Guest Post: That Could Have Been My Child

Janet Mary Cobb's three Children; Social Justice

A Guest Post By: Janet Mary Cobb

August 20, 2018

I remember November 24, 2014 like it was yesterday. The dreary weather in Chicago matched my spirits as I drove to work, wanting only to turn my car around, pick up my children from school, and head home.

I’d learned just hours earlier that twelve-year-old  Tamir Rice had been gunned down by a police officer in Cleveland, Ohio while playing in a park. I couldn’t help but think, “that could’ve been my child.” My children were twelve, sixteen and seventeen; a daughter and two sons; African American. Tamir Rice was playing in a park. He wasn’t in a gang, didn’t live or hang in a ‘bad neighborhood,’ and was threatening no one. He was a child!

I pulled into the parking lot at the high school, turned off the car, and said to myself, “What the hell am I doing here?”

My mind twisted in knots trying to figure out what I could do to protect my children, but I had to walk into a building pretending that a tucked-in shirt and a good education would prepare these Black and Latinx students (and my children) for the dangers they would face on the street.

I realized that many of the choices we’d made to give our children a good life could actually put them in danger. We lived in a safe (i.e. white) neighborhood. We sent them to the best (i.e. white) schools. We exposed them to cultural (i.e. white) activities and enrichment opportunities to broaden their horizons. We taught them how to be respectful, hardworking, and honest. We taught them to respond to anyone in authority – particularly police officers, with deference.

But Tamir didn’t have a chance. He didn’t have a chance to talk back, run away, question why he’d been stopped, or resist arrest – all the excuses officers give for shooting young black boys and men. I couldn’t help but think, “that could’ve been my child.”

I’d been wearing my gray hoodie – my uniform, my habit – for almost two years. My gray hoodie, worn whenever possible, in honor of Trayvon Martin who’d been shot and killed while walking home from the store in Florida because ‘he didn’t belong’ in the neighborhood. (February 26, 2012.) I couldn’t help but think, “that could’ve been my child.”

Not Isolated Instances

These shootings are not isolated instances. The marches, the protests, the outcry after each and every police-officer-involved shooting since Trayvon Martin’s death do not make a difference.  The list is too long to recount here. Each time, I think, “that could’ve been my child.” Fast forward two years – 2016. On July 6, Philando Castile was shot in his car during a traffic stop. I couldn’t help but think, “that could’ve been my child.” – Or my husband.

That summer, my son needed to commute on weekends from Notre Dame University in Indiana to Chicago. He looked at his beat-up car with a broken tail light and simply said, “I can’t drive this. I could get pulled over, and we all know how that could end.” We all chuckled nervously – but I couldn’t help but think, “that could’ve been my child.”

My children (and husband) travel in circles of statesmen, bishops, and wealthy business people and frequent high-end establishments for meetings and fundraisers. They are brilliant, fun, compassionate, and passionate.

My son is small in stature and unassuming in gait but plopped on the couch when he arrived home recently saying, “So a white lady crossed down the middle of the street just now when she saw me coming.” My son has been pulled over for driving five miles under the speed limit – twice; been stopped and frisked when walking home. Yesterday, while attending a golf-outing fundraiser, others assumed he was ‘the help.’

When the world looks at my two sons (and my husband), all they see is a black man, and therefore, a threat. I can’t help but think, “that could be my child (or husband).”

That Could Have been My Child; Police Shooting
Janet Mary Cobb’s three children in July 2018.

I can’t begin to recount the times my husband has been questioned about his presence in a neighborhood someone believed he didn’t ‘belong’ in. Or how often we’ve been pulled over only to have the officer approach the passenger side to find me. The throat-clearing and hesitation would be comical if it weren’t so frustrating.

The hashtags and memes, the videos and social media posts highlighting the various benign activities of black people for which the police are called are disheartening and exhausting. Can you imagine living under that kind of pressure?

I can only liken it to the uncertainty and angst felt by children of alcoholics and victims of domestic violence. How can you exist when you never know from when or where the next punch is coming? Just try to imagine when the violence and abuse isn’t coming from just one identified individual but from all sides.

But what about?

Don’t remind me that hundreds get shot every week in Chicago – black on black crime. Instead ask how this situation came to be – and what needs to be done to fix it. This means educating yourself and not assuming the answers are simple.

Don’t remind me that not all police are racist, that they have a tough job. Admit that SOME police are racist, and that better training and screening is required.

Don’t tell me to stop playing the race card because not everything is about race. For people of color, everything is about race.

But wait, I’m not…

Most of you – I imagine – are not police officers trolling for troublemakers. Many of you won’t cross the street or lock your car doors when you see a black man coming towards you. You’d never use the N-word and you have a black friend or two; you don’t consider yourself racist. You agree that Black Lives Matter. You think everyone should be treated equally. You’re enlightened, progressive, woke.

But if you don’t hear the news and think “that could’ve been my child,” please ask what you can do to ensure no other mother – or individual – needs to live in constant fear, anxious about how others will perceive or treat them because of the color of their skin.

What can you do about it?

One morning, the local radio show hosts were inviting listeners to chat about traffic stops and to tweet their best ‘get out of a ticket’ tricks. I texted: You realize this is one of the most ‘white privilege’ conversations imaginable. You can joke, but black people die when they get pulled over.

  • STOP making excuses.
  • STOP laughing at jokes that ignore the daily reality of people of color.
  • CALL OUT racism and avoidance of the race discussion EVERY time you see or hear it.
  • DEMAND diversity – at your workplace, in your neighborhoods, on television, in ownership, in the board room, in politics. Point out when it doesn’t exist and actively make it happen.
  • SEEK OUT black-owned restaurants, stores, and businesses to frequent because economic development matters.
  • EDUCATE yourself. Read. Watch movies. Take a class. Don’t believe everything you learned in K-12 or even college – you most likely received a white-washed version of history AND current events. Don’t expect people of color to educate you.
If you are not familiar, begin with – and ponder – two poems by Langston Hughes:

Harlem

I, Too

Or consider binge-watching from a shortlist of movies:

Eyes on the Prize

I Am Not Your Negro

13th

Freedom Riders

Boycott

Sorry to Bother You

The Education of Sonny Carson

Cooley High

The Piano

Hidden Figures

Remember the Titans

Akeelah and the Bee

Free of Eden

Eve’s Bayou

Finding Forrester

Antwone Fisher

For a more complete list, visit My Thoughts on Black Movies Everyone Should See  (Full disclosure, written by my husband Willie Cobb, Jr.)

Final Thoughts:

I began this essay attempting to share how I cope with the fear inherent in raising African American children. The fear is neither imagined nor exaggerated – racism is real. Fear must be lived with – until the root causes of racism are addressed – until we confront the truth in ourselves, our society, and our history.

Today I encourage you to consider what you can do, right here and right now, to make a difference so that no other mother needs to think, “that could’ve been my child.

Social Justice That Could have Been My Child
Janet Mary Cobb
Facebook: Janet Mary Cobb

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Author: Angela Noel

Seeker and promoter of awesome people and ideas.

32 thoughts on “Guest Post: That Could Have Been My Child”

    1. Janet, your post couldn’t be more timely and more heartfelt. I’m honored you chose to share your story with me and the readers of this blog. You are an inspiration in your activism and your thoughtfulness in meeting people where they are. So much of the discussion on racism divides rather than bridges the gaps between the world we’re in and the world as it could be. As you say, you are one mother sharing her experience. But that’s what it takes for all of us to connect: sharing our experiences and being willing to listen in return. Thank you for what you’ve brought to this little corner of the internet. It truly matters.

  1. Hi Janet and Angela! This is such an important blog post. Thank you so much for writing it and sharing this perspective as well as the proactive suggestions you offer to help us move forward. I don’t have my own children but that doesn’t mean I don’t care about ALL children. I look forward to the time when this isn’t something that needs being said. ~Kathy

  2. Hi Janet and Angela,

    A powerful piece – thank you for writing this, Janet, and for hosting her, Angela. I used to think it was better for people of colour (POC) in Canada, but I don’t think that any more. White privilege is very much a thing here too, and it seems to be getting louder.

    It makes me ashamed to be white.

    Obviously I have not been treated differently by police because of colour, but I have been treated dismissively because I was a woman reporting stalking/harassment by an ex. (I only got real help after many months, when a female officer answered one of my 911 calls.) This is not even close to what POC have to deal with, but I share this because I have a very different view of police now, and have much empathy for what POC go through regarding those who are supposed to serve and protect all of us.

    Deb

    1. I am sorry for your experience–that’s awful. I once heard an excellent talk by Ash Beckham, where she says, “Hard is not relative. Hard is just hard.” I think that’s true of experiences like yours, too. It’s not the same, but it’s still hard. And in knowing that hard is part of all of our experiences, we can–just as you have–find connection. I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but I do agree with Ash. Here’s a link if you (or anyone else) are interested. http://ashbeckham.com

  3. Thanks for this important piece, Angela and Janet — it’s so helpful to hear this perspective.

    I’m in a St. Louis suburb and became an activist after the death of Michael Brown.

    It’s taken a long time, but we’re starting to see some success. One of the calls of the Ferguson Commission was to reform school discipline — black boys are much more likely to be issued out-of-school suspensions than white students, even in the youngest grades! Tonight, my school district will adopt a new discipline policy that eliminates suspensions for K-5th grade. That’s after a lot of work by the school district, but also by activists like me working to implement the calls to action by the Ferguson Commission.

    So, I encourage people to get active locally. You have a lot more power than you think to lobby for anti-racism measures in your city council and school board chambers. This has been very satisfying work at a time when the national picture looks so gloomy.

    1. Thank you for sharing your perspective – and for your activism. I do think local activism can address many issues — particularly when it comes to education. I hope that eliminating suspension does some good, but we need to get at the root of what leads to excessive discipline. So many layers of misunderstanding and misconceptions…

    2. Thank you for this wonderful post. Very thought provoking and convicting.
      I cannot imagine how it is to live under the pall of racism, be it as an African American, Middle Easterner, Mexican, Asian, etc. I can’t imagine how it feels to be hyper aware each time you see an officer of the law as to whether you will be judged for skin color, apparel style, religious affiliation. I can’t imagine how it must be for a person of color to live in a culture that has held such negativity towards African Americans for so long. It’s shameful and ungodly. I am not ashamed to be white. I am sorry that I have not become “color blind” yet, because I grew up in a culture of long held racism. When I see a person of color, I still wonder how it feels to be singled out because of racism. I do not believe that I am racist but I am if I continue to wonder. Until I can just see others as just plain ol’ people living their lives, I will be plagued with a sense of the injustice of it all.

      1. Kathy – I’d encourage you, actually, to not work to be ‘color blind’. People of different cultures are different — we can recognize and celebrate the differences and the color that is attached to those differences. The problem comes when you attach negativity to those colors. The fact that you wonder and that you recognize others are mistreated because of race, is a start. The next step is to recognize our own bias and the access and freedom that we have because we are white. Just keep asking the questions and asking how the decisions you make each day impact people of color. Thanks for joining the conversation…

        1. Janet- Thank you for sharing your experiences. Please correct my interpretation of your comment and tone of your post, but haven’t you attached negativity to being “white”, not just as a difference in color?

          1. Dawn, thank you for your question. These conversations can be tough – particularly when they are in writing and you literally can’t hear tone of voice. So, I’ll try to address your thoughts. I am not sure how I attached negativity to being white – I’m not sure where you heard that. In this comment, I reference the ‘access and freedom we have because we are white’. This is not a negative – or putting white people down. It is simply a fact. I can provide numerous personal examples of this reality. I’m not sure what you are referencing in my post, even with a re-read. Being white is not a negative – being racist or allowing racism to go on unchecked is negative. If you point out specific phrases or comments that you read as a ‘tone’ of attaching negativity to being white, I’d be happy to discuss it further. Thanks for joining the conversation.

    3. I continue to find it fascinating in a terrifying way that we’re so unconscious about these systemic biases. And I include myself in that. I think being involved, as you say, can make a huge difference not just for the community, but in even changing my own heart when it needs a nudge.

  4. Janet it is so sad that this is still a reality for coloured people in the US. I know that our aboriginal people in Australia would say that they are judged and labelled too – the difference is that we don’t use guns like Americans do. Shootings are extremely rare and our police rarely use their guns. It is such a relief to know that someone’s child won’t be shot here – but in a country like the US you’d think this would have been addressed and dealt with a long time ago. I’m sorry that your family has to deal with the reality of the gun use and racial bias that is still so prevalent in America.

    1. Leanne – thank you for sharing your thoughts. The senselessness of the gun violence in the US is frustrating and exhausting. Racism is absolutely an additional burden. I don’t know when we’ll learn.

  5. Hi Janet,
    Since evil flourishes when good people do nothing, it behooves all of us to speak up and, where possible, take action on all sorts of issues–racism, guns, aboriginal rights, elder abuse, the treatment of immigrants in Trump’s America…. the list goes on and on and on. It’s a sobering other side to last month’s posts about joy. I think I need to go back and reread all of your July posts. I need a way to approach these issues that feels powerful and positive, not angry. Thanks for the thoughtful post, Janet.

    1. Karen – I think the list can be absolutely overwhelming, and so for me I think it is important for us to understand our own capacity and – as you mentioned in your last post, our need to renew ourselves when the pond is empty. I think this is where so much of my approach to joy is rooted in hope – because without hope the anger can certainly take over and if we aren’t careful, lead to more destruction. Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

  6. Powerful post Janet. It’s frightening to admit that I often feel like that white woman who crossed the street. I also consciously try and fight that first reaction. I do recognize my white privilege..and in fact my first reaction now to still another shooting (we’ve had multiple in our city alone) is the sorrow for another mother, the anger at police who still are not getting better training, and a wonder when things will truly change. Messages like your’s I think are powerful…a white woman with the fears. And that in itself is sad.

    1. Pat – thank you for sharing your thoughts. These situations aren’t easy and won’t change overnight — but with each resistance to our first reactions, I believe we will make progress.

  7. responded to a 911 call about a boy with a gun — a weapon that was described by the 911 caller as likely a fake — near a recreation center in Cleveland. He did respond to the officer got shot hes fault!

    1. Gen – thank you for your comment. I believe you are trying to explain ‘why’ Tamir Rice was shot. Your point that “The officer responded to a 911 call about a boy with a gun – likely a fake…” is accurate. I think you meant to say that Tamir did not respond to the officer, and therefore getting shot was his fault, is inaccurate. The police car rolled up and shot this child who was reported to be playing with a ‘probably fake’ toy gun, was shot within 1.8 SECONDS. I would also need to point out that NO child deserves to die because they fail to listen within 1.8 seconds — or even an hour or two. Tamir was a child!

  8. Well this happens to be one of the most important and best guest posts you’ve ever had on your blog, Angela. I try and be conscious of my white privilege, but probably not nearly enough. I was listening to a podcast with the writer Reni Eddo-Lodge who wrote the book “Why I No Longer Talk to White People About Race”. It was very thought-provoking and she talks about how white people shouldnt be turning to black peoples and asking them how they can help. It’s putting the onus on them. We need to work it out and be proactive. Strongly agree, white people need to challenge racism and not let it go and need to ensure/insist on diversity. We are such a long way from racial equality. The killings of black people by the police makes me so fucking angry. It’s so senseless. It’s so heartbreaking. Nobody deserves that. Even IF they are breaking the law (which we know a lot of the time they are not), they still don’t deserve death. FFS. I can’t believe it actually happens in the 21st century. Fantastic post.

  9. Thank you for your comments and support. It is so senseless and heartbreaking. I simply do not understand hatred – racism, homophobia, misogyny. Unfortunately the list is long. If we can muster more folks with passion like yours, perhaps change will come sooner rather than later. Thanks so much for joining the conversation.

  10. When we moved from rural Michigan to the Houston area 5 years ago, I learned that 1) I held stereotypes based on race and 2) they were all incorrect. While most people are very accepting here, the racism that I have seen has really surprised me. My husband and I recently started boycotting a restaurant we loved, because some of our Hispanic friends told us that the staff refused to serve them there. The increase in violence against African-Americans and the general acceptance of racism is inexcusable.

  11. Bethany, thank you for sharing that you recognized how incorrect your stereotypes were – this takes courage. Racism (and most other isms) is inexcusable. I’m sorry your friends had that experience – I know we’ve stopped going MANY places – restaurants, churches, stores – because of the racism we experience as a family. Inexcusable. Thanks for joining the conversation.

    1. Honestly, that’s horrendous. I hear an excellent description of what it means to be inclusive: It’s not enough to invite someone to a dance (or say they are “welcome”). To be inclusive means asking them to dance with you, and let them pick some of the songs on the playlist. For whatever reason–that idea makes sense to me.
      I wish the places you’ve had to stop visiting knew how to dance.

      1. Angela – I think the dance metaphor works on a few levels – I think it would also be important to be open to going to someone else’s dance and waiting to be asked, and being okay with just picking some of the songs. In other words, it is important for those who are usually ‘majority’, ‘the norm’, etc. to put themselves into uncomfortable situations. If you’ve never seen it, you might consider watching “White Man’s Burden” with John Travolta. It is about 20 years old and may be difficult to find, but well worth it. And wouldn’t it be great if everyone knew how to dance!

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