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On Watching My Son Discover His Blackness… (OpEd)

April 26, 2017

Karsonya Wise Whitehead

Originally published in The Baltimore Sun: “The uprising may be over; but the work is not,” April 27, 2017


My son was six years old the first time that he realized that he was black. He was in the first grade, attending a Baltimore City independent school, and one day, during recess, the boys in his class decided to make-up a game called, “Let’s Get the Black Boy.” Given that he was the only black boy in his grade and thus on the playground, he spent the hour running for fear of what they would do if they caught him. The entire ride home he peppered me with questions about what it meant to be black: Was it something that we chose to become, why did he choose to run, and what did I think they would do if they caught him?


It was a long night for me as I spent the evening writing down everything I wanted to say to the principal. I practiced in front of the mirror, and I worked hard to build up my courage so that I would have the words to say and the heart to say them. My father once said that the hardest parent of being a black parent is the moment you realize that in the face of injustice and racism, your silence will be seen as an act of betrayal, a sign of complicity, and you would forever wear it as a badge that marked your moment of weakness.


The truth of my father’s words has stayed with me, and the responsibility that it calls me to have gets more difficult as the world continues to turn. In 1903, W.E.B. Du Bois stated that the problem of the 20th century was the color line, which referred to the role of race and racism in history and society. Today, the problem of the 21st century seems to be a false sense of racial, social and economic equality that fosters a culture of complacency — and intolerance for those who attempt to expose the myth.


It has been two years since the Baltimore uprising that followed Freddie Gray’s death in the back of a police van, a pivotal moment in our city that shifted our focus and called us to action on long-standing problems plaguing our city. It was a time of real honesty where we collectively shared our ideas, frustrations, hopes and dreams for a better, more united Baltimore. Since then, life has settled back in to the familiar. The pockets of the city that have historically been economically stable are once again doing very well; the number of tourists coming in to the city has steadily increased, and museums, hotels, restaurants and real estate are all showing signs of growth. And the neighborhoods that suffered before the death of Gray continue to do so.


Crime is still a persistent and deadly problem: 2015 and 2016 were recorded as, per capita, the deadliest and the second deadliest years respectively in the city’s history, and 2017 has already logged 101 homicides as of Tuesday. High unemployment and poverty rates continue. The public school system is not improving, and with an ongoing budget deficit and looming teacher crises, this is not expected to change. The communities that were largely ignored and underserved have remained at the edges of both the city and our minds. We are still at a crisis moment, though it seems the public urgency to act has evaporated.


We must take immediate concrete steps to finally end this long and difficult battle to save our city. Among them:

• Reallocate city budgets so that we are spending more money on our students that we do on our police force;

•Offer more incentives and financial guidance to first-time small business owners to encourage them to open up grocery and convenience stores in their own neighborhoods;

•Redesign the police department’s Civilian Review Board so that it has a higher visibility, a larger working budget and can act as a more effective checks and balance system for internal affairs;

•Establish more job training programs for unemployed and underemployed residents and returning citizens;

•Accept that we must be the ones to police our own neighborhoods, to reach out to our neighbors and to hold them (and ourselves) accountable for what is happening in our communities.


It has been two very long years, and we must finally and completely choose the type of city that we want to live in and take the necessary action for change. We cannot be silent, lest it be seen by future Baltimoreans as our collective act of betrayal, a sign of our complicity that we would forever wear as a badge that marked our moment of weakness.


Karsonya Wise Whitehead is an associate professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland and the author of “Letters to My Black Sons: Raising Boys in a Post-Racial America.” A version of this editorial was aired as a public commentary on WYPR 88.1, Baltimore’s NPR station. She can reached at or on Twitter @kayewhitehead.


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