Race Through The Lens Of Motherhood

Michelle Cox Boys

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I was sitting on my couch one warm summer morning last July—mug of coffee in one hand, phone in the other—scrolling as my kids slept in upstairs when I came across a Facebook post that jolted me right out of my “West County White Mom” world.

Less than a week had passed since the shooting deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, and the stories dominating the news at that time gave me pause: Two black men. Two videos. One day apart. White officers involved. Lots of questions, especially for someone like me.

As the daughter of a retired, deceased St. Louis County Police officer, I am “part of the family,” a status that helped me get the inside track on stories when I started as a cops and courts newspaper reporter after college. All my life, I’ve been influenced by, friends with, and in support of police officers.

My father entered police work during the racial tensions of the 1960s. Prior to joining the St. Louis County Police, he served on the Metropolitan Police Department of the City of St. Louis.  He worked as a very young officer (23 years old) in a city that was struggling even back then with heavy racial discord.

I remember as a young child hearing him tell stories of the crime in the failed housing project known as Pruitt Igoe and of working race riots in the city, wearing full riot gear. By the time I was a teen, I was aware that my father’s worldview was formed in many ways by the fact that his first real experiences with minorities had been in those types of situations.

While we all have biases shaped by our family of origin, education, friends, and socio-economic status, my bias has always been a lens that gives the benefit of the doubt to the cops. That hasn’t changed. At the very least, my bias leans toward the fact that all cops aren’t bad—most of them are good—and that all lives matter.

But then a friend of mine from high school, Angela Brown Cameron of Florissant, MO, posted on Facebook for her son’s birthday: “Watch out world, Malik Cameron is 18!” along with a kissy-face emoji. The post had none of the grievance or frustration of the meme I’d seen her share days before (“I can’t keep calm. I have a black son,”) but this birthday message felt strikingly personal.

My son, was sleeping upstairs while I scanned Facebook and he had turned 18 the day before.

I found myself staring into the big brown eyes of her handsome 18-year-old boy, eyes I knew because they looked just like the smiling eyes of the girl I knew in high school, and suddenly our differences—white/black, cop family/civilian—faded into the background. What replaced them was our common ground: our motherhood. I felt the need to reconnect with my old friend, ask her some questions, start a conversation, and understand more of what it's like to mother an 18-year-old black son compared to mothering an 18-year-old white one.

I sent Angie a message on Facebook, the only connection we’ve had since high school other than a few class reunions, and asked if she’d be willing to talk with me. I wasn’t surprised when she agreed; Angie was always approachable and forthright.

“You remember that my Dad was a police officer, right?” I told her almost from the start. I wanted to share my bias without saying outright, “Hey, I'm on the side of the police here.”

She didn't remember, but she immediately offered words that helped build a bridge. “This isn’t an anti-police thing,” she said. “I’m not saying there aren’t good police. I appreciate knowing that if I call them in an emergency, they will come to help me. We wave when we see police officers on our morning walks. I agree that they are being asked to do more than they are capable of doing and that sometimes they are a scapegoat, blamed for things that aren’t theirs to fix, just like teachers.”

And with that, our conversation was easy, comfortable—similar to how it was when we were classmates all those years ago when. And it was enlightening.

Here is what Angie and I have in common: We grew up in middle-class community of Florissant, MO. We went to the same high school and graduated together in 1985. We were on the same pompon squad. We are college educated. We are married.

Most important, we are both moms. We both have 18-year-old sons whom we love and whom we want to arrive home safe every night.

These days, my ongoing instructions to my son look something like this: Don't drive too fast. Don’t text and drive. Don’t drink, and if you do drink, don’t drive—call me. Keep your music volume at a 10 or lower so you can hear a siren.

I was mostly concerned about insurance rates when I told my son, “If you get pulled over, be respectful, and if you get a chance, mention that your grandfather was a police officer. It might help.”

Angie laughed at that. “I worry about insurance rates, too,” she said.

But her worries are larger. While Angie’s instructions include some of the above, she says also says these things to her sons, ages 13 and 18:

  • “Take your hood off when you walk into a store, even when you are with me. I see an innocent, sweet, middle-school boy who likes his hoodie, but that’s not what other people might see.”
  • “Watch how you are carrying yourself in public, how you are interacting with your friends. Be aware of how other people are perceiving your behavior.”
  • “Don't drive with too many of your friends in the car because that makes you look more suspicious.”
  • “If you are pulled over, keep your hands on the wheel. Be respectful and say ‘yes sir’ and ‘no sir,’ ‘yes ma’am’ and ‘no ma’am.’”
  • “Don’t give the police any more reason to pull you over. Periodically make sure lights and everything are working properly on your car and that you’re obeying even the simplest of traffic rules like signaling for a lane change.”
  • “Don't keep your insurance card and registration in the glove compartment and don’t keep your wallet in your pants pocket when driving.” (Angie said her husband models this for their sons by keeping his documents/wallet in the side door and middle console.)
  • “When possible, have the license and registration ready to hand out to an officer before he walks up to the car, but if you can’t, narrate what you’re doing when you reach for it.”

Our sons are similar kids. They are both good students and athletes who work part-time jobs.  Her son is a freshman in college and mine is a senior in high school bound for college next fall.

We live about 30 miles from one another, and our boys probably travel some of the same roads in and around St. Louis County. But our instructions to keep them safe are vastly different.

“I don't know where to go from here,” I admitted to Angie as we finished talking last summer. “I don’t feel like we can fix anything.”

“Me either,” she said, still the person I remembered in high school: likeable, positive, conciliatory, smart. “I think encouraging honest dialogue like this is a good place to start, though. We were watching a town hall on TV the other night, and people were saying what you just said, that they didn’t even realize we have to have these kinds of conversations with our sons. It’s heartbreaking because I shouldn’t have to give my son these additional instructions. It’s 2016.  It’s a symptom of a bigger issue nationwide, that people aren’t able to see themselves in someone who doesn’t look like them. But the recognition that what we’re saying is real—it’s not a purple unicorn—it’s a good first step.”

With that, I felt encouraged, like I could remove the glasses that see the world through black, white and blue lenses and put on a pair with a different prescription—one that has “Mom” written across the top.

So much has happened since the shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. In July, a sniper attack in Dallas left five police dead and seven wounded. Another shooting against police in Ballwin left an officer paralyzed. Three more officers were shot in Baton Rouge, and there have been more since then. Milwaukee, North Carolina and Oklahoma have erupted in racial unrest after additional shootings.

Admittedly, I almost moved this article to the trash bin on my computer after the Dallas police shootings, on one hand concerned that my police friends my question my loyalty and on the other hand aware that my empathy for the law enforcement community could cloud my vision of such a life-and-death topic.

But then I thought about my friend and how we agree that more violence is not the answer. I remembered that I also need to see the world as someone’s mom.

And if we’re going to make this a safer world for our sons and daughters, maybe that’s where the conversation needs to start. Like Angie says, it’s a good first step.

A version of this essay appeared on stlmag.com.


About the Author

Michelle Cox

Michelle Cox is a wife, mother and professional freelance writer/communications specialist in St. Louis, MO. She’s a regular contributor to stlmag.com and an author for fiftiness.com (launching in September 2016) as well as their social media director. She also writes short stories and is working on her first novel, and she writes about writing on her website, michellecoxwriter.com, where she encourages other midlifers (not young, not old) to pick up a pen or keyboard.

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