Open Letter From Mom to Son: 5 Lessons for Navigating White Supremacy
It’s just before 10 p.m. and you’re beside me softly snoring in your glow-in-the-dark dino PJs. You’re 5 and freshly into sleep after our bedtime routine: bath, brushing teeth, lotion, clean pajamas, last-call beverage (water only at this time, although that doesn’t stop you from asking for juice every single night), cuddles, two stories, two songs and then ZZZs. Today has been one of those easy days: no tantrums, and you ate most of your meals—WIN!
You’re so curious and inquisitive. From the time those beautiful brown eyes pop open in the morning (“what do Transformers eat?”) to just before you drift off into sleep (“are there nice monsters?”). You expect me to have clear and concise explanations for these many questions. You’re also learning fast that sometimes there aren’t any easy answers (“what happens when we die?” “What makes a person bad?” “What does love mean?”).
I had been planning to get stuff done once you were asleep. But I can’t move. I’m frozen in thought. You had asked me a question earlier in the day that has been lingering with me. “Why do police make you afraid, Mommy?”
Many parents have concerns about the life for which they are preparing their children. The overwhelming responsibility you feel for these tiny beings can often be taxing, even under ideal circumstances. You’re constantly choosing for them and hoping to also be guiding them to make good choices for when they’re more independent—all while obsessing over whether you’re doing a better or worse job than your parents, managing other relationships and responsibilities, and hoping to find some space in it all to take good care of yourself too.
But my concerns for you, my precious little one, are not universal. My anxieties are about how you’ll navigate anti-Blackness. I have lived in the midwest, mid-atlantic, south, southwest and California. I know this country well. I understand this country’s iterations of racism more than I care to be burdened with. I’ve encountered hurdles of white supremacy in medicine, academia, the workplace, friendships and even in running my own business.
When you were born, I wanted to spare you from that. I wanted so bad to shield you from the humiliation. In recognizing that I cannot, I’ve begun to put together lessons I’ve learned so far in my lifetime. Many of these things I wish I had known before, but if they ease some of the burdens off of you, it will have been worth it.
The police are not your friend. This is going to be tough to reconcile because their marketing is on point. A lot of your favorite shows present them as if they are heroes who protect the “good” people from “bad” people. When you get a little older, we will share with you our stories. Not hypotheticals, not things we read or overheard, but of firsthand encounters by myself and others you already love and trust. You’ll learn quickly that carceral justice has nothing to do with rehabilitation, peace or even justice. You’ll begin to notice that the media will humanize law enforcement and showcase their narratives as prevailing, and how their portrayal of people who look like us conditions people to be comfortable with the crimes committed against us. My love, I do not look forward to sharing those stories with you.
You are not responsible for internalizing how other people feel about you. Within the institutions built on systems of white supremacy, you’ll be labeled as things you are not—sometimes as a deviant, other times as something fascinating and otherworldly. Both are painful, as you may find they don’t leave room for you to be human, for you to be you. In white spaces, you’ll be expected to feel grateful for having the experience of being one of the exceptions, for being different from how they perceive you. Be equally as wary of the people who outright call you a n*gger as you are of people who gush about how much they “just love Black people.” You’ll be expected to vie for their approval. Supervisors, teachers, managers, professors, law enforcement and even doctors will judge you and your actions without knowing you at all.
You will have to know that this has nothing to do with you. Approval and validation will be held over your head if you seek it. They will question your motives, intellect, background, family history and more to assess your worth. Baby, YOU and only you determine your worth, and I pray you come to know that quickly. Even as they tell you that someone else deserves a higher salary or a promotion over you or a better grade—whatever the circumstance may be. There will be times where you doubt yourself, but you will always find your way back home to your truth.
And when you are, some will immediately deem your anger, no matter how valid, as hostile, and will treat you as such. You will often find when you speak up that you will be treated as the problem. In the event that the issues you flag are seen as anti-Black or racist, you will be expected to find comfort in that the perpetrators’ intention was not malice, that they were just ignorant—even in cases where malice was projected onto you. You will be expected to be more forgiving.
The nuances and beauty of the many cultures of American descendants of slavery will not be reflected in mainstream platforms. You must not look to them for assurance of who we are. Doing so will often leave you feeling ashamed, feeling like our lives are all struggles and trauma. One day you will understand why your father and I make sure to supply you with books and movies where protagonists look like you, and why we make sure you don’t spend so much time in front of the television or your tablet. These things can skew your self-perception. You will find love, light, mercy, prosperity and freedom, but not there.
We will be here for you as long as we are earthside—but it won’t always feel like that, as we understand that the importance of raising you in a hostile environment is to make sure you can advocate for yourself. In those moments when you feel like you’re facing something alone, know that you aren’t.
Emily-Melissa Walker is a freelance visual artist and creative director based in Chicago, Illinois. You can follow her on Instagram at @em.tog.