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Before you call Mike Brown a criminal, try to remember being a teenager

The narrative around Mike Brown’s death at the hands of police officer Darren Wilson changes wildly depending on the source. Many insist that Brown would be alive had he simply obeyed the law and respected an officer. Isn’t that oversimplifying the issue?

If you think that discussing race in the context of Brown’s death is racist, think again. There’s no such thing as color blindness. Pretending that people don’t respond to race — that we live in a post-racial America — is just a shield.

It’s a shield against having to have potentially uncomfortable discussions. It’s a shield against recognizing that some parents will worry that their kids might end up with a police record that could affect college applications — while other parents worry that their kids might end up dead in the street. That divergence isn’t because black kids are inherently more likely to commit a crime. It’s because black kids are more likely to be portrayed as thugs and treated like hard criminals for doing things that teenagers do.

White teens are having yearbook photos taken with rifles in their hands. Black teens are having photos with guns used as evidence that no one should protest their deaths.

I saw white privilege described as reacting to the Ferguson situation with horror — but not terror. White privilege isn’t an insult — it’s a simple recognition that being white affords you things that people of color won’t have. Like the security of knowing your rambunctious (not a thug, of course) teen might get driven home from a party by the cops, but he won’t be shot by the cops.

When I was 18, I drove a car load of high school girls to a liquor store in the heart of the black community. We knew a clerk there sold to underage kids. On the way, I changed lanes too quickly in the rain and gently sideswiped a van. Everyone in my car was under 21, and we had a bunch of booze in the back seat. The family in the other car yelled at me for a second, and then calmed down when they saw that no damage had been done. I apologized, and they said it was fine, and we parted ways. In the end, it was a funny story to tell.

I’m in my 30s and I’m a mother and I don’t think it’s so funny anymore. My actions were irresponsible. It was the one time in my super straight-laced teen years that I did something blatantly illegal. Teens make stupid choices. Not every teen will have to worry about being killed over those choices.

What would have happened had a car full of underage black boys with alcohol in the car gotten into a small accident in a white community? Would it have been the same?

Parents, I implore you to look at this situation with compassion. Have compassion for Mike Brown’s grieving parents. Have compassion for the kids who are being called thugs and criminals because they made mistakes that teens across the country make every day.

Remember your teen years. Even if you never did anything remotely wrong, you certainly had friends who did. You probably laughed at stories of petty theft, drinking underage or trying drugs for the first time. Don’t take the easy way out — the simple escape where you say, “Wilson did the right thing, Brown should have obeyed the law.” Don’t use photos of a teen misbehaving as an excuse to brush his death off as justice being served.

There’s more at play here, and you owe every child in America the effort it takes to keep talking about racism, even if — especially if — racism doesn’t affect your child directly.

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