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I had to teach my biracial daughter suburbia is not a safe place for her


I’m directionally challenged and I know it. The GPS is guiding us to my daughter’s friend’s house in suburban Milwaukee for a sleepover. All is going smoothly until we hit a detour. We’re guided five miles east, then three miles west, then into in an unfamiliar cul-de-sac.

And I feel lost. An uncomfortable but familiar level of lost.

My hands go clammy, my heart rate quickens and I, uncharacteristically, mutter an expletive. My daughter looks at me, puzzled.

How do I tell her I’ve been here before? No, not in this particular suburban cul-de-sac, but I’ve been in this place before: a different suburb, a different subdivision on an errand to pick up a friend’s cat on a wintry night, not a bright blue summer day like this one.

She’ll believe the part about me being lost, and she won’t bat an eye about the neighbor who helped push my car out of a ditch when a wayward tire slipped over the icy edge.

She might even believe, though she won’t understand that same neighbor’s preoccupation with why I was there instead of responding to my repeated requests for directions to my friend’s house. She’ll be confused, even annoyed when I tell her about explaining twice over that my visit was about a cat.

She’ll wonder why I just didn’t go off on the guy and tell him my friend’s no trespassing sign didn’t apply to me.

She’ll probably go silent when I tell her about being pulled over by the police on the way home because I didn’t look like I was “from around there.” That part will probably frighten her. She knows about Sandra Bland, and that police stops can end ugly for women too. But it’s never entered her mind that once upon a time, her mom could have ended up on the wrong side of ugliness like Sandra did.

My expletive lingers in the car. My daughter notices the slight tremble to my clammy hands and my shallow breathing. Now I have to explain. I abandon the thought of explaining the past and instead snatch last-minute words from the present, hoping they come out right:

This isn’t good…it’s just not good, honey. I’m driving too slowly because I’m lost and people who live here can see me. Someone might call the cops and say I don’t belong in this neighborhood because they’ll see a black woman driving.

I hate that I have to tell her this, and that she sees me shaken and frightened. She knows me to be her mom — a woman who doesn’t bite her tongue, her last line of defense against any and all threats or slights. A woman who’s unapologetically who she is – unapologetically black, but yet here I am, almost being afraid of what someone might perceive my blackness to be.

Her dad, my husband, is white. He understands, but can’t help her navigate the road of living in her skin in the way that I can and I know that. So I take these first wavering steps, trying to balance it with somenot all white people, somenot all police, some not all subdivisions and suburbs.

I don’t want her to be frightened of the some, but I do want her to be aware.

I want her to understand, but not accept that the fear and tremble she saw in me is an acceptable way of living because of the some.

Most of all, I want a world in which she doesn’t have to explain the some to her children in the future.

This post is part of #WhatDoITellMySon, a conversation started by Expert James Oliver, Jr. to examine black males and police violence in the U.S. (and to explore what we can do about it). If you want to join the conversation, share using the hashtag or email to talk about writing a post.

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