Walking While Black

A scared mother’s reflections on the death of Trayvon Martin and her sons’ futures.

I still remember the first time it happened.  I was dropping off my 17-year-old cousin at a friend’s house in the wealthy, white Massachusetts suburb in which I lived and where my father is still a professor.  We knocked on the wrong door. Minutes later, I was pulled over by the police. Slight, young and scared, I was interrogated about my activities, whether I was delivering drugs and what I was up to.

I remembered. My parents had sat me down months before when I got my license.

It doesn’t matter that you’re female. It doesn’t matter that you’re an honors student. It doesn’t matter that you’ve never been in trouble a day in your life. It doesn’t matter that you are leaving to start attending Stanford this fall. When most of these police officers see you, all they will see is a young black girl and that can be dangerous. So, when you are harassed — and you will be — try to stay calm. Try not to be afraid, and call us as soon as you can.

A black teenager’s rite of passage.

Since then I, a minivan-driving soccer mom of three, have been stopped because I “looked suspicious.” My husband, a partner in a Dallas law firm, has watched white women clutch their purses in the elevator out of fear of him. One of my best friends from college, a Wall Street banker, was stopped last year after leaving a midweek choir rehearsal at his church and arrested for “looking suspicious” in his own tony Westchester suburb, and was forced to spend the night in jail. And my 26-year-old brother-in-law, a Princeton honors graduate, an ordained minister, and a Habitat for Humanity staff member living in Harlem, was stopped and questioned while walking home from work by four white police officers just six weeks ago because they thought “he looked suspicious — like he was looking into a van.” Thank God none of us were shot out of “self-defense” since our brown skin made us look so “suspicious.”

I am scared. It is not a new fear, but one that has never gone away and is heightened as I look at my three beautiful boys. These precious ones, for whom my husband and I have lovingly and willingly sacrificed much; with whom I have stayed up countless nights, wiping noses and reading bedtime stories; for whom I have visited dozens of schools and spent hours of research, trying to secure them the best education; in short, the sons for whom I have given my life could find themselves in danger through no fault of their own.

Now they are growing up from babies into fine young men. And that should be nothing but pure joy. Yet, in our society, that also means new danger for them. Not just from the random violence that can touch any life, but due to the particular violence that is visited upon black boys  — especially as they begin to look like young men.

We have to prepare them for what they will encounter because of someone else’s perception of what they are, based on media images that portray black boys and men as predators, pimps, and thugs — even though my sons have no personal reference for this. No, the black men in their lives are loving, responsible, and hardworking fathers, uncles, teachers, and friends who model courage and conviction, values and virtue, family and faith.

So, how could Trayvon Martin’s tragic slaying last month in Florida not break my heart, trouble my soul, and compel me to action? How can it be that, a month later, his shooter has not even been charged with a crime? How can it be that we live in a country that we fight to defend, but where the taking of our sons’ lives does not even warrant their killers’ arrest? How can it be that this child’s life was taken simply because he was walking while black? How can this be the America that I love?

Sadly, so little has changed.

My well-meaning white friends have no idea why so many African Americans distrust or fear the police who have vowed to protect and serve. And they have no idea what it is like for black parents to have to prepare their children to deal with a public that often still judges them by the color of their skin. They are so committed to the idea that we live in a color-blind society that it is hard for them even to perceive, let alone help change, the reality that impacts our lives and the lives of our children daily.

I learned in law school, and it is still true today, that it is the color of the victim, not the perpetrator, that is one of the greatest determinants in criminal sentencing. The harshest penalties are given for crimes against white women and the least harsh, even for the same crimes, are meted out when the victim is “only” black.

So, I can’t make nice. I can’t pretend. The murder of Trayvon Martin could be the murder of any black boy going to the store for iced tea and candy, including my sons.

The clock is ticking, and justice has not been served. The clock is ticking, and my boys will be young black men soon.

The clock is ticking, and my husband and I must prepare to have the same talk with them that our parents had with us: You are bright. You are funny and smart and sometimes silly. Your laughter and smiles fill up the room when you enter. And your warmth and your hugs fill my heart with more happiness and joy than any one person has a right to expect in one lifetime. You are capable of being anything you want to be in this life — even President of the United States. But when you walk out of the safety, protection and loving arms of our home, you are walking while black, and only our prayers can protect you then.

About the author, Frances Cudjoe Waters

Frances Cudjoe Waters is a minister, wife, preacher, teacher, mother, education consultant, media watcher, and woman on a mission. A graduate of Stanford University and Harvard Law School. She resides in northern Texas and blogs at BTransformed.com.
  1. Wow! That was beautiful AND sad at the same time. I have 2 sons. A 17yr.old foster son and my new love,.. my 7month old. I totally resonate with your love for your sons! However, I also feel your pain of feeling helpless against the law.As a parent even for my little guy I hold Faith in the Bible verse, Psalms 127:1 “Unless the LORD watches over the city,
    the guards stand watch in vain”
    Ultimately, God is their protector and he is the one TRUE Shepherd that will “Serve & Protect”

  2. Thank you for your article. It really puts a human face on an issue that white people like me have a hard time being able to relate to.

  3. Thank you for this story. I am a white pastor, my wife and I have been blessed with 6 children, 3 of them birth children and 3 of them adopted. Our adopted children are black. Just beginning to see things from my children’s perspective has truly opened my eyes to the realities of race in America. Are there any resources that you would recommend to my wife and I as we help our children navigate what it means for them to be Christian, Black and living in a multi racial home as they grow up? Thank you so much for this article.

    • May each one of us seek out someone very different than us who will be willing to engage each other with love, truth, authenticity and understanding. Why don’t we start in America’s churches? Racism is, at it’s core, more than a social problem. It’s a spiritual problem. May God help us to walk in unity. And may justice be swift.

  4. Thanks for this window, Frances.

  5. As a white criminal defense attorney, I understand much of where you are coming from. I hear much of this same complaint on a daily basis. And yet, I find myself wanting to suggest that its a two way street. Many whites truly do not understand why African Americans do not trust the police – or white people in general for that matter. Many African Americans do not understand why white females “clutch their purses.” There will be no advance in race relations until these two cultures start learning to trust each other.

  6. I remember too well a similar situation when the twelve year old daughter of my (black) boss was visiting our office in a very expensive suburb. She was getting bored, so I suggested that she might walk across the street to a five star hotel where many kids would go to watch some of the tourists. It was a “safe” area to walk and only a very short distance, so I was initially surprised at his very real reluctance to heed my suggestion. Watching his face, it finally dawned on me. What my (white) children could do without a second thought was something not available to his daughter. So she and I went on a ride, to pick up a few supplies and stop for an ice cream. With me, she was safe.

    That was almost twenty years ago, and it seems as though nothing has changed. How much I wish I could change this for you and for your children.

  7. breaks my heart.

  8. Thank you. As a white mom to an African son, I appreciate this more than you can imagine.

  9. This is heartbreaking for everyone. And there are some well-meaning white people who do get it at least a little bit and are trying to stand up and stand by the side of people of color. Some of us know that we don’t live in a color-blind society yet, but we want to, so badly, for the sake of everyone, of all colors. But please keep talking, because that is part of what will make it happen. It’s horrible for the parents and family of this young man, and my heart goes out to them. No loving, thinking person wants this to happen to any child. Perhaps his life and death will finally be the catalyst we need for the real change that needs to happen.

  10. Thank you for telling so vividly and beautiful the ugly truth of prejudice we all face daily. This prejudice doesn’t only apply to African Americans, but also people of other ethnicity as well. Think of the Japanese internment during WWII… The prejudice stemming from the ignorance hasn’t changed much wherever you go, especially in this so called “free” country where everyone is supposed to freely enjoy equal opportunity. I’m afraid this country is not as free as we all would like to believe or accept.

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  13. Well written, well done, friend.

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  15. Thank you for sharing your heart. This attitude will only change one person at a time …and I think Mom’s are the best place to start. Our own responses and attitudes are absorbed by those we raise.

  16. I am a white upper income stay at home mom. My heart broke as I read this post. No parent should have to warn their child and no child should ever have to consider his or her race as a restriction on his or her freedom. I am certainly part of the silent group who, while I want to believe I do not have prejudices, I have been too self involved to really see or try to understand how these sins of our culture deeply impact the lives of others. Please forgive my apathy and pray for me to see how God would use me this week to begin to love and act on that love, more like Christ.

  17. It was the morning after Obama’s election, my daughter (who was 8 at the time), kept staring at the television with a puzzled look on her face. Finally she turned to me and said “Momma, you said the color of a persons skin doesn’t matter.” I responded “That’s right baby, people are people whatever shade their skin.” And then she asked the question that made me realize that I had failed in educating my daughter about race. “Well, if it doesn’t matter why do they keep saying it?” It took me a minute to understand her query. She was puzzled at the fact that no one simply said “we have a new president,” but instead kept saying “we have our first African-American president.” She knew the basic history of our nation, that it included slavery and other atrocities, but due to her age I had left it at that. From the time she was old enough to form friendships her friends have been the very picture of diversity and it never occurred to her that it would be any other way. Much like some of us allow our children the illusion of Santa Claus, I had allowed my child the illusion of a color-blind society. And just like the day that we must finally tell the the truth about Santa, it was time to remove the illusion; and it was just as heart-wrenching. Following one of our early conversations during which I was explaining that although we’ve come a long way there are still some people who see people and treat people differently based on their ethnicity and in her typical child-like manner she responded “well, that’s just stupid.” It was a real ‘out of the mouths of babes moment.’ Indeed it is stupid, but it is reality and the story of the murder of Trayvon Martin has reignited her interest in the subject of race relations. I don’t know what the future holds, but you are absolutely correct that we must see reality as it truly is, not as we wish it was, if we are to have any hope of that wish becoming reality. Thank you for this poignant article.

  18. Thank you for writing this..

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  20. I’m a white mom to two African daughters who I love more than life. Thank you so much for sharing this! God Bless.

  21. Your piece was well said and I too am saddened by the senseless killing of that young man. I do have a problem though with your comment about the “media” portraying black men as thugs and pimps when there are also *black* men portraying themselves as that in music videos etc and still using the *N* word. My kids wouldn’t even know that word except for black men using it in songs. There is a bit of a double standard that they aren’t also part of perpetuating the problem too. I don’t understand the baggy pants, underwear hanging out, hoodie gangster look. But this situation is tragic and that guy that killed him was looking to be the hero. This IS so sad for that family. Can I ask though, when a black man kills another black man why doesn’t it make national news?
    Praying God will use this for good and ultimately for His glory.

  22. A black teenager’s right of passage is to be harassed by a white policeman? What a heavy, heavy load to place on your young sons. I’m sad for them. Not because of what they may or may not experience in terms of racism. But that you’ve instilled within them a belief that they now have become the hunted by a white populace that is out to harm them. For their sake I hope you explained to them that we live in a deeply sinful world, and that if they look for racism they’ll find it because man is deeply sinful. I hope you explained to them that America has worked hard to address its stained history, and they are the beneficiaries of its efforts. And more importantly, I hope you explained to them that the God of their parents is much bigger than racism and can be overcome, because He has. (I’m a black father of two teen boys myself.)

  23. Thank you for a beautifully written description of your experience and reflections on being black in America. As a white father of five (and soon to be foster father of more children of whatever skin color children God sees fit to grant me), these are things I need to be aware of. This sin-ridden world is soaked in racial bias and hatred. I oo thave been held in suspicion / contempt as “The Man” by youth with whom I was trying hard to help. I have been told that I am a racist simply because of the color of my skin by a “friend” in school, and I have been the victim of race related violence in my own neighborhoods, and understand to a significant degree the barriers and prejudices that we ALL hold and face as we walk through this broken world.

    The things that help me as I walk these paths are the knowledge of what our God has done to start the healing process of redemption, and the memory of what He has done in my life. It wasn’t easy on Him, and it’s not gonna be easy on me. Or my kids. But His Kingdom, and His Glory, are something that He has called me and my brothers and sisters here to work for together to bring into reality. I’ve adopted the position (taught by the Answers in Genesis folk) that race is a false construct based on cultural bias rather than genetic reality. Nevertheless, it is a real issue that Satan uses very successfully to drive us apart. I have vowed in my own heart to work in my life and through the lives of those whom I can influence to bring this area too into submission to God. The problem is insurmountable from a human point of view. I can do very little by my own abilities or efforts. But with God, all things are posssible. “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”

    Let’s pray, cause it all depends on God, and also work, love, and live like it all depends on us. He chooses to use his people to accomplish his purposes on this planet. And His purposes will not be thwarted!

    A day is coming when *All the Peoples* – every tribe and language and people and nation ‘- “pante na ethne” will gather around the throne of glory and celebrate the wedding feast of the One True Triune God! Let us work together to hasten His coming!!!

  24. Frances, you blessed me and at the same time enlightened me on this issue. Being a transplant from Brazil, I am seeing a lot of that for the first time. I am shocked and even though I am not a parent YET, I already fear for my children. I pray for your boys with you and all the black children who undergo this pressure every day. Both my parents are black and so am I and my husband. While in Brazil we did not discuss the color of our skin, we resourced to names and call people by that. I do not mean to say there is no prejudice there, maybe I have simply been blessed to not have been a victim. I am hurting with the Martin family and lifting them up in my prayers!
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us.

    Keeping the faith and Running the race
    grace

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  27. Very well written and so very true!

  28. Wow. Thank you for writing that. I just blogged last night on how this tragedy got me thinking… How do white parents of black children (such as myself) prepare our kids for going out of the safety of our protection when we don’t have the wisdom of experience that comes from being black?

  29. This is a state of affairs that simply should not be.

    The article is well-written and heart-wrenching. And it’s true, so far as it goes. Yet, there is a major element missing: WHY? Why does this stereotype exist and why is it so entrenched? Why is it so universal for a white woman to clutch her bag when near a black male?

    This is a pretty fundamental question that seems never to be asked. If we fail to ask it, we assign responsibility for our current state wrongly. I submit that the stereotype about black crime exists because of black crime. 1/3 of black men are felons. 1 out of 3. That is a very rational reason to clutch a handbag when someone in that profile is near you in a vulnerable space like an elevator.

    It’s not fair. And good black men and women should be angry over it. But I would love to try an experiment – let’s have just one single year in which black men cut their violent crime rate by 90%, which would bring them back in line with the rest of the population. Let’s have them rape 35,000 fewer white women in that year. Then let’s talk about racial stereotypes that are left over after that point.

    My best friend, best man at my wedding, and college roommate, who is black, said it perfectly. “I’m not mad at cops for being suspicious of me. I’m mad at the people who look like me that MAKE them suspicious of me.”

    • @Jeremy I think you have a good point. My wife and I lived in predominantly black community for several years. Fellow students of ours were brutally beaten by two black men. My wife before we were married was robbed at gunpoint by a group of black men. To this day she is tempted to be uncomfortable around black men she does not know. But, I’ve also tasted a little bit of the other side. I have a black friend from Africa who I am very close to. We named our second daugher after her and she is like a sister to me. When I’ve taken her out to eat or to get coffee we often get these looks of disgust by whites. It is very infuriating. Even once in Blockbuster this young white girl disdainfully said, “Are ya’ll like…together?” There is a tangled web of reasons for racism in this country. None of them make it right in any sense of the word. Whites have done a reprehensible job of calling out racism. But, if we keep defending our own “color” and refusing to own our corporate responsibility for society’s racial temperature then we will continue to revisit the same arguments. Whites are corporately responsible for the racism that exists today and the breakdown of the black family. Blacks are corporately responsible for the widespread social deviancy that remains largely unchallenged in their culture and fuels the fires of racism. Black or white, let’s own our problems corporately and progress the conversation.

  30. Your truly heartfelt fears can be echoed all across America. What escapes me though is how do we even begin to change all this? Certainly, we begin as you say on our knees to protect our kids and restrain the harmful intent upon them from those with no understanding of God. I know you know this Frances but it bears being said I think, that our kids must be taught to pray for themselves, asking for God’s guidance and covering and most of all for His wisdom to obey what He says and so remain under His covering.

  31. I haven’t taken the time to read through your full article, I admit. I read the first couple of paragraphs. However, a problem strikes me immediately in that you call it “the murder of Trayvon Martin”. Like everyone else who has jumped on the bandwagon, YOU WERE NOT THERE. You can’t call it murder until you know all the facts. And you don’t. Neither do I…which is why I am withholding judgment until I do.

    • Dave, thanks for your comment. It has been our policy from the beginning of this saga not to use the term “murder” in any headlines or subtitles (which are typically written by the editors). You are correct that all the facts are not available at this time. Unfortunately, we inadvertently used the term in the subtitle of this article. We apologize for that and have adjusted it accordingly.

  32. Very well written. I am White, and was not born in this country that I love. However, I agree with you 11%, and it breaks my heart. For the Treyvons past present and future, and for this wonderful country that I love and admire. I Pray
    for the future.

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  38. Thank you for sharing. White people need to hear more about the true experience of people of color. Our prejudice is so ingrained, subtle and unacknowledged, that we need to constantly be in the humble position of learner.

  39. @Jeremy: The problem with your point is the jump between “felon” and “violent criminal.” Most people in prison, of any color, are there for non-violent drug offenses. However, black men are more likely to be charged with a felony than a white person. Some drugs – such as crack cocaine – are prosecuted more aggressively, and have harsher mandatory sentences, than others, such as powder cocaine. The fact is, whites and blacks are involved in violent crimes at largely comparable rates. Your own view that black men are more likely to commit a violent crime proves the point about our culture: we have bought the lie. If you want the citations for what I’m saying, read, “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander.

  40. I’m a white male. I was out selling books – Christian books – door to door one summer while in college. As we sat in our car later, looking at a map trying to decide where to go – we were accosted by a police officer because we looked suspicious. We were in ties, slacks and clearly had religious written all over us. Did I mention that it was in broad daylight, in the suburbs? I am not so sure this is a black thing, as it is a human thing…. just saying, it happens on the other side too. I don’t consider myself a racist at all. I am pretty colorblind. I just wish others were too.