My neighbor called the police on my black babysitter

Oct 9, 2014 at 2:30 p.m. ET
Image: Rubberball/Mike Kemp/Getty Images

By Ilina EwenMy 9-year-old son overheard a news story on the radio. Local police mistakenly thought a black teenager was a criminal in his own home. The officers barged in, guns drawn, and pepper-sprayed an innocent, compliant teenager. His crime? Being black in a white neighborhood.

You might say this sort of thing is an anomaly, an innocent mistake fueled by years of socialization and stereotyping. I'm here to say it isn't so. My son has firsthand experience with the police knocking at our door, and he asked me why every time we hear about police being mean or unfair it's toward black people. I answered in one word.


We recently hired our go-to babysitter so we could head out on a rare date night. Our babysitter, a black man, ran to his car to grab something after the boys had gone to bed. His car was parked in front of the house next door, since one of our vehicles had taken up the space in front of our home. On a small city street, this was commonplace.

A neighbor spotted him. I imagine her peeking out from behind her curtains across the street. Then she had the audacity to go look into the man's car when he ran back into our house. She spotted a duffel bag. Suspicion confirmed! Drugs, for sure. Or a gun!

She called the cops. (Let's just stop for a moment and consider all the other things she might have done instead.)

The police came to our door, responding to the claim of suspicious behavior. The knock woke up our kids. They worriedly crept downstairs and stood beside the babysitter.

Our sitter maintained his composure and was cooperative. He had nothing to hide. He had done nothing wrong. He'd simply gone to his car to get a book out of his duffel bag.

After we hurried home, the babysitter told us the incident wasn't unusual. He knew how to behave around the police. He'd been racially profiled before, and he'd been taught how to react. And this, more than anything, gave me pause. I just read a chilling piece about a similar experience and the notion of preparing boys for this sort of thing. And again, we hear the same story on replay coming out of Ferguson.

Our sons were full of questions the morning after the police paid a visit to our home. When we have a sitter, they still ask if the police will come to the door again.

We didn't have answers. Then or now.

Why were the police called?

Because a white neighbor saw a black man jog down the street and into our house. A man carrying a book. Our regular babysitter, who had been at our house many times.

She saw a black man in a white neighborhood, and her gut reaction was to call the police.

Ilina Ewen is the doting mother of 11- and 9-year-old boys. She runs her own marketing consulting business and daydreams about food, travel and shoes. When she isn't working, she sits on the boards of SAFEchild and the Cecilia Rawlins Fund, volunteers as a Champion for the UN Foundation's Shot@Life program, lends her voice to the Central and Eastern North Carolina Food Bank and serves on the Department of Public Instruction's Parent Advisory Council and Summative Assessment Task Force. She is a fierce advocate for children's health and education.

More on racism

How to talk to your kids about racism
Why you can't just tell black boys to be good and stay out of trouble
Talk to kids about diversity