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A letter to my black sons on the truth about racism

black family
Unsplash/ National Cancer Institute

Dear Sons,

Even though you’ve heard this all before, I can’t risk leaving a stone unturned. Your lives are too precious to me. I fear I’ve failed you by teaching you skin color doesn’t matter when clearly it does.

I’m writing to tell you the truth about racism.

I’m afraid you’ll think I’ve played a cruel joke by duping you into believing your outer layer doesn’t matter.

I fear I’ve been naive. Skin color matters and I struggle with feeding you the narrative that it doesn’t.

I’ve never pretended racism doesn’t exist. I’ve felt its sting. I’ve been trailed through stores. Shop owners have asked to search my purse. Tellers have eyed me with suspicion and scrutinized me when I’ve withdrawn my own money from the bank. I know humiliation. We all have prejudices. It’s part of our humanness.

But here's the truth: You can't let the actions of a few color your view of the world. I don't believe most people are racist, but there is a fringe element who may want to do you harm. You could fall victim to senseless violence. And, for that, I’m sorry.

I'm sorry you’ll have to work so hard to prove your intelligence and worth — perhaps even your humanity — because of the black skin that houses your intellect and heart. I’m sorry — in light of the atmosphere we live in today — you may feel your preparation for life as a black man has been inadequate.

We tried to equip you with tools for success, great lessons for any young man, but especially critical for you. We coached you on the unwritten rules for black men. What you should and shouldn’t wear, how to treat others, how to conduct yourselves with dignity, and how to be articulate and confident.

Often you accused us of trying to “control your lives.”  We were preparing you for times like these. Some people will judge you based on the color of your skin. Your reaction could be the difference between life and death.

Despite our country’s dark history of slavery, we’ve taught you to take responsibility for your actions and to assume the best of people. I’ve quelled my doubts and encouraged you to look deeper than color. Was I wrong?

You’ve faced little discrimination in your short lives, and I’m thankful. But you’re not immune to it. So don’t be fooled into thinking you are. Some of the devastating stories we’ve seen in the media from time to time could’ve easily been about you but for the grace of God.

I fear you could become a hashtag, your name a symbol of injustice. It doesn’t matter that you’re from a two-parent home. It doesn’t matter that you’re from a middle-class family, articulate, and educated because the first thing people see is the color of your skin.

Regardless of the poor behavior of a few, all white people aren’t “the enemy.” Don’t let anyone try to convince you they are. For the few times I've felt discrimination, I can tell you of hundreds of times when white people behaved lovingly, fairly, and sacrificially for me.

Know history, but don’t let it cripple you. A victim mentality will limit you economically and emotionally.

I wish I could return you to the safety and comfort of the womb. I can’t. This is your experience. Your story to live. Use my wisdom as an ointment to calm the irritation. But make no mistake about where I stand.

First, you’re responsible for yourselves, your families, and your community. Second, you’re bound by the rules of society and the law. I know you’ll respect that. I’ve raised you to be men of character and integrity.

Most police officers want to help you. Be wise and remember what we’ve taught you. If the police pull you over, respect them. They deserve it. Comply with their wishes and pray all goes well. If it doesn’t, I hope I’ve armed you with the tools to fight ignorance with grace.

Your father and I believe America is the best place in the world for you. As you transition into adulthood, you’ll have an opportunity to be beacons of hope and examples of what is best about America by treating everyone — regardless of race, social stature, or religious affiliation — with respect, compassion, and dignity

Judge others by their character, not their skin color. For those who can't see past your skin color, it’s their loss. Those who look deeper than skin color will see what I see. I couldn’t be prouder of the men you’re becoming. Allow others to see the fullness of America by being the best you can be.

Live strong and be safe,

Mom

Sheila Qualls is the Executive Director of TakeCharge, a nonprofit organization that seeks to restore the two-parent black family and unite Americans towards shared values regardless of skin color or station in life. She is a former national speaker and Marriage and Family columnist at Patheos.com. She and her husband, Kendall, a former gubernatorial candidate in Minnesota, have been married for 36 years and they have five children.

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