September 29, 2014
When a link to Shannon Ralph’s Huffington Post article, "11 Things Only Parents Of Boys Will Understand" crossed my Facebook newsfeed, I immediately clicked it. As the mother of three young sons, these kinds of lists are always of interest to me. Parenthood can often be a frustrating experience and a peek into the chaos of other families reminds me that there is beauty in stepping on sharp toy dinosaurs in the dark at 2 a.m. and almost falling bum first into the toilet because it was left up—again.
Ralph’s list begins benignly enough, with a perfunctory introduction detailing her long-held desire for feminine-identifying children, preferably girls, who love ballet, high tea, and Dora the Explorer. It swiftly becomes clear that in Ralph’s world, only cisgender girls enjoy these things and that should have been my first clue of the blatant expression of racism and White privilege to come.
Right after what she believes to be a universal boy-child obsession with Star Wars, Ralph explains why she’s happy her children will one day grow up to be White men:
“Simultaneously hating and being grateful for the privilege your son will have as an adult male. This is a tough one. We all want our children to succeed and let's be honest, males—particularly white males—have an advantage in the skewed world we live in. It's easier for them. We don't like it. We fight hard to change it. We rail against it with every fiber of our feminist being. But in the back of our minds, we breathe an uneasy sigh of relief that our boys will not struggle as hard as others. We hate ourselves for it, but we do it nonetheless.”
It is rare that an essay in which a writer delves into her personal experiences and perspectives sends me over the edge, but this one accomplished that. Why?
Because we live in a country where the entrenched legacy of slavery ensures that the wealth gap between White and Black families continues to increase, with Black families losing wealth and White families gaining it. We live in a White supremacist capitalist patriarchy that demonizes Black men, victimizes Black men, criminalizes Black men, and ultimately murders Black men. And those that can’t be enslaved in the Prison Industrial Complex are often brainwashed into becoming token Negroes who step-n-fetch for White corporations believing that tap-dancing for their supper will make them safe and successful.
This past summer, we have witnessed the murders of at least four unarmed Black men—Eric Garner, John Crawford, Ezell Ford, and Michael Brown—at the hands of police officers sworn to protect and serve them. We live in a country where Black men are three times more likely to be killed by police officers than White men during an encounter and an extrajudicial killing of Black people by law enforcement occurs at least once every 28 hours.
The United States city of Ferguson continues to burn with fiery rage while Brown’s killer, Officer Darren Wilson, remains safely protected behind the Blue Line. We watched Crawford gunned down by trigger-happy cops acting on one 911 call and we recoiled in horror as the grand jury declined to bring charges against them.
And in these turbulent, socio-political times, a White, self-proclaimed feminist decides to create a list in which she states that she’s secretly thrilled that her White sons will be able to navigate the world easier, safely ensconced in their privilege. Not only does she have the unmitigated gall to give voice to such racist bullshit, she blithely assumes that other parents of boy children will feel where she’s coming from and be happy that they have boys as well.
Newsflash: This country, with its tradition of desecrating Black bodies, makes mothers of Black sons feel just the opposite.
Following the traumatic not-guilty verdict handed down to child-killer George Zimmerman, who profiled, stalked, and ultimately gunned down unarmed, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin as he was walking home from a convenience store in 2012, MSNBC host Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry spoke to the hearts of so many of us:
“I will never forget the relief I felt—I’m a sexual-assault survivor—and yet the relief I felt at my 20-week ultrasound when they told me it was a girl,” she said. “And last night I thought, I live in a country that makes me wish my sons away, makes me wish that they don’t exist because it’s not safe.”
Her statement was followed by MSNBC host Joy Reid sharing similar fears:
"As soon as they are out of my custody, out of their dad and my care they are waiting suspects. Waiting to be arrested by police, followed around a store, made to feel uncomfortable in a store like they are not shopping, they are stealing, questioned about where they are, why are they there,” she said. “You always have to teach them these horrible lessons in 2013 that you need to be really careful about who is around you.”
Let's be clear: This is not to diminish or negate the fears attached to raising Black girls in this country, but if we're going to talk about raising sons, then let's talk about it.
Ms. Ralph's dangerous logic marginalizes and invisibilizes mothers of Black boys who do not breathe sighs of relief at our sons' non-existent privilege. We are terrified that our sons will fall victim to pedestrian crime exacerbated by poverty, hopelessness and systemic factors intended to subjugate Black Americans for the perpetual benefit of White America. We rail against disparities in prison sentencing, the War on Drugs, school-to-prison pipelines, foster care-to-prison pipelines.
We cry when they take their first steps away from us, knowing that we can’t protect them forever. We never know when they may be in Walmart, or walking home from a store, or jaywalking, or listening to loud hip-hop music, or whistling, or getting off of a train, or standing outside, or walking down the stairs of their own homes, or seeking help after a car accident and be perceived as threats that must be quickly, violently, and permanently extinguished for the betterment of society.
We lie awake in terror, hoping that our sons will not be gunned down by sociopathic, White police officers—those "privileged" White boys who navigate the world so easily and, one day, just might be Ms. Ralph’s sons.
This woman only gives one reason for fighting against White male privilege and that is her self-proclaimed feminism. Well, a feminism that doesn't include social justice for our sons, read: Sons who are not White is not a feminism to which I will ever subscribe and is a clear example of why there is simmering friction between White and Black feminists. Our relationship with White, male privilege goes a lot deeper than equal wages. Our sons have to be alive to work.
A feminism that wallows in the fact that White men are deemed superior and thus, to some extent, protected from harm, accountability and the need to empathize with other human beings is a feminism that needs to abolished or only talked about behind closed doors—at Klan meetings.
I was once accused of being racist by a White mother who thought my "liberal" views and anti-racist arguments were teaching my sons to hate. I agreed with her. I teach my sons to hate racism. Ms. Ralph's article reminded me that there are mothers teaching their sons to benefit from it.
She frames her position as a gnawing need to keep one’s children safe, which I completely understand. But when the perpetuation of White supremacy—and contrary to popular belief, turning a blind eye does perpetuate it—is the means by which she chooses to keep her sons safe, then she is a danger to society. And that fact makes it impossible to appreciate anything else that she has to say about raising boys. As a feminist, any woman who can look at the state of the world and breathe a sigh of relief, not anger, frustration, hopelessness or solidarity, but relief that the color of her sons’ skin and the magic stick between their legs guarantees them privilege without merit is no feminist sister of mine.
So, congratulations, Ms. Ralph, your sons hit the genetic lottery and were born with a Get Out of Jail Free card, but you don’t speak for me or any mother of Black sons that I know. So, if there is a next time, and here's to hoping that there's not, title your list, “11 Things Only Parents Of Privileged White Boys Will Understand” and be done with it.