Whenever I meet a group of people for the first time -- via workshops, classes, or training sessions that I facilitate -- one of my favorite introductory exercises starts like this: "One thing you can't tell just by looking at me is __________. That's important for me to share with you because _________." Participants are then asked to complete the sentences and share with the others their answers. Mine usually goes like this:
"Hi! My name is Liza. One thing you can't tell just by looking at me is that I am an avid runner, I have run half marathons, and I am incredibly physically fit. That's important for me to share with you because I am a plus-sized woman, I wear a size 16, and most people assume that women with my body are lazy, fat, and don't care about their health. I'm here to tell you that I'm fit, fabulous, and love how strong my body is both inside and out."
As we go around the room, people share interesting details about themselves and why those details are so important to them. We then talk about how we often judge people by how they look and the dangers of making assumptions about folks.
As the mother of a son with brown skin, the wife of a husband with brown skin, the aunt of nephews with brown skin, the sister of brothers with brown skin, and a mentor to many young people with brown skin, I am terrified by the death of young Trayvon Martin and of the death of DJ Henry (a young college student from my hometown). The men and boys in my life already have learned the rules of "looking suspicious" (rules that the young white males in my life do not need for survival).
But, when they have done everything right, and still get hassled, treated as suspicious, or worse, beaten or killed, what is there left to tell them?
Do I tell my son to not leave the house? To never wear a hoodie? As he gets older, we will tell him to always carry ID, to be well spoken, polite to law enforcement, and to cooperate if he is ever pulled over or pulled aside. Though he may be angry at what is happening to him, he will learn that his anger in the face of authority will rarely lead to a good outcome. He will make decisions about whether or not he will want to, or whether his heart will call him to rise up, protest, and refuse to be treated poorly. And, my husband and I will support him. We will love him through the struggles that come with being a young, brown man in our society. We will love him through the "it's not fair!' and the "why me?" and the "why are they treating me this way?" Because we have been there, and unfortunately, hearts and minds don't always change quickly.
The other day, Joli said to me, "Mommy, if you were a smurf, I'd call you Beauty Smurf." I replied, "Oh! You're so sweet! You think I'm beautiful?" She said, "Well, no, actually. I'd call you Beauty Smurf because you like to put on so much makeup that it covers up your beauty. So, if I call you Beauty Smurf, maybe you'll stop. Your face is pretty, brown, and beautiful."
Pretty. Brown. Beautiful.
One thing I hope my children, and all children of color, can tell just by looking at me is that being brown is a blessing. It is beautiful. Being brown does not mean we are suspicious. Wearing a hoodie does not make us suspicious. We are people. We have futures.
And that's important for me to share with you because a family, a community, and a world lost another young person simply because of how he looked.
When my brother-in-law, an African American man, turned 25 years old, my sister wanted to throw a party -- not just to celebrate his birthday, but also to celebrate an age that many young, Black men do not reach because of violence. On Saturday, my beautiful, brown son is turning 3 years old.
I pray each year that he has many, many, many more. And, I pray that we create a society together that embraces -- and does not condemn -- him for how he looks.
Peace, love, dignity and humanity,