Do not stand for it

I am a Minnesota parent.

I have, for the most part, raised my children here. And, on top of that, I'm lucky enough to have a voice as a columnist and features writer at the magazine that represents our parenting community.

But I did not grow up here.

I grew up in a predominantly white, sheltered community in Southern California, proximal to Long Beach.

I was a teenager during Rodney King — confused, but removed, watching news stories on TV about chaos happening a mere 3, 4, 5 miles from my sleepy neighborhood.

I remember driving to a doctor’s appointment, 10 miles away, the otherworldly experience of skies turning from beach city blue to black as night, smoke and ashes, air so thick with fire you couldn’t draw a deep breath.

I was there, too, when O.J. drove down the 405. And the pendulum swung the other way, fear of the police being labeled again as racist and corrupt. In spite of all the evidence, racism still polluted the system and became a part of the discussion when it should have been beside the point. And, in the end, privilege still prevailed.

In college I lived as a “minority” — along with my roommates — the only white girls in a historically “black” neighborhood of Boston. But of course I was not viewed as the minority, never side-eyed by the security detail at the subway stop, as my neighbors were.

Pregnant with my first child, just before moving here almost a decade ago, I lived in Southern Virginia and worked temp jobs as a receptionist. My then-husband was on an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf. I remember a job with a construction company.

I was left to tend the office while the owners of the company were out on assignment.

A black man came in to apply for a job. I dutifully wrote down all of his qualifications, excited because I knew that the company was desperate for good, experienced help.

He was a parent and told me about his wife’s experience with labor — the good, the bad, the ugly, the hilarious. He told me that I’d "do great” and wished me luck with the birth of my daughter. I was certain he’d be hired and that I’d see him again, and I told him so.

But when the owner walked in — just as the young father and I were saying our goodbyes — he looked the applicant up and down, sternly, and nodded.

Once the man walked out the door, the owner rushed to me in panic, Sweetheart, are you OKAY???

Yes, I said.

Weren’t you scared, he asked. I’m so sorry I left you alone, he said.

At that point, the lives I’d lived in sheltered neighborhoods, diverse neighborhoods, so-called rough neighborhoods — in famously progressive cities — melted away and I realized that true, overt, unapologetic racism was alive and well in the South.

I remember this incident often — and the easy connection I felt with this sweet, highly qualified job applicant.

But I’m free to un-remember it, too. And to live my life. Because I’m still white.

I want to freely admit that while I’ve seen things, lived in things, grown up a stone’s throw from two of the most famous skewed police race-related incidents in recent history, it hasn’t all sunk in until now.

The incidents of police overreaction and lack of perspective — and a sincerely troubling lack of impulse control — hadn't truly hit me.

Why? Because I believe we are, as a whole, completely desensitized and out of touch.

Out of human touch.

But Wednesday, as I sat on my porch in St. Paul, enjoying a pizza with a dear friend as my kids played — talking about problems that aren’t really problems in the greater sense — a man who I now know worked hard and showed great love for school children in the same district where my children attend school, was killed after being pulled over for what I myself have been pulled over for.

Killed.

Half a mile from my home.

With a child in his car.

When you’re a teenager, you’re invincible. When you’re a college kid, you’re brash and brazen. 

When you’re a parent, a Minnesota parent, you want to feel safe in your neighborhood.

You’ve chosen to live here for a reason — because it is a family-friendly community. You want the law to protect you from the bad guys and to leave the good guys well alone. You want to know that their training has enabled them to know the difference. You want for no mother to ever have to teach her sons to keep their heads down because of the color of their skin.

You wish so hard that no mother should have to live in fear that even with that teaching, it may not matter.

And, as a parent in the St. Paul public school district, you think of the endless budget cuts — and the sincere efforts of the community — and the wonderful, giving and amazing individuals who serve and educate and protect your kids in this totally messed up world.

It’s a thankless job in many ways, and you know, I know, that these people should be revered.

Every month, in my little column for Minnesota Parent magazine (Toddler Time) my prevailing message — my constant thread — has been: Trust your gut.

There are universal truths as a parent, but you have to do what you feel is right.

As someone who admits to having worn a protective layer over her awareness and understanding until now, I want to encourage you to keep the news on, be unafraid of the truth, have the hard talks, give more hugs, examine your own perspective.

Think about the impact of guns in the hands of both the public and law-enforcement officials.

Make an extra school lunch or send extra lunch money in the good name of Philando, our fellow Minnesotan who clearly took his job with SPPS nutrition services to heart.

Coach soccer and blow bubbles and laugh and dance. Because those things are important, too.

Love and light have never been so important.

Be OK with where you’ve been before today either via privilege or intention or happenstance or all of the above. And then, very intentionally, with your voice or your vote or your heart or your mind, be better. 

As I fit together all the pieces of all the vastly different places I’ve lived, the social climates, the times — I have some reevaluating to do. I have to admit the ways in which I have tuned out (or at least muted) the truth and I must acknowledge the reasons I'm allowed to do so.

I can also say that I’m glad to be here, where a big city feels like a small town, where something atrocious happened in my own back yard and where I know my proud and active community absolutely will not stand for it.


Jen Wittes is a freelance writer and mother of two who lives in St. Paul. She’s helped many Twin Cities families in her work as a postpartum doula. Send questions or comments to jwittes@mnparent.com. Learn more about her work at jenwittes.com.