Tell Me When You’re Ready: The Narrative of Threat after Philadelphia Starbucks arrests

By Angela Noel

“Mom,” my eight-year-old son said from the backseat, “I felt like I was going to be kidnapped just now.”

“Why?” I replied, a bit startled, “Did someone try and get into the car? Or tap on the window or something?” I waited for his response as I backed my SUV out of the parking space in the shopping center. He’d elected to stay in the car while I picked up a bottle of wine for a dinner party and we were now on our way home from work and school. The word “kidnapped” hung in the air the way a parent’s worst nightmare should. But, safe in his booster seat, a smear of dirt or the remnants of lunch still clinging to his otherwise rosy freckled cheek, the danger had clearly passed.

“No.” He dropped his voice, “But I don’t want to tell you why I thought that.”

My parenting spidey-sense tingled.  “Well, I can’t help you understand what’s going on if you don’t share more with me. But you tell me when you’re ready.”

Hesitant, worried what he had to say might land him in some kind of trouble, he confessed. “The men,” he said, “in the car, they . . . had dark skin. And I thought maybe they’d kidnap me.”

In the front seat, I took a deep breath, hoping my brain would move fast enough to say the right thing. But before I spoke he continued, “But, you know, maybe I just need to get to know them. Like I know Solomon and Daryl* at school, and they’re good. They’re friends. Maybe that’s it. I just need to know them better.”

Before I continue with my story, note that this conversation between mother and son in Minnesota happened on April 12, 2018, just hours after two black men were arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks. But I didn’t know that then. What I knew as I waited to turn left into my mostly white neighborhood (84% as of the last census), was my son had imbibed a narrative about people with dark skin, a threat narrative. I also knew I had no idea what to say to counteract this heady drug of fear.

Seeds of worry grew within me. Where had he learned this? Was it TV? Was it something I’d said or done? Or something he’d learned at school?

Once before, when he was six, he had told me he hoped his teacher for first grade would be white. I’d asked him why and he told me, “because they look like me and it’s just easier.”

I’d responded, “We don’t judge people by the way they look on the outside. We pay attention to how they act and what they do. How people treat you, not what they look like is what matters.” There, in the car, at six o’clock on a Thursday evening two years after the first conversation, I repeated those words.

I also praised him for how he questioned his own reaction–how he suspected he wasn’t judging the situation correctly. I complimented him for thinking about how important it is to get to know people, so that even if we have a strange first reaction, we can keep an open mind and challenge our perceptions. Most of all, I thanked him for sharing his worry with me so we could talk about it.

Though I did my best, I have no idea if I said the right thing.

The incident bothered me enough that I did what I always do when something troubles me: I talked about it with other people.

I told friends and co-workers what had happened with my son, and what I did and said. I sought not reassurance that what I’d done was right, but knowledge on what I could have done differently. I wanted to understand what might be happening in my son’s experiences to cause him to think this way. Clearly, I play a role. But exactly what it is, and what I can do about it, I’m still not sure. Most told me I’d done what they would do. But, I wasn’t satisfied with that answer. I kept asking.

Over the weeks I’d formed a theory I wanted to test out.

I’d been asking myself over and over what might have made my son feel threatened by the guys in the car next to us. I hadn’t seen them myself, and I’d only taken slight notice of the maroon sedan next to us. In my mind, I made up an image of two men with sagging pants and hoodies walking toward Chipotle. Could it be that my son associates a certain “look” with threat?

I shared my theory with my cousin, who has lived in diverse Brooklyn, New York for the past 23 years. I posited that perhaps these two men wanted to look a little threatening, to play into that narrative. Maybe that narrative was the one way they had to defend against an unfair world? If white people felt threatened, even if we have such a privileged position in most other ways, could it be that wearing a particular style is its own type of power? And if so, wouldn’t people of color want to change that narrative by changing what they wear?

My cousin’s answer: Bullshit.

As we talked more, I thought of how angry I’d be (and am) when people say women shouldn’t dress provocatively if they don’t want that kind of attention. If it pisses me off that victim blaming over a woman “asking for it” because of her outfit happens so frequently even now, then how can I think that what a person wears, in any context, is an excuse for judging him or her as a threat?

I began to realize that this line of thinking, this idea that maybe if the men hadn’t “looked threatening” then maybe my son wouldn’t have interpreted the situation as he did was, in fact, total bullshit. By entertaining this thought, I was doing nothing different than the victim-blamers who discredit women’s experiences of sexual aggression and assault because of their outfits.

The day after my conversation with my cousin, NPR aired a segment with several people reacting to what had happened on April 12th at Starbucks. One of the people they interviewed, William Ketchum III, a journalist in New York, said this about the advice his father gave him and his siblings: “He always told us that no matter how long or short our visit is to a business to always always buy something…,” Ketchum said, “then, we hopefully won’t be perceived as a threat to steal something or as a threat to rob the store.”

Mr. Ketchum’s comments hit home. Why should this man, or anyone, have to go through life proving they aren’t a threat? Just like why should I have to go through life proving I don’t want to be catcalled, groped, or assaulted just because I’m walking down the street?

As I continued (and continue) to try and understand the root cause behind why my son reacted as he did, I have shared the story not just one-on-one, but also in a meeting with a number of people I don’t know well. I shared the story of my son’s fear of being kidnapped with the room because I hoped others would want what I want: a frank conversation among intelligent and thoughtful people about why a white boy in the third grade has already experienced the threat narrative about people of color and what we can do about it as a community.

I was taking a risk. The audience wasn’t just a bunch of white people that looked like me. I feared I would be judged for my parenting, or for being a racist. Or worse, I feared they would judge my son for his response to the culture he’s living in.  I said as much to the group. I told them I wasn’t sure until the moment the words came out of my mouth whether I would share the story. I told them that my son’s school had gathered the older grades and the parents of those students together because incidents of racial slurs had increased. When I finished, I wondered if I’d done the right thing.

I can’t know what was in the minds of everyone in the audience that day. But I do know that some people felt what I’d done was courageous. They thought that by sharing my experience it could help others to share their own. And through having the conversation and starting the dialogue without worrying if we’ll be called a racist, or a bad parent (or worse) we might actually create something like change in a world that feeds its children a story about how some people are scary because of the color of their skin, how they dress, or where they come from.

I don’t know if sharing my story and what I’m learning is courageous or stupid. I don’t know if in writing this essay I’ll expose myself and my family to hateful comments or judgment.

Probably.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where judging is easy, and trying to understand is hard.

I’d like to live in a different world, though. One where we seek to understand first, and use incidents like the relatively small and private one I experienced with my child, and the big and public one at Starbucks as opportunities to learn and change, rather than opportunities to blame and point fingers.

No one reading this could possibly assume I know all the answers. I know very few. But, like I told my son, no one can help me understand what’s going on if I don’t share it. And like my son, whose innocent heart questioned his own reactions with the kind of self-awareness I hope I model every day, I’m ready to have the conversation.

*Names have been changed

Angela Noel lives and writes in Minneapolis. Her blog, You are Awesome, celebrates inspiring people and interesting ideas with a new post each week. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook, InstagramPinterest.

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Comments

  1. D. Avery @shiftnshake

    This is the conversation, the narrative, that needs to be told; current and personal and open. Keep having the conversation with your son for there are those who will prey on his fear and encourage him to see other as scary and to use that fear to justify hateful thoughts and acts.
    Did you ever question him further as to where his ideas of the guys in the car being scary came from?
    These days pickups with flags in the back can be scary, and I mean American flags, not that Dixie Rebel one. As with a hoodie, how does one, or should one, infer intent?

    1. angelanoelauthor

      It’s an excellent question and thank you for the comment. I did ask him and he doesn’t really know where it comes from. His answer, “my brain.” But he often questions his brain as it sometimes tells him there are ghosts moving the curtains–another thing that isn’t true. I like the idea of recognizing that a single story about any person or group doesn’t tell the whole story. It’s that idea i know I need to remember too.
      Thank you again for your comment!

  2. bobcabkings

    I think the Threat Narrative of the Black Man has been part of American culture, at least in some places, since the first slave ship docked on these shores.

  3. Rica

    I’d say this is a courageous essay. We cannot expect to change if we are not willing to acknowledge our current situation. Thank you for sharing.

    1. angelanoelauthor

      Thank you, Rica! I am hopeful that more conversations will come from sharing this private one of mine. It’s not easy to talk about, that much I know. But without sharing these things I’m not sure how we break the stigma and the fear and start encouraging more open conversation. Your encouragement means a lot.

  4. Kathy

    It took courage to write this story, Angela. With so many people just looking for something to rail against, there will certainly be those who choose to interpret this innocent revelation of a young child as negative. Fortunately, your child was able to process the incident and filter out the hype that sets up hatred against other human beings. Pretty amazing for one so young. Many adults choose not to do that, much less a child. But then, perhaps the innocence of a child and the wanting to think the best of others is what can awaken us all. Thank you for your willingness to share this.

    1. angelanoelauthor

      Thank you for commenting. I do think questioning his impressions was an important first step–one I continue to need to practice myself. I often ponder how absurd these cultural biases are. They make no sense and yet the visceral fear reaction is so powerful! Changing the narrative matters.

  5. Jennifer

    Thank you for having that conversation with your son, with friends, with co-workers, and with strangers even. It’s such an important conversation, one that is long past needing to be spoken about. In this climate of fear and hate and misogyny that is being stirred to new heights by our current leader, I’m seeing the start of a push back as we are beginning to ask questions and have discussions to break down the stereotypes and get to know each other.

  6. drallisonbrown

    Awesome essay, Angela. Sadly, it is difficult to reconcile our differences, because as much as we say otherwise, society encourages people to keep these feelings hidden. If it isn’t PC, we can’t say it. If we can’t speak to each other, we can’t understand each other, let alone heal. We must, as you wrote, “challenge our perceptions.” When something scares us or angers us, we have to stop and figure out why, rather than spontaneously reacting from that place of fear or anger. Listen…tap into love and compassion and speak from that place.

    1. angelanoelauthor

      Thank you, Allison. I absolutely agree. It take a lot of energy to stop and pause. I’m proud of my son for thinking through these things, though it makes me sad that he has to. Writing this piece brought out a lot of awareness for me. I think the best part of writing it, though it scared me, was that once opened I can’t shove those ideas back into a hole. I have to keep going, keep thinking, keep challenging.

  7. Erin

    Angela, as the white wife of an African American man and the mother of three bi-racial daughters that are now in late teens – mid 20s – I thank you for this piece. I will share it with my family and discuss, though I will share it with hesitation because I know that they experience a level of sadness, grief and anger when they face stories such as yours – because it is another reminder of the patent unfairness that they deal with. It is sad and unfair that your little boy has been touched by the toxic messaging so prevalent in our society. My husband has his own strategies to stay a positive black man while living in a world that judges black men negatively and harshly. My daughters have now reached an age at which they have their own experiences and also have so much to process about all the racial issues in the media. They are accessing their feelings and their place in the world as women of color. The experiences I have as a white woman and member of the dominant culture is different than my family members. I learn from much from them. Your piece is honest AND brave. More honest and brave communication and conversation is needed so people deepen their understanding of important issues. We can only defeat wrong when we can see it, name it, talk about it, understand it and actively work to change it. You did all of the things in my last sentence.

  8. angelanoelauthor

    Erin, thank you for your heartfelt comment. It is for you, for us, that I wanted to write about my experience. I hate that your family has experienced this, but I want to turn that feeling into something positive. I want for us all to keep talking, even when–maybe especially when–it’s hard. Your comment means a great deal to me because I don’t think any of us can really “walk a day in another’s shoes” exactly. But, we can listen to each other, share our stories and experiences and try and understand. Your comment gives me courage.

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