My son turned two yesterday. He loves police cars. I bought him a little cheap UN Police car from a mall play area when he refused to sit on the little train and instead just wanted the police car. He almost always insists on seeing my phone so I can show him ‘polisi’ – a 3:45 minute long video on youtube from the Middleton police that showcases sirens and lights, police cars and dogs, police women and tough terrain, with a very catchy song about all the great work done by the police.
Austin loves police cars. When I have my beloved Law and Order on in the background as I am feeding him his breakfast porridge, as soon as he sees Lenny or hears the ‘dun-dun’ sound that all L&O afficionados know and love, he yells out, ‘Polisi!’ and it is amazing.
Austin is also American. And Black.
He looks to me for an explanation of how to treat other people outside our little cocoon. When he hears me say thank you to the bagger at the supermarket, he echoes me. When he hears me respond yes sir on the phone to someone I respect, he repeats it verbatim. When he hears me call his nanny Miss Betty, he runs around the house chanting it as often as he can remember. Now I am faced with, how shall I model for him how to react to the police when it seems the odds may already be stacked against him?
Philando Castile. Diamond Reynolds.
Even after they shot Philando, Diamond continued to address the officer as ‘Sir’ and he still had his gun drawn as her boyfriend’s life slipped away. Her 4 year old daughter understood, more than I could comprehend, and if you have seen the video, she pleads for her mama to stop cursing and screaming because she did not want her ‘to get shooted’ – Trevor Noah did a great commentary on this for the Trevor Noah show last week.
Austin is American. Austin is Black.
My experience as an African immigrant, a woman at that, has been a bit different than Amadou Diallo’s. Once, in Long Beach where I lived, I was coming home from a long shift at the Emergency Room in Inglewood, and I got off the train and was walking the 5 blocks home. A black-and-white rolled up next to me, and the window rolled down. One, I was not scared. This was in 2006, before the madness enveloped everything around us. Two, the officer was a white male. Three, it was 0100 and I was walking alone.
He asked me how I was doing. My accent kicked in right away – I said I was fine, heading home after work. He asked where I was from, I smiled as I had anticipated this question the moment I spoke. Everyone ALWAYS asks me where I am from when I speak. I told him, Kenya. He asked where I was coming from. I said, I work at the hospital. Then he asked if I needed a ride and I said, oh no thanks. Home is right over there…but thank you!
And that was that.
When I got home, my brothers were visiting. Tall, dark, African brothers of mine. I told them to never sit outside on the stoop after dark again. Nobody is going to wait to hear if you have an accent before they shoot.
So what will I model for Austin? Will I always fall back on my accent? What happens the one day when they begin to fear accents?
As a mother to a male child of color, I never thought I would have to train him up on how to survive any encounter with the police, especially if he was innocent or had done no wrong. In Kenya, we are all almost the same color, different versions and tones of black. We look like all of our cops here. In fact, here, if you were NOT black, you probably got treated a lot better by the authorities. In the US, it is a bit different.
I am afraid of how I shall tell my son that he faces an uphill battle, against all sorts of systems in the US. I know that I want him to be a strong man, of positive character, God-fearing, respectful and law abiding. I also want him to know that sometimes things happen and we may never know the reason why things happen that way. And, at times, justice does not respect your skin color. Code-switching is a difficult maneuver – when and how to do it are key. Especially when it means the difference between life and death.
I do not want to raise him afraid. I do not want him to walk with his head held down, buoyed down by society telling him that his life does not matter as much as the next white person’s. I do not want him to feel like a second class citizen. I do not want him to have to engage his accent when dealing with certain sets of people.
I do want to raise him to do the right thing. I do want him to still love police cars even when he is 35. I do want him to grow up to be the best him he can be. I do want to raise him dripped in so much love that he shares that light with the world, despite the darkness that threatens to envelop us daily.
He loves police cars.
I hope he grows up knowing that he does not have to fear them. In any part of the world. I hope he grows up knowing to stand up for himself when he needs to, and he will need to. Simply because, my little one is Black. All I wish and pray and beg for him is for him never to get ‘shooted’, least of all by the police, the same who are to protect and serve.
Please stay safe, son.