Last week, my husband and I read a New York Times commentary by one of our favorite columnists, Ta-Nehisi Coates, called "The Good, Racist People." Coates’ take on a racially tinged event involving a famous black actor and an upscale Manhattan eatery sparked lots of healthy debate at our dinner table and before we drifted off to sleep.
My husband thought Coates was overreacting to this particular incident. I agreed. I’ve been trying to offer up more forgiveness than fury when it comes to small slights or race-related injuries, because I know that people have a lot of baggage around race and class that is tremendously difficult to overcome -- even for really well-meaning people.
Then something happened that made that commentary feel all too real.
To sum up: One of my 2-1/2-year-old twins got into the cold medicine first thing in the morning. I called Poison Control and was told to hurry to the nearest emergency room.
At the ER’s registration area, technicians and nurses swarmed around us trying to get us checked in as quickly as possible. A very friendly technician, who is not black, chatted up my son while taking his temperature and blood pressure. My son was a little cough-syrup-drunk and more talkative than normal. The tech -- impressed by all his toddler talking -- said to me: "Hey, you might have a future rapper on your hands!"
Immediately, and without thought, my entire body heated. I was so angry. The best thing you can think of for a bright, talkative little black boy to be is a rapper?
I quickly said to him, with as much measure as I could muster, "No. I was thinking maybe a future lawyer." But in my head I was thinking, "You would never, ever, ever have said that to a talkative non-black child -- even if that child was actually rapping."
I had to tend to my son (who eventually ended up being fine) so I pushed the tech’s comments to the back of my mind. But as the long morning wore on, what he said just kept coming back to me again and again and again.
I have to admit that it stung.
I suppose I am naive, but I keep believing that if only I can educate myself enough, and keep my kids smart, polite, neat and well-spoken enough, if I can live in the right neighborhoods and send them to the right schools, that people will look at my two boys and my baby daughter and see them for what they are: bright, beautiful and promise-filled.
Not criminals, or stupid or scary. But valuable. Worthy. Just like them.
I keep thinking people will see their potential, and not relegate them to being drug dealers or basketball stars or tattooed entertainers.
I have a little “Mommy blog” that I use to keep track of my kids’ lives and milestones –- and my thoughts about it all –- and on it, I’ve written a bit about the tremendous weight my husband and I carry around, as we try to shield our babies from the world's prejudices and stereotyping and low expectations.
But I honestly thought I had until they were much bigger -- with their hoodies on as they walked through the neighborhood (Hello, Trayvon Martin) -- before I would really have to contend with this kind of kick to the gut.
Let me be clear: I don’t think that technician is a racist. (Honestly, I think that word gets thrown around a lot more than it should be.) He was trying, I could tell, to find a shorthand way to connect with a frightened toddler and his equally frightened mother. But that’s the problem.
Good people, trying to connect, can sometimes reach for cheap and insulting stereotypes. Well-meaning people can reinforce hurtful stereotypes and perpetuate limits on entire segments of people, just because they speak before they think.
Like Coates said in the column I referenced earlier, "The idea that racism lives in the heart of particularly evil individuals, as opposed to the heart of a democratic society, is reinforcing to anyone who might, from time to time, find their tongue sprinting ahead of their discretion."
Unlike Coates, I’m not tired of “good people.” I’m heartbroken that we haven’t gotten past some of this. And I’m anxious for my kids’ future. What will people see when they look at my boys? In their heads, what names will they call my little girl?
I know one day I will have to talk to my children about this country's history and what that means about how they are likely to be perceived by others. And I hope some of my friends, black and non-black alike, will do the same.
Tanika Davis is a former Baltimore Sun reporter and now works as Director of Communications at The Hatcher Group. She is the mother of twin boys, ages 2-1/2, and a 1-year-old daughter. She is perpetually in search of the elusive “full night’s sleep.”