I was standing outside of Helen’s car in the library parking lot, updating her on her son Anthony’s reading progress after one of our tutoring sessions. Helen grabbed Anthony’s arm suddenly and he froze, shifting guilty eyes from his mother’s angry face.
“I told you, never shoot at people!”
At my quizzical look, Helen explained. From the corner of her eye she’d caught him cocking his hand like a gun and training it across the windshield, narrowing one eye and holding on to his elbow like snipers do in movies.
Anthony is 11 years old, with an appetite for gun play. Last spring, Helen had come home from work to find Anthony sheltering behind the garbage cans, taking shots at passing cars with a black, plastic gun that fired nothing but air. She jumped out of the car, grabbed him by his collar, and marched him into the house, swatting at his behind the whole way.
I could have commiserated. I’d prohibited toy guns in my household, but it didn’t stop my 4-year-old from shooting at his baby brother with a plastic drumstick from his sister’s play kitchen. That same son was never happier than when playing with his cousin’s cowboy pistols. I gave in, eventually. Even bought my sons air pistols to shoot out in the yard. I’m sure they aimed those guns toward passing cars in the street–after all, they aimed them at everything– although they knew better than to shoot those hard pellets at anything but trees, bushes, and bull’s eye targets.
I didn’t share those stories, the same kind of stories I’ve heard from many well-intentioned mothers of boys. It didn’t feel right to roll my eyes over my sons’ fascination with guns in front of Anthony’s mother.
Helen’s son is black. And just one year ago, a 12-year-old boy named Tamir Rice was shot and killed by a police officer who mistook his play gun for a real weapon. That happened less than 30 miles from where we stood talking.
It never even crossed my mind that anyone would mistake my children’s toy guns for real weapons. But Helen lives with a different reality. One of the universal comments I heard after the death of Tamir Rice was, “How could he not have known better than to play in public with a realistic-looking gun?”
Why does Anthony’s mother live with a burden of uncertainty and fear that I’ve never even had to consider? I can easily imagine either of my sons hiding, like Anthony did, behind trashcans, bushes, and trees, wholly wrapped up in a fantasy world where they protect and defend their home against the invisible menace of bad guys.
If ever I felt the uninvited mantle of white privilege, it was standing outside Helen’s car that day.
The world should be as full of possibility for Anthony as it is for my sons. I don’t know what to do with what I’m feeling, but staying silent becomes more and more impossible.