Real Talk: Mothers Of Sons Respond To The George Zimmerman Verdict, Part 3

In the wake of George Zimmerman’s not guilty verdict this past weekend, I wanted to gather a group of parents to discuss the jury decision as well as the larger impact of Trayvon Martin’s murder. I especially wanted to hear from fellow mothers of boys, in hopes of fostering dialogue about how we as mothers can move forward given what happened. I gathered an incredible group of women and over the next couple of days, I welcome you to read our conversation. Part one of our conversation ran on Wednesdaypart two ran yesterday, and this piece is the conclusion.

The participants:

  • Jamila Bey hosts the radio program, “The Sex Politics And Religion Hour: SPAR with Jamila.” The show can be heard in NYC, DC, Miami and Chicago and online. Find her on Twitter.
  • Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser is a writer living in Western Massachusetts. Find her on Twitter.
  • Carolyn Edgar is a lawyer, writer and single mother of two who publishes the blog Her work has been featured in a variety of outlets, including Huffington Post and Follow her on Twitter.
  • Denene Millner is a New York Times-bestselling author of 21 books and the founder and editor of, a blog that measures the intersection parenting and race.
  • Shay Stewart-Bouley is a non-profit administrator, freelance columnist who writes on issues relating to diversity for the Portland Phoenix, and blogger at where she muses on race, motherhood and middle age.

Read on, after the jump:

Avital: How do we, as mothers, move forward from this? We’ve certainly can’t move “past” this, as if we can forget it all. You’ve all alluded to this to some degree, things you’ll need to do or say to your children. It pains me to hear that some of you have to teach your sons different ways to be in this world because of their skin color. While I’ll be dealing with shared experiences raising a son, I will never have to tell my son to make sure he doesn’t look suspicious walking own the street after dark, or driving a car with a white girl, or any number of things mothers have to tell their sons of color. What I can do is ensure my son knows what privilege is, and how he benefits from it, and how others suffer from lack of it. 

Shay, you’re completely spot on with this: “To have a real dialogue will involve what I call a willingness to get raggedy and own our biases and to name them. ” So many people run away from anything that makes them feel remotely uncomfortable. And these types of conversations have the ability to get ugly — and who likes that? But we have to face our truths and how they not only affect ourselves, but others, and it’s not easy. But the alternative? Where young boys of color have less value in the eyes of society over my son is simply unacceptable.

Sarah: As a white mom, it’s about being rock solid emphatic that value and color are not on a scale. I loved my eldest for digging into AP scores/who took the tests after a big grant for science preparedness only to see that hardly any African-Americans at the high school (in our pretty white town) take AP classes. He just “got” the injustice of funds going to raise scores but not engaging more students of color in the added resources. I think for allies especially it’s about a willingness to have and continue to have hard conversations and to make it okay to say the wrong thing in order to learn what’s right.

Shay: I agree that allies need to be willing to have the hard conversations and again be willing to be raggedy. That said, I think allies have to walk a fine line to make sure they don’t become the story. That said, for me the greatest thing an ally can do is speak up. If you see injustice, don’t let it slide. This may be painful because it can involve calling out people near and dear.

I think the honest discussions about race and perception must start early in life. It is not uncommon in the Black community to start these discussions as young as 5. One of the things I was struck by this weekend on Twitter is white parents of kids 10 and under saying they didn’t know how to talk about this case with their kids. That is a privilege I and most Black parents don’t have, I start talking race with my kids as soon as I can. By the time a kid is 12 or 13 it is way too late to start the dialogue in my opinion. At the agency that I head up, I have seen kids as young as seven or eight display racial intolerance, so early conversations are a huge thing if we are going to break the cycle that sees a young Black teenager as a danger.

Sarah: Agreed, Shay, with all of this. Age five if not sooner.

Jamila: My son is biracial, and he is (when not out in the sun!) curly blonde-haired, and quite fair-skinned. (I never realized I HATE that term, “fair-skinned” until typing it this very moment.) I cry because I know that he’ll be playing with black friends and cousins, and those boys are received one way and spoken to more harshly than when he may be playing with white friends and behaving identically. I know that my son will look like whichever is the predominate racial group in which he is standing, and I do not doubt that he’s decided which he prefers to be considered. He told me that “Brown people aren’t good!” and when I protested, “But not you Mommy! And not my girlfriend! And not her mommy, either.” My son is going to have the guilt that comes with knowing the distinction in treatment. And there’s nothing either of us can do about it. And that’s tragic to me.

It’s hard, in this world that tells all of our children, they aren’t good enough and they must dress so and eat such and play with one toy or gadget or another to be acceptable to teach our children self-love. They’re constantly being told that they don’t matter as much and in Florida, that they don’t matter at all!

How to raise a healthy, self-actualized little person under such oppression is damn near impossible. I do think, many of us will be leaning on the stories we heard from our very elders, who were young during Jim Crow. I fear many a Southern Black boy is to be taught that he’d better learn to shuffle and “Yessir Mister,” lest he be shot down like a rabid dog.

Carolyn: A young boy might shuffle and say “Yessir, Mister” and still be shot down like a rabid dog. published a slideshow of unarmed black men who were shot, most of them by police. Each picture was captioned with the name of the victim and a short piece on his story. Some of them were shot even with their hands in plain sight.

Lest we think this discussion is important only for boys, I had to start talking to my daughter about race when she was in preschool. A group of girls refused to let her be the princess in their princess game because she didn’t have blonde hair and white skin. She couldn’t be the prince, either. She had to be like a court jester or some such nonsense. Another kid told her she was “darkening up the school.” This is at age four. The school administrators refused to address it, claiming that “kids don’t see color” (bullshit) and that “we can’t project our adult view of the world on how children behave.” Black girls don’t escape scot-free. And if we add the intersection of race and LGBTQ issues to the mix … things get complicated in a hurry.

I do agree with Sarah that we have to allow people to say the “wrong” thing. NPR Code Switch did a piece where they asked people to contribute some of the “wrong” things that have been said to them. Michele Norris’ The Race Card Project is a great forum for discussing race. But NPR clearly can’t shoulder the whole load. White people need to talk about race, too, and examine their privilege. I found this Tumblr today, We Are Not Trayvon Martin, which seems like a good step in the right direction.

Denene: Frankly, I’m tired of trying to come up with solutions for how the rest of America can move forward. To this African-American mother/wife/daughter/sister/auntie/cousin/friend of Black men and boys, it’s pretty simple: keep your guns in your holster and your hands off our menfolk. You don’t have to like them or know them to respect this one, simple thing: people with brown skin are HUMANS. Treat us as such. Period and in that order.

I’m sorry if I’m so short and cross with my words today, but honestly, I’m spent. It feels like someone’s been smashing cymbals next to my ears for the last 48 hours, and really, all I want to do is hug my babies, see my son off to his junior year in college, and know that the people I love more than my heartbeat are going to be okay. This — the feeling of powerlessness — hurts me down to the deepest part of my soul.

Read more from Avital Norman Nathman at The Mamafesto.