Do You Know What an Innocent Black Kid Looks Like?

It is June 9, and in about half the country school is out for summer. For me and my girls this means pool time at our friends apartment complex and an excessive amount of outside foods (watermelon, popsicles, klondike bars). It means hanging out in our pajamas until lunch time and cheap matinee movies when it is raining. It means less rules and more sleep. It means summer fun.

But this isn’t the reality for very many of my neighbors. In my predominantly black neighborhood, I am only just learning the dangers of summer. For my neighbors summer means more sleepless nights and more fear. Our predominantly black neighborhood is changing quickly, old abandoned houses turn to cute renovated open floor plan funky colored relator peddled property in two weeks or less. They never stay on the market long. Apparently, we’re up and coming.

For me, this means that our “buy as much as we can afford” plan from eight years ago looks like a genius investment, for my neighbors it means their teenage boys are more likely to be harassed on the neighborhood streets. On the first day of summer a kid was traumatized for riding his bike to his friends house. He hadn’t even left his own neighborhood. His mother documented it on Twitter, otherwise it would not be news.

I wish I could tell you that I don’t know how this happens. I wish I could tell you that it is a mystery to me, but it isn’t. At twenty-three and surrounded by black children I found myself reacting as I had been trained. Having mostly seen black boys portrayed as criminals in the media, I interpreted benign actions as aggressive. I wish I could tell you I am the only one. But my neighborhood Facebook page, the Nextdoor site tell another story.

The suspicious people being reported in my gentrified neighborhood are almost all brown. The people being suspicious are almost all white. People opening car doors or looking in windows I understand, but every once in a while there is a post about a group of teenagers hanging out. What are they doing? Why are they there? Should we call the police? Sometimes it is just a particularly large or slow walking man the poster is curious about. They have conveniently snapped a picture so we can all take a look, decide if the person walking down the street is up to no good.

It took me a year surrounded by black teenage boys to learn what an innocent teenager looked like. It took me a year to figure out that I was surrounded by innocent teenage boys.

When we moved into the neighborhood eight years ago, a group of boys were on the corner just hanging out. I rolled slowly by as to not hit anyone who made a sudden move and they crossed their arms and mean-mugged me. I thought it was hilarious. I knew what innocent teenage boys looked like.  I rolled down my window and in my best and brightest first day of school voice I introduced myself. “My name is Abby! We just moved in! We live in that brown house over there! It is nice to meet you!” They raised their eyebrows at me and walked away. I saw them on the corner pretty much every day that summer. I waved. They mostly ignored me.

It took me another year to realize that this was a defense mechanism, that the boys guessed that I would see them as a threat regardless of how they acted, so they may as well be in charge of their own destiny. At 16 or so, they were already familiar with nervous white women calling the cops on them for no good reason. They already knew there was nothing they could do to diffuse white fear.

White fear has to diffuse itself.

But I rarely see white fear diffuse itself. Instead it ignores itself, justifies itself, if called out defends itself. White fear is allowed to exist, even if it kills black kids. And I get it, I do. It is horrible and awful to realize that the default thought you have about a group of kids is: criminal. It is really terrible to realize you have this racial bias, even when you don’t want it. But these things need to be faced, because they are actually traumatizing people, sometimes killing them.

I wish I could give all the white people in my neighborhood Facebook groups the benefit of the doubt, in fact I am sure that they really do not “mean anything” by the question about the kids on the corner, but it doesn’t matter what we mean. Actions have consequences.

White women, do we know how dangerous our fear is? Do we know how seriously it is taken? A few summers ago I was walking my overly friendly dog. We walked up my driveway just as a man walked by my house. I turned to say hello and my pit-bull pulled at the leash, I smiled and turned to tell him how friendly my dog was. He already had his hands raised. “Please don’t sic your dog on me.”

I was stunned. As a white woman I am conditioned to believe that I am never a threat, that my presence is never perceived as dangerous. My fear is always justified and I could never hurt a fly. But this isn’t true. My fear has been weaponized against the black community before I was born. My concern is reason enough for a child to be harassed or a gun to be drawn for my protection. If I feel afraid, I am allowed to sic my dog on a man who is walking in front of my house. This is the world that we live in. And when we feel afraid we need to know that.

We need to look at ourselves and our fear. We need to really understand why we are afraid. Do you know what innocent black boys look like? I am asking because I didn’t. I am asking because I don’t want my neighborhood to be a place where my black neighbors are harassed for existing in their communities. I know it is weird and uncomfortable. I know I will be accused of race baiting and blowing things out of proportion simply for writing all of this down. I have decided black lives are worth a lot more than my own discomfort.

It is summer, and teenage boys are out of school, teenage girls are wandering around in packs laughing too loudly, children are biking to their friends house. Everyone is staying out too late. At least, I hope they are. I hope they all get the summer my kids are guaranteed. I know that the world can feel like a scary place, but we need to react with the reality that is: Our fear makes it a scarier place for people of color.

Do you know what an innocent black kid looks like? Do you check yourself before you report something? Are you willing to look at yourself, your motives, your fear? Are black lives worth that to you?

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