My wife and I have known Cindy Cushman and her husband, Kerry Rice, longer than any of us probably want to admit. We, along with some other church upstarts of a certain age, have vacationed together, planned conferences, plotted ecclesiastic take-overs and laughed a whole lot.
For as long as I have know Cindy and Kerry, I have always been moved by their commitment to following God, wherever that may lead in ministry and life. Below is a beautiful and powerful guest post by Cindy about what it has meant for her to raise black sons today. I so grateful her willingness to let us into her family’s world. I hope that the more we all open up with our own experiences of race and the experiences of others, we may all see the world a little differently.
Thank you Cindy.
Like much of the rest of the nation, I have been following the happenings in Ferguson, MO over the last two weeks. In doing so, I found myself so caught up in a tangle of emotions about it, that there was a part of me that was just pushing it away. But somewhere along the way, I realized it was time to untangle myself, and put my thoughts in order, because as a white mother of black sons, I might actually have something relevant to say in the conversations that are happening about Ferguson.
We talk a lot about systemic racism and white privilege, both of which are realities that absolutely must be addressed if we are to attempt to dismantle racism in our country. There has also been much said about how poverty is as much a part of the problem as racism is and I would agree with that as well. I have heard others warn against rushing to judgment on the situation when we don’t know all the facts. While I must admit I don’t know all the facts about what happened in Ferguson, I do know that young black men in this country are fatally shot by police at much higher rates than people of any other race. And as a white mother of black sons, one of the things I have come to realize is that this is at least partially due to the white community’s fear of black men in America. And until white people in this country can admit that this fear exists, and work to dismantle it, innocent young black men will continue to be executed in communities all across our nation.
I am a white woman who was raised in a middle class, white community. I was raised by liberal, white parents who were active in the civil rights movement and taught my brother and sister and I that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a hero and that racism was wrong. But even though I took those values and made them my own, I was also a child who watched TV and went to movies, and was a product of a culture that continually portrayed black men as uneducated, poor, dishonest, violent, and quite frankly, scary. Whether I wanted to or not, I know that I unconsciously internalized such images of black men, and living in such a predominantly white community, I did not have the opportunity to get to know any African Americans on a personal level to counteract such messages until I was in college. So while my parents raised me to believe racism is wrong, my culture raised me to fear black men. And if you are white and you are American, so did yours.
As a liberal, white woman, I get the reluctance to admit this fear is real, because that would then mean admitting to myself that on some level I am racist. But in a society where systemic racism has been in place for so many years, I have come to believe that it is impossible to be white in this country and not be racist on some level, even if it is unconscious. (I use the term unconscious, not to indicate that we aren’t necessarily aware of it, but to indicate our lack of ability to control its existence).So, as white people who want to stand in solidarity with our African American brothers and sisters, one of the things we must do is admit that this fear is real and then we must figure out a way to face it and overcome it and do everything in our power to seek a society where it no longer exists.
As a white woman in America, I have experienced this unconscious fear of black men. But as the mother of black sons, I have also come to learn in a very real and personal way, that this unconscious fear of black men is a powerful and dangerous thing. And make no mistake, it is young black men who pay the ultimate price for it. As the mother of black sons, I have learned that lesson in painful, heartwrenching ways.
My husband and I adopted African American twin boys when they were two and a half, after having fostered them since they were 19 months old. At that young age, they had already been removed from their birth home and another foster home. One of the twins was diagnosed with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, and as such was developmentally delayed in virtually every category – physically, emotionally and mentally. When he was five years old, he had a violent outburst in kindergarten in which he got uncontrollably upset and basically attacked his teacher. When I came to the school at the end of the day to meet with the teacher and the principal, I was expecting to sit down and have a strategy session about how best to handle him and try to ensure such outbursts wouldn’t happen again (as we had successfully done with his preschool teacher the year before in the same school). Instead, the first words out of his teacher’s mouth were, “I plan to press criminal charges against him.”
I have no doubt the teacher was emotionally shaken from the incident, and probably had some scratches or bruises (as his mother, I’d certainly been on the receiving end of of his outbursts before and knew they didn’t feel good). But he was also a 5-year-old, who was small for his age, and an ECE student with an Individualized Education Plan, that had she read it, would have equipped her with some strategies in dealing with him. The problem is, she didn’t look at him and see a special needs child with a history of trauma. She had that unconscious fear of black men that instead made her look at him and see a violent criminal in the making. Thankfully, the rest of his teachers throughout elementary school were able to look at him and see a frustrated, sometimes scared, little boy who struggled to learn what came easily to others.
But, let me tell you, it’s been seven years since that incident happened, and it is still very hard for me to think about or talk about because I am still so angry that a kindergarten teacher who served in an urban school district for two decades would seek to criminalize a small child’s trauma-induced behavior. And yet, at the time, having been raised as a white person in a white world, I was just so completely shocked that a teacher basically saw my 5-year-old son as a monster from whom society needed to be protected, that I didn’t really have time to think about why she thought that. It was only later, when I’d had time to process the incident and realize that the reason she saw him that way was because he was a black male, that the anger coalesced and took hold in me. And seven years later, if anything, that anger has only deepened as I have seen others unfairly mischaracterize our sons because of their skin color.
So when I look at the events unfolding in Ferguson and hear people who aren’t black criticize the African American community for their show of anger, the other thing I want to say is: theirs is a righteous anger. As the mother of black sons I feel that anger too. And to my white friends and family and neighbors and colleagues I can only say, “You have no right to judge. You have no idea what it’s like. Until you have walked in the shoes of a young black man, you have no idea what it feels like.”
Neither do I. But I am the mother of three young black men, one almost an adult, and the other two on the cusp of becoming teenagers, and I do know what that feels like. It’s infuriating to know that throughout the rest of their lives, there are people who will see them on the street and be afraid of them simply because of the color of their skin. And it’s terrifying to know that because of that fear, if my sons get stopped by the police and they are anything less than polite and respectful, they could get shot and killed for it. A lot of things in our society are going to have to change for this to cease to be true. One of them, I know is that we, as white Americans, must begin to name and address our unconscious, unjust fear of black men.
Cindy Cushman is a Presbyterian minister currently serving part-time as the Coordinator of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Small Church Residency Program, and as part-time interim pastor of Chapel Hill United Church of Christ in Louisville, KY. Cindy has spent most of her career serving small congregations, and has also previously worked in the field of foster care. She and her husband, Kerry Rice, were foster parents for the state of Kentucky. They have six children, two biological and four whom they adopted from foster care.
You can follow her on twitter: @ccush69.