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Wheeler: A talk moms must have, about race

FILE - In this undated file family photo, Trayvon Martin poses for a family photo. College students around Florida rallied Monday, March 19, 2012, to demand the arrest of a white neighborhood watch captain who shot unarmed teen Martin last month, though authorities may be hamstrung by a state law that allows people to defend themselves with deadly force. (AP Photo/Martin Family Photos, File)
FILE - In this undated file family photo, Trayvon Martin poses for a family photo. College students around Florida rallied Monday, March 19, 2012, to demand the arrest of a white neighborhood watch captain who shot unarmed teen Martin last month, though authorities may be hamstrung by a state law that allows people to defend themselves with deadly force. (AP Photo/Martin Family Photos, File) AP

My boy has been known to wear a hoodie. Sneakers, too. His jeans are a bit baggy because he has lost some weight since football season. He likes Skittles.

Yet in the many hours I’ve spent praying over this child in his 17 years, not for one second have I had to worry that someone would find these things suspicious.

Not one of the many cautionary words I’ve spoken to my blue-eyed boy has had to be a warning that someday a stranger might follow him home from a store because he is using his hoodie to shield his candy from the rain and shoot him to death.

To our unending shame, other mothers find such conversations essential, reminding sons to be ever watchful because they are black males living in America.

If we had wanted to pretend that such reminders are unnecessary in our “post-racial world,” the death of Trayvon Martin has shown us our folly.

Trayvon was walking back to his father’s gated community north of Orlando, Fla., last month when George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watchman, decided the teen didn’t belong there.

Zimmerman, 28, called 911 to report a suspicious character and then followed Trayvon even after the operator told him the police had it covered. Soon after, Trayvon lay dead from a bullet wound to the chest. Like my son, he was 17.

Florida authorities have not charged Zimmerman, who says the shooting was in self-defense.

This armed man pursued a teenager carrying Skittles home in the rain and wants to claim the shooting was in self-defense?

This was the question that 11-year-old Ty Hicks of Raleigh asked his mother this week when the two were watching a news account of the shooting.

His mother, my friend Joyce Clark Hicks, who is black, said the question led to “a very sad, but necessary conversation about the real dangers of being a black male in this country, even when you’re minding your own business.”

Chiseled inside my memory bank is the night, in the late 1990s, I first encountered such a conversation with my friend and former News & Observer colleague Millicent Fauntleroy. Her then-college-age son, Paul, had been stopped by police in New Jersey, ostensibly because of a brake-light problem. Because Paul couldn’t produce a registration that satisfied the officer, the car was towed away, and Millicent’s child was left standing alone, without a phone, on the side of a major highway hundreds of miles from his Raleigh home.

But it could have been so much worse, Millicent said.

Having grown up oblivious in near-total West Virginia whiteness, I was incredulous. Worse how? Then she mentioned how glad she was that she had prepared her sons for moments like this with conversations about how to behave when police officers stopped them. Her children, in fact, were pulled over repeatedly – for no reason – in their nearly all-white West Raleigh neighborhood.

“You don’t want your children to think that the world is somehow arrayed against them,” she says now. “You want it to be ice cream and cake. But you want your child to be prepared, because sometimes it’s a matter of life and death.”

Hitting home

That it is still, in 2012, a matter of life and death is nearly beyond comprehension.

“It really hits home with black parents,” Joyce, also a former N&O colleague, says, her voice so soft then vehement, “that when people say that could have been my child, we mean, that could have been my child.”

Joyce and her friend Tiffany Edwards, a mother of four in Apex, say reality remains different for blacks and whites.

Just recently, one of Tiffany’s three sons was called the N-word on a school bus. A white child told another son that the boys couldn’t be friends anymore because Tiffany’s son, whose father is president of the Wake County bar association, is black.

“You can have relatives who are president of the bar, who are president of the United States, a husband who’s a pharmacist, a career of your own, and people still look at you and all they see is color,” Joyce says as a stinging pain washes over her eyes.

The questions this week about Trayvon’s killing forced Joyce, whose husband is Vietnamese, to talk about race for the first time with Ty.

Sometimes, she told Ty, people look at you and see only your color and, sometimes, when all they see is color, they make assumptions about you.

‘Kind of speechless’

Sitting at the family’s kitchen table in Raleigh, Ty puts his chin in his hand and turns up his eyes, thoughtfully contemplating his reaction to his mother’s words.

“I was kind of speechless,” he says. Later, when I ask whether anyone has ever inquired about his ethnicity or whether he will wonder now about being perceived negatively because he is brown, he looks so sweetly puzzled.

“It’s not on his radar yet that people are anything other than people,” Joyce says, calling his innocence a blessing.

As the word “innocence” rings away, our eyes meet. We cry when we realize that Trayvon is not the only loss to mourn.

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