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Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy March 24, 2012 07:44 PM
Ever since I heard about Trayvon Martin, the unarmed 17-year-old African-American boy shot dead in Florida by a neighborhood watch captain, I haven't been able to stop thinking about a conversation I had with a friend of mine a few years ago.
She is a nurse, and she and I worked together. She is African-American. One day over lunch we were talking about our kids, and she told me about how her teenage son and his friend had been pulled over by the police while driving in a suburb north of Boston. They hadn't done anything wrong, and the cop did let them go, but only after asking to see both of their licenses and asking a lot of questions.
My friend went on to tell me about the instructions she gives her children -- about where to be and where not to be. About how to act when they are in a mostly white neighborhood, or in a store. About what to do if there are police nearby, and how to behave when talking to the police. About how to act in general when out in public.
I was shaken by the conversation. I shouldn't have been surprised -- I had heard stories like this before -- but I was. I knew my friend's kids. They are great kids. They are kind and good and smart. They work hard at school and in their community. They make the world a better place by being in it. That anyone could think of them as criminals was inconceivable and frightening to me.
And yet, as Trayvon Martin's death brings home hard, sometimes all it takes is the color of your skin.
I didn't talk with my children about that conversation. I don't know why; maybe because I was so shaken by it. But since hearing about the Martin case -- the 911 call, the way the police took the shooter at his word when he said it was self-defense, and everything else -- I know that not talking with my children about that conversation was a mistake. And it's one I intend to correct.
From now on, I'm taking every opportunity I get to talk with my kids not just about racism, but about how we jump to assumptions about people based on things like how they look, how they dress, what jobs they have, their sexual orientation, or what faith they follow. Because this is about more than just skin color. Innocent, good people have faced discrimination or worse just for being Muslim or gay or speaking Spanish. Trayvon Martin is the most recent case, but every day, just being different can put you at risk.
President Obama said, "If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon Martin." It's true -- but in an even bigger way than that. We must face and conquer racism against African-Americans in this country, but our problem is even bigger. Just because my son doesn't look like Trayvon Martin doesn't mean he's safe. Nobody's child is safe when a child can be shot for wearing a hoodie.
President Obama also said that we need to do some soul-searching to figure out how something like this happens. He is right. It is time for soul-searching -- out loud soul-searching, real and honest conversation. But it is time for more than soul-searching. It's time to take action and make sure our children are taught tolerance. We need to make sure not only that there is justice for Trayvon Martin, but that our children really understand what justice is.
We can't let this keep happening.
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About MD MamaClaire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »
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