I’m White, But I Wish I Had Been #momoftheyear
I am a white woman but I’ve wished more times than I can count that I had been #momoftheyear. That’s because Toya Graham, who can now add that hashtag to her bio—and my black female friends—disciplined their children in such a way that their offspring knew better than to misbehave. Or else. It wasn’t that their mamas meted out abuse; it was just that those black women didn’t take any sass from their kids. Had their children even tried, they would have found themselves on the receiving end of a smack across the mouth, their bare bottom bent over a knee, facing a whipping with a belt.
So why, I’ve asked myself, did I get so upset when I saw video footage of the now famous Baltimore mom smacking and swearing at her teenage son, Michael Singleton, earlier this week? I posted on Facebook that Michael probably wouldn’t have been involved in the riot if not for the violence he surely learned at home. Violence I thought Graham probably dished out even worse in private. But in the days since I posted that, and after seeing Graham’s interview on national TV, I’ve given it a lot of thought—and realize I was wrong.
It’s not something I would have done—but then, maybe I never would have needed to: my only son is white. So we never had “the talk,” that preventative, protective chat that black parents all around this country recite to their teenage sons when they come of age. I’m sure Toya and Michael had the talk years ago because for her, the fear that her black son could be killed by a police officer is very real. And I certainly have no idea what that fear feels like.
It’s a moot point whether Graham “lost it,” as she says, because she was afraid Michael would be killed for throwing a brick at a police officer, or because he could become a casualty at the hands of a fellow rioter. What is important is how she acted like a mother bear when she saw her son in harm’s way. The fact that he put himself there is irrelevant.
Or is it? Graham warned Michael not to get involved in the riot. Many mothers—white and black—commented on my Facebook thread, saying if their child disobeyed their orders to stay away from a riot, they would have done the same thing she did.
Their comments made me question my own views, and the way Toya parented her son in public. They took me back to 1990, shortly after I fled my abusive white husband. One day I was so frustrated by the fact that he continued to manipulate my children, just as he kept psychologically battering me, that I inflicted my own pain on my daughter, Jocelyn. She was nine, and threw such a fit that I took a switch to her backside. I left bruises. It is the only time I ever remember losing control like that.
My own actions that day hindered my ability to use corporal punishment on my children forever after. I tried to occasionally, but only if I knew I wasn’t angry, so I wouldn’t repeat that terrible mistake of 1990. But mostly I used time-outs, or made them write sentences, or took away their TV-watching privileges. By the time their father decided he wanted to try to be a real dad and sued me for custody, he had been sabotaging my own parenting for years. (His parenting experiment failed miserably, since Child Protective Services intervened in 1999 when he and his second wife abused two of my daughters so badly they were removed from his home.)
You see, long before my children became teenagers, the man who had punched holes in our walls and trashed our furniture told them if I tried to discipline them, they could call 911 for help. In so doing, he essentially handicapped me as a mother, and prevented me from disciplining them—all while he continued terrorizing them during their weekend visits to his home.
However, if I had been a black woman, I wouldn’t have let his attempts to undermine my parenting stop me from doing what I knew was best for my children—and I feel certain they would respect me more today, as a result.
Graham’s actions have certainly earned her respect from many other people, that’s for sure. Chuck Yocum, a Baltimore area parent and educator, was watching the riots unfold on TV not far from his home when he wondered where all the parents were.
“Then, there she was, doing what every parent watching said they’d do,” Yocum said. “She represented hope. Hope that other parents might do the same thing yes, but in a larger sense, hope that Baltimore may not be totally lost after all. There are still parents who care about their kids.”
Graham’s desire to save her son comes at a time when people are saying this country’s race riots are starting all over again. When, depending on what neighborhood you’re in, it’s dangerous to be a black man. Or a white cop. When police have become cynical about black men with rap sheets, and when they arrest first and ask questions later—as apparently happened with Freddie Gray.
I worked with law enforcement from 1991-96, writing police journals for the West Virginia Deputy Sheriff’s Association and the West Virginia Fraternal Order of Police. Most of the men and women I rubbed shoulders with were white. Most of them—but not all—were good officers, who would never intentionally harm anyone simply because of his race. Like my friend K.C. Bohrer, an officer whose conduct has always been unimpeachable and who can’t forget the murder of a West Virginia teenager. Who would like nothing more than to see that girl get justice, even though she’s been dead for more than thirty years.
Some of the officers I know have also worked in big cities where they see blacks killing blacks, and where they know that many black youth have no hope. Most of these (predominantly white) officers are just as saddened by that as are the parents of these black teens.
Whenever I think about the growing divide between white and black, I remember my friend Paul. He was black. When I was twelve, he gave me my first kiss. Two years my senior, Paul was going places. He was intelligent, handsome, and—even more important—he was from a law-abiding family who reared their black sons to treat women with kindness and respect. Who instilled in those sons a healthy fear of displeasing not only their parents but other authority figures.
Paul and his brothers were the kind of boys who grew into men who would never dream of calling me anything other than “Ms. Berry,” because they were so well trained. I know that, because every so often I gently chide them to use my first name. “My mama would throw a fit if I did,” they say, laughing.
And still, in spite of the stellar parental training my friend Paul received at home, something went wrong.
As childhood crushes go, ours lasted for all of a minute. But I never forgot him and I still remember the shock, anger and heartbreak I felt for Paul and his family, when I learned he had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, when he witnessed a felony that landed him in jail after being charged as an accessory to a deadly crime.
I don’t know how or why Paul ended up rubbing shoulders with thugs, but while he was doing that, I was working with the cops. And every April my job took me to Washington, D.C., for National Police Week, where I interacted with dozens of officers and mingled with hundreds more.
That’s how I came to be in Alexandria, Virginia, one warm spring evening in 1994. As I hurried along the sidewalk to meet my friend Ruth, a young widow whose Hispanic husband was slain in the line of duty, I saw three older black teens coming toward me. They walked side by side, and showed no sign of moving over. So I moved, but apparently not enough. The teenager closest to me brushed my shoulder, jarring me. I kept walking. I didn’t look back.
That moment is etched in my memory to this day, because of what I saw in that boy’s eyes: it was anger. Or hate. Most likely because he saw only a white woman, and nothing else. Probably because he believed I was affluent, since Alexandria is home to the wealthy. Possibly because he had no hope of being able to ever eat at the restaurant where I was going to dine.
What he couldn’t know is that without the FOP picking up my tab, I couldn’t have paid for the gas to drive to D.C., much less a dinner there. As a single mother of four children, we had only recently given up our food stamps. And at that time my children still qualified for a medical card. That black teen could not have known this. The only thing he knew for sure was that I was white. In his mind, my skin color gave me privileges he would never have. It identified me as the enemy, along with the people who had enslaved his people. That was enough to make him angry.
The next morning at breakfast I told an officer I was having breakfast with what had happened, asking what it meant. “It’s a good thing you kept walking and didn’t make a fuss,” he said, and then implied I could have been killed. “Here in D.C., black boys know they have nothing to live for, that they’re most likely going to be dead by the time they reach eighteen.” At the time, he was talking about gangs.
Twenty years later, his words still haunt me. That sole conversation with a white police officer, borne from a single chilling encounter with three black teenagers, comes back to me every time I hear about another black teen being killed—whether his death came at the hands of a police officer or a gang banger.
Those words returned to me again yesterday, after reading them online. Except this time they were spoken by a black woman. “These kids have no hope,” Erica Garner said on CNN. (Garner is the daughter of Eric Garner, a New York man who died while in police custody.)
I’m a white woman and I agree: many blacks have no hope. They live in ghettos and other poor neighborhoods, like those in Baltimore, Md., and West Oakland, Calif., places where food deserts thrive. A food desert means the people of color living there have virtually no access to healthy food—but with more than 40 liquor stores in the West Oakland area, they do have access to alcohol and tobacco. And processed or junk food. This is just as true for some areas of Baltimore.
I lived in Oakland in 2009, where I gained an eye-opening education from my daughter, Jocelyn, who told me how hard it is for people of color to buy good food. That’s because there are few, if any, real grocery stores in many poor neighborhoods. In West Oakland, the average income is $21,124 per year, and 32-percent of the residents live below the poverty level. The lack of access to good food leads to other problems, such as health and behavioral issues. I learned this in my own home, when my children were preschool age or younger. They had never eaten sugar—until both sets of grandparents gave it to them. I noticed a direct correlation between the sugar-sweetened cereal my mother fed them and their behavior. I quickly learned to limit their sugar intake, which is one reason we rarely had soda pop or processed sweets in our home.
Years later, my daughter Jocelyn has made it her mission to help disadvantaged black families around the country, doing so in New Orleans (she sold her car and relocated to help Hurricane Katrina victims), Chicago (where she began a recycling program that’s still in place several years later), and Pittsburgh (where she discovered that many blacks cannot afford to buy the monthly bus passes necessary to gain a good education or employment), taught me why black youth are so hopeless. Much of it has nothing to do with the police but rather, with the lack of access to basic necessities that white people like me take for granted. Or like I used to—before working in and walking the streets nearby West Oakland.
Whether it’s danger from not having good food or from jaded, uncaring police officers, Toya Graham didn’t want her son to end up like my friend Paul—or worse. And she had the backbone to follow through, giving her son Michael a badly needed dose of tough love. It’s something I now believe many of us white mothers can learn from.
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I have four books, and am currently writing my fifth, Guilt by Matrimony, about the murder of Aspen socialite, Nancy Pfister. My memoir, Sister of Silence, is about surviving domestic violence and how journalism helped free me; Cheatin’ Ain’t Easy, now in ebook format, is about the life of Preston County native, Eloise Morgan Milne; The Savage Murder of Skylar Neese (a New York Times bestseller, with coauthor Geoff Fuller) and Pretty Little Killers (also with Fuller), released July 8, 2014, and featured in the August 18 issue of People Magazine.
For an in-depth look at the damaging effects of the silence that surrounds abuse, please watch my live TEDx talk, given April 13, 2013, at Connecticut College.
Have a great day and remember, it’s whatever you want to make it!
Editor’s Note: Daleen Berry is a New York Times best-selling author and a recipient of the Pearl Buck Award in Writing for Social Change. She has won several other awards, for investigative journalism and her weekly newspaper columns, and her memoir, Sister of Silence, placed first in the West Virginia Writers’ Competition. Ms. Berry speaks about overcoming abuse through awareness, empowerment and goal attainment at conferences around the country. To read an excerpt of her memoir, please go to the Sister of Silence site. Check out the five-star review from ForeWord Reviews. Or find out why Kirkus Reviews called Ms. Berry “an engaging writer, her style fluid and easy to read, with welcome touches of humor and sustained tension throughout.”