Despite its insidious nature, racism and white privilege are becoming increasingly difficult to obscure in a society where police violence against unarmed citizens is commonplace. For mothers of nonwhite children, this violence is forcing them to seek out nontraditional and dramatic ways to protect their children from those who “protect and serve.”
In a recent viral Facebook post, Los Angeles resident Debra Awad-Allen — a mother of two — described the unusual lengths she has resorted to in an effort to protect her son from a confrontation with police. For her, it involved knocking on neighbors’ doors with her nearly six-foot, 14-year-old son in tow to make sure neighbors knew that he was her child and wouldn’t be described as a “suspicious person” to police while walking the dog or going to the store.
“I just want you to know that he does belong here. He is my son,” she stated as she spoke with each neighbor about the presence of her son in the neighborhood.
Awad-Allen was motivated to take such drastic steps in light of the recent shooting death of Stephon Clark in Sacramento, California. While standing in his family’s backyard talking on a cell phone, Clark was allegedly shot 22 times by members of the Sacramento Police Department who reportedly mistook his cell phone for a weapon.
Awad-Allen is not the only African American parent articulating concerns about children confronted with police violence. One particularly brutal example is seen in this NowThis video from 2017 featuring college student Demetrius Hollins of Gwinnett County, Georgia, who saw a routine traffic stop quickly escalate to a physical beating without warning. Already in 2018, almost 300 people have been killed by police violence, according to the killedbypolice.net
These and various other encounters with law enforcement have left nonwhite parents — particularly African Americans — scrambling to inform and coach their children about encounters with police. However, many parents struggle to explain to their children how their mere physical appearance can be perceived as life-threatening to others.
Awad-Allen tells her son how that in response to a negative encounter with another person, he can run away, disengage, etc. However, in the case of law enforcement, running away is not an option. This has left many nonwhite parents struggling to describe to their children just how they must behave around law enforcement in order to protect their lives amidst the reality of so many young, unarmed minorities killed by police violence even while complying with commands.
(Philando Castile, for example, complied with all of Officer Jeronimo Yanez’s commands and informed him that he had a firearm he was legally licensed to carry, but was killed anyway, in front of his girlfriend and 4-year-old daughter.)
Awad-Allen’s approach to speaking directly with her son about the realities he faces in society as an African American male is supported by research on childhood education and psychology.
In a 2017 article published in The Atlantic, Chicago teacher Xian Franzinger Barrett asserted the need to teach children the realities of racism, classism, oppression, and prejudice.
“It is vital to reject the oft-perpetuated narrative that society is fair and equal to address students’ questions and concerns about their current conditions,” Barrett said.
Some of the negative responses Awad-Allen received to her Facebook post are also supported by research and describe the compulsion some individuals feel to deny the reality and dangers experienced by nonwhites in American society.
“If you’re in an advantaged position in society, believing the system is fair and that everyone could just get ahead if they just tried hard enough doesn’t create any conflict for you … [you] can feel good about how [you] made it,” NYU psychology professor Erin Godfrey wrote in the peer-reviewed Child Development journal in 2017.
According to The Atlantic, the findings of the study are based on research into “system justification” — a social-psychology theory that believes humans tend to defend, bolster, or rationalize the status quo and see overarching social, economic, and political systems as good, fair, and legitimate. System justification is a distinctively American notion, Godfrey said, built on myths used to justify inequities.
“None of these women have to do this with their kids.”
In an exclusive interview with Grit Post, Awad-Allen described why she felt the need to post her experience to Facebook.
“There are always these debates about white privilege, what it means, and the misconceptions that a lot of people have about it,” Awad-Allen said in a phone interview. “I normally don’t post my own personal situation to Facebook, but when I went through it and took my son door-to-door, I realized that none of these women have to do this with their kids. No door that I knocked on, the mother or the father, had to ever do it with their child.”
“I thought this was a descriptive way from a bleeding-heart mother for people to understand this [issue] instead of cops and criminals and the pieces that always come into play during those conversations,” she continued.
Awad-Allen noted that the responses from her neighbors were not uncommon to how they typically interacted with her and emphasized that she does not believe her neighbors are racist. She did, however, note that it was not immediately obvious that her neighbors understood why she, as an African American mother, felt the need to make sure they knew her son belonged in the neighborhood.
I’m Not a Police-Caller
The universal motto of police is “to protect and to serve.” While many white Americans typically see that as the primary function of the police, people of color have dramatically different police encounters compared to whites, and are statistically more likely to experience police violence.
Black and brown communities have routinely expressed concern and outrage over the actions and function of law enforcement in response to the killing of black and brown citizens at the hands of police officers, despite being unarmed and complying with police commands. To make matters worse, perpetrators of police violence are routinely absolved of all wrongdoing, citing what is quickly becoming the cliche punchline for killing minorities: I feared for my life.
Whether someone believes all law enforcement officers are good, all law enforcement officers are bad, or somewhere in between, the overwhelming question to consider is why comparatively so many police officers are fearful of unarmed minorities, but not of heavily armed whites?
As Awad-Allen pointed out in her post, Stephon Clark did not walk into a school and murder 17 students, nor did he enter a church and murder the congregation while they prayed. In these two instances and others, the perpetrators of these acts were captured alive by police, despite being armed and having just committed heinous crimes.
Awad-Allen’s own experience with law enforcement has left her questioning the intent of their mantra as well. According to Awad-Allen, after reaching out to law enforcement several years ago in a domestic violence situation with her ex-husband, she was shocked and disappointed when the police suggested that she let her ex-husband “sleep off” the incident instead of tending to her safety and injuries.
“They shook his hand and said it was nice meeting you, sir. We’re around if you need us. Since that day, I have never called the police,” Awad-Allen told Grit Post. “I know that was just two cops versus the entire force, but everyone’s always saying they’re here to protect you, they’re here to help you. They weren’t here to help me and they weren’t here to protect me.”
Ever Since Trayvon
Awad-Allen describes how she speaks with both her son and daughter about police violence.
“We’ve been having that conversation since Trayvon Martin was shot. I tell them to always comply with the cops… but in the case of someone harassing you it’s different. I tell them to run away,” she said.
Some critics of Awad-Allen’s post took a defensive stance in her mentioning white privilege and even went so far as to compare white children being bullied by other children with minority children being shot by police officers. The assumption was that because white children suffer too, there must not be any white privilege and that bad things happen to all people.
“It’s not the same at all,” Awad-Allen explained. “If there are two kids with the same background, outfits, etc. Your son, as a white kid, will never be called suspicious. My son walking down that same street will always be called suspicious.”
As of this writing, Awad-Allen’s post has been shared by more than 51,000 people on Facebook, generating over 5,000 comments, most of which were in praise for her post and the willingness to share her perspective as an African American mother trying to protect her child.
Awad-Allen was also pleased to receive a personal note of thanks from one individual who initially responded negatively to her pointing out white privilege, but who later expressed appreciation for her willingness to address his lack of awareness with patience, sincerity, and wisdom.
Shara Smith is publisher of Grit Post. She writes about politics, economics, and social justice issues. Her background is in communications and management. She founded Grit Post after a long career in academia and the nonprofit sector. Follow her on Twitter @writershara or email her at info AT gritpost DOT com.