From Trayvon Martin to Ralph Yarl: The Unending “Lessons” of Black Parenting

I’ve been reflecting on the lessons I’ve learned from the time I was a boy about the impact of white supremacy culture and its reliance on how anti-Blackness targets the very existence of Black men and boys. When I was young, my mother would give me a look right before we walked into a bustling public space like a department store. Then came the quick rundown: “This is what we’re going in here for. And this is not what we’re going in here for. And don’t ask me for anything beyond what we’re going in here to get.” And she’d always end with this line — “Don’t embarrass me.” My siblings and I would go into the store looking like little soldiers. In that same department store, we would see white kids running all over the place — knocking things over, playing, and laughing. Openly defying their parent’s instructions. We saw white kids move through those experiences with comfort and ease because they felt safe to explore and push back — all while we were soldiered up. In real time, I was being taught that this was not my world. And if I was going to survive in it, I had to act a certain way. While others, particularly white kids, were being taught, “This is your world. It’s yours. Do whatever you want with it. Because it’s yours.” 

When Trayvon Martin was murdered in February of 2012, my youngest son was 13 years old — a tall, dark-skinned boy with a big afro, which made him look even taller than he was at the time. While picking him up from school — just like I did every day, he got in the car, buckled up, and I started talking to him about the murder of Trayvon Martin. He stated that kids in school were saying that Trayvon was killed because he had his hoodie up. In his own innocence, he said, “Dad, you don’t have to worry about me. I don’t pull my hoodie up—it’ll mess up my afro!” I was overcome with affection and heartbreak over his confidence that this would protect him.

In 2013, 24-year-old Jonathan Ferrell was shot to death while looking for help after his car broke down. He knocked on the door of a white woman, who panicked and called the police. When the police arrived, Jonathan ran to them for help and was shot ten times. After this incident, I found myself telling my son that if he has to knock on somebody’s door, he should step far away from the door right after he knocks. And what he hears me say is that if he knocks on somebody’s door, it is his responsibility to make them feel comfortable. Think about that – if he encounters someone, it is his responsibility to make them feel comfortable with his Blackness. His responsibility. 

These stories remind me of when I was speaking with a Black professional football player a while back, a big man, about 6’5”, 300 plus pounds…darker skinned man. What he said to me has stayed with me for life. He said, “Tony, I am always anxious around people outside the team and my family. I come from a – Stand Your Ground State – any white person can get away with seeing me as a threat.” He said, “I stay indoors a lot – I’m nervous and anxious around people I don’t know.”

These are only a few examples of the long line of robotic experiences we find ourselves teaching our Black men and boys. When I was a kid, it was running — Black boys couldn’t run through the neighborhood. We knew that could end badly. But then Trayvon Martin was walking too slowly. So Black boys can’t walk slowly, either. On and on — you can’t stand still. You can’t play. You can’t knock on a door. In essence, you’re being told you can’t EXIST. 

Those messages over the years have become loud and clear to me. This past week held yet another devastating and horrific example of the message of white supremacy culture at work with the shooting of young Ralph Yarl. Our reality is such that someone can shoot a black boy through a screen door, then walk out and look at him on the ground, and shoot him again—all without ever having a conversation about why he was knocking in the first place. 

In the wake of this heartbreaking moment, I find myself asking yet again: “What’s the next lesson that I have to share now with my kids…my grandkids?” Ralph Yarl wasn’t even stopping for directions. In his mind, he was at the right house. He just had the wrong address. So what’s the next lesson? Double-check the address? Call me when you get to the house and triple-check the address before you knock on the door? As a parent, I am responsible for raising my Black son to adulthood. But what are we being forced by white supremacy culture to raise them to be? To approach life with a robotic mentality and prune their humanity into a neat box in order to survive and be a part of the American experience? To be his “role self” instead of his “whole self?”

Every time a Black child is killed, we have to continue to come up with “lessons.” Essential lessons, or should I say survival skills, in a country rooted in white supremacy culture — this is life and death for our children. But we are tired. I am tired. 

At A Call to Men, we often say that if women could end men’s violence against women, they would have done it already. We know men are an essential part of that solution – it’s on us to do the work, to shift the culture of male domination, and to hold one another accountable. And just as men are crucial to dismantling systems of patriarchy that harm everyone in the fight for gender equity, white aspiring allies must also be deeply invested and relentless in addressing the roots and impact of white supremacy culture. We need those who identify as white aspiring allies to fully invest in the day when Black parents are able to stop teaching “lessons” of survival and start teaching our children how to live and simply enjoy the human experience. 

Tony Porter