediately I am gripped with a deep, desperate fear, so vast it threatens to overwhelm me.  It is a palpable, gut wrenching fear, so devastating that the mere imagining of it has me short of breath, with tears welling up in my eyes, my heart pounding.  A fear against which there is no protection.

How many nights did Philando’s mother feel this same fear grabbing at her chest?

I don’t think I would have the strength to live in this world if I had a son who was black.  I don’t think I could carry that fear around with me, each and every day.  Not fear of him, but fear for him.  A fear that for me is irrational, but for Philando Castile’s mother, was real and present, and horribly, tragically justified.

I think of my son.  I think of how, as a mother, I fear for him merely living in this world outside of my ability to protect him.  But I cannot deny that I have a modicum of solace because he is white.  It is not right that I feel this way, it is not fair that I can take comfort in this knowledge because it should not matter, because it smacks of privilege.  But I do feel this way – rightly or wrongly – because he is my son, and I love him, fiercely.

But from what I’ve seen, Philando Castile’s mother also loved – loves – her son, fiercely.  At the very, very least, I owe it to her – and to all the other black mothers out there – to examine my own life, my own attitudes, my own expectations, my own reactions, my own frailties, my own prejudices, my own unquestioned privileges, and work on changing myself.  I can pry my fingers away from my own eyes, remove my hands from covering up my own ears, keep my hands from silencing my own quiet, little voice that tells me that even if I can be comforted in the fear I have for my own son, it is not enough.  Every little step towards acknowledgement and awareness is a step forward.  And every step forward declares that Philando Castile’s life did matter.

Because they’re all our sons.  And we love them fiercely.

~ Sharon Browning