(Originally published on chapelboro.com the Spring of 2012.)
By Kristin Prelipp Oguntoyinbo
Like most parents I am trying my best to teach my children the most important life lessons so that they will be eventually be equipped to go out on their own and find happiness and success. We talk about self-respect as well as respect for others. I tell them that you are only as good as your word. I promise them that if they are ever in a car with a friend who is driving and drinking, or if they have been drinking they can call me for a ride anytime day or night, no questions asked. We talk about the importance of education. We all see it as their key to getting to do their life’s work. Oh, the places they will go! We discuss taking good care of your body since it is the only one you get in this lifetime. But, it had not yet occurred to me to warn them not to wear a hoodie.
The Trayvon Martin case has really shook a lot of us up. If you have been living under a rock, let me remind you of the basics. Trayvon Martin was a 17-year-old African American boy who lived in Sanford, Florida, a community north of Orlando. On a recent evening he was on foot returning home to his father’s house from a gas station with a bag of Skittles and an iced tea. He was wearing a hoodie and talking to his girlfriend on his cell phone. Meanwhile, George Zimmerman, a neighborhood self-appointed watch caption armed with a gun, was following him. Zimmerman shot Martin and was not arrested as he told police he killed him in self-defense.
In the days following his murder the news has exploded with facts about the case, about Martin’s character and his actions towards Zimmerman. This will all eventually be sorted out. But, basically this case has made me see how dangerous it can be to simply be black, especially a black male like my two sons. I am also so frightened that nearly anyone can get a gun and the laws are becoming more and more permissive. But race is what I want to talk about today.
So now I realize I need to add some life lessons to my repertoire. I was married to my children’s father, an African American of Nigerian descent, for a decade. I saw glimpses of how my ex-husband interacted with society, compared to how people treated me as a blonde, white woman. For example, I remember that when we were shopping he always asked me to carry the bags as we wandered from store to store, as he did not want to be accused of shoplifting. Until the Martin case burst onto the scene I had forgotten that I need to remind my children that there are ignorant, frightened people in our society who will only see their skin color and will automatically assume many things about them, most of which are not pleasant. Our close family and friends, who are from a wide variety of races and cultures, see them for who they are, but some others will just see them as black.
Last night I watched the boys, 5 and 8, play basketball in the yard. Leo was Harrison Barnes and Roman was Tom Robinson. The late afternoon sun was illuminating them beautifully so I took a quick photo. The sun kept going down and it was getting too cool for their sleeveless shirts so they put on hoodies. I just didn’t have the heart to warn them yet about walking around in a hoodie. But now I know that I have to work racism into some conversations. Mentally I had put us in a safe bubble because we live in a liberal, accepting community like Chapel Hill/ Carrboro. Our particular neighborhood is very tight knit and supportive. We all know each other and watch out for each other. But my job as a parent is to prepare them for the world. So the senseless death of Trayvon Martin has helped me to face something ugly about our society.