• Tyree Barnette, right, appears in the latest episode of The New Writer's Room podcast. (Instagram )Source: Instagram
These are the challenges I face as a black parent helping my sons navigate the world within their black skin. I’ll need to teach them to be careful of whom they hang out with and the spaces they occupy.- are you drawing unnecessary attention to yourselves? Are you aware of how others are perceiving you?
By
Tyree Barnette

9 Jun 2020 - 1:40 PM  UPDATED 9 Jun 2020 - 1:40 PM

I don’t belong here. 

A sheriff’s officer pulled me over while I drove in my parents’ Lexus SVU. I was just a mile from my home in Raleigh, North Carolina. Halfway through my 16th year, I had my full licence and only a taste of the freedom that came with driving by myself – the ‘graduated licence scheme’ in my home state said I had to drive with an adult for six months and only during certain daylight hours. After that, I could drive alone. My parents supported this initiative, especially given the fact that I was a young black male. They wanted me to develop more maturity behind the wheel before I had to confront the world on my own.

I had the CD player on full blast, blaring Wailin’ by OutKast while I drove. The music screamed, “I felt the pressure like sun shining…I’m hazzard-ous to all you boss hoggs.”

The approaching officer was a middle-aged stone-faced white male

The approaching officer was a middle-aged, stone-faced white male. He donned the typical dark tan-coloured shirt and wide brimmed hat on his stocky frame. Both featured the star of the county sheriff’s office. His face was clean shaven – typical of law enforcement – with a deep dimple on his chin. What I could see of his hair under his black hat was dark, and his eyes on me seemed darker. Skipping the small talk, he instructed, “licence and registration.”

I had rehearsed this moment with my parents many times before: how to act when you are pulled over by a police officer. I could hear their instructions in my head:

  • Always keep my hands visible at positions 10 and 2 on the wheel.

  • Always say “Yes sir” or “Yes Ma’am”.

  • Always move slowly and deliberately, and only when given instructions.

These rehearsals are a sad ritual to protect our bodies against law enforcement. Don’t lose your temper like they accused Sandra Bland of doing. Try not to get caught in the wrong neighbourhood like Trayvon Martin or Ahmaud Arbery did.

I slowly reached over the wide expanse of the front cabin to the glove compartment, careful not to make any sudden movements. Fear gripped me and I couldn’t remember what the vehicle registration looked like. At the window, the officer cocked his head and smirked. “Should be a single slip of paper… kinda small.”

Ah, there it is! Relieved, I handed him the documents, sweating through my armpits. I’d accomplished step one: proving the car wasn’t stolen.

Ah, there it is! Relieved, I handed him the documents, sweating through my armpits. I’d accomplished step one: proving the car wasn’t stolen.

The officer looked at the papers, raised his eyebrows, and then cast his marbles back to me. “Your address shows you’re close to home. Is this your parents’ car?”

“Yeah… yes!  Yes sir, I live with my parents. I… I went to the grocery store. They asked me to go to the grocery store.” As I spoke, I remember thinking to myself: Look at me, driving around listening to loud rap music in an import. Did I draw too much attention to myself? That’s what I get for trying to show off. I don’t belong here.

Whenever I see the blue lights and hear the siren chip behind me, names and images race through the theatre in my mind: Don’t end up like George Floyd, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor, Rekia Boyd or Tamir Rice.

Since living abroad in Australia, I’ve re-read The Souls of Black Folk by Black American sociologist and professor, W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois offers a theory behind what I have always felt growing up, called ‘double consciousness’. It is the conflict between the way black people see themselves and how they must behave because of the threatening way they are seen in a racist white society.

I’ve also revisited Between the World and Me by journalist and author Ta- Nehisi Coates, which is written as a letter to his son. In this book, Coates explains to his son how to safely conduct himself within his black body, and the injustices that will be hurled against him in America. It is a thorough blueprint of the talk that I will have with my sons.

I have two little boys. They will likely be tall and athletically built, well over six feet as per the genetics in the family. Their maternal grandfather was a Harlem Globetrotter and professional basketball player in numerous countries. Their maternal grandmother has a cousin who played in the National Football League. My grandparents were also over six feet tall and well-built.

It makes no difference that my sons are born and raised in Australia. Racism is embedded in the Australian fabric just as it is in the United States. Three decades witnessed more than 430 Indigenous people dying in custody. While a royal commission in 1991 listed several improvements and areas to be addressed, they have not been fully implemented.

It makes no difference that my sons are born and raised in Australia. Racism is embedded in the Australian fabric just as it is in the United States.

Other communities of colour face undue scrutiny by police in Australia too. Over the past few years, law enforcement has pursued African-Australian youth in Melbourne, accusing them of belonging to “African gangs” and wreaking havoc in the city. Police later admitted that there was no evidence supporting widespread gang-based violence, but the damage had been done – the African-Australian community still had to endure suspicion, mistreatment and abuse from the public as a result of this narrative.

Such unfounded fear-mongering exacerbates the challenges I face as a black parent helping my sons navigate the world within their black skin. Many rules of the old world still apply. I’ll need to teach them to be careful of whom they hang out with and the spaces they occupy. I’ll teach them to be mindful of the behaviour of other kids of colour they associate with – How many of you are there and are you drawing unnecessary attention to yourselves? Where are you hanging out and are you aware of how others are perceiving you? 

Du Bois’ double consciousness theory will be essential here. I will teach my sons not to follow the crowd as they will not be able to get away with the same things that white children could. They will need to maintain respect and reasonable compliance with authorities. 

I fear my sons will also need to remind other Australians that they don’t act like the racist tropes and caricatures of black men imported from American media. They will be unique individuals that will not be lazy, violent or misogynistic and may not play basketball, rap or curse profusely.  

Where does Australia play a role in bettering itself? How do we collectively ensure that all children of colour are made to feel welcome?

Where does Australia play a role in bettering itself? How do we collectively ensure that all children of colour are made to feel welcome? For my wife and I, it starts at home. Our children’s bookshelves include stories featuring black characters and traditional and contemporary Indigenous stories. We are also mindful of the amount of culturally diverse representation our sons see on children’s’ television programs.

My wife started a Black Mother’s Group to ensure our children have exposure to other children from the African diaspora. The day care centres that we send our sons to have culturally diverse staff, teachers, and children, including two black child educators at one of them.

My talk to my sons will be more expansive than what my parents told me. In addition to self-awareness and Du Bois’ theory, I’ll need to introduce them to, and help them celebrate, their African-American heritage as Australians. I will touch more heavily on African-American history and Australia’s colonialist history. I’ll talk to them about their Indigenous brothers and sisters, on whose land we gather. I expect to assist them in navigating interracial dating and the stereotypes or biases their partner or partner’s parents might have about black men.

Still, the end goal is the same as my parents’ goal with me: I want my sons to be confident and comfortable in their own bodies. I want the voice in their heads to tell them Australia is my home. I belong here.

This article has been published in partnership with Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement

 

More articles by Tyree Barnette:

For me American soul food is more than a cuisine, it's a legacy
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Why 'When They See Us' is resonating with black and brown Australian men
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Taunted and fetishised: being an African American man in Australia
Just like the United States, racism preys on us here. Someone whispers ‘Blackie’ as they pass by me at a train station, or yells out ‘n*****’ down the aisle of Woolworths.