When my children were young, we often engaged in volunteer community work. One early morning in the summer, police were providing security for businesses near where we happened to be. We said hello to one officer and had a friendly chat. The kids were looking up at him in awe.
He had a badge! Cool.
The uniform was awesome! Cool.
He had a gun! Double cool.
We waved goodbye and walked on. A little while later I said coming toward us was another policeman. I said, “Oh, let’s say hello to that police man, too.”
We made way to the second officer and chatted with him. This time, though, my children kept looking at me like I was a nut. Noticing the expressions on their faces, the man said, “I can’t help but notice…I think your kids want to say something.”
They both nodded. Then my daughter, silently chosen to be spokesperson for the two of them, said, “But, Mom, you’ve already talked to him.”
I shook my head and said, “No, I’ve never met this man before.”
Quite unlike himself, my son piped up loud and insistently, “Yes you have, Mom!”
I looked at the man and the man looked at me as both my children stood there and insisted we had talked to this man just a little while ago “Back there!”, they both pointed behind us. That’s when it dawned on me. I said, “Oh, no. That was a different man. That police officer was white. This officer is black.”
Both my children, ten and thirteen at the time, said, “Huh?” Then they began searching their memory for the first officer to compare to this officer and all they could see was the uniform. In their minds, I had talked to the same man, a policeman.
Not a white policeman.
Not a black policeman.
More importantly, the black officer knew that the uniform was all they saw.
A history hanging heavy between us that my children could not know, the man and I looked at each other for a long, long moment, appreciating how far we’d come as a society. I saw two things in his eyes. One was that he had respect for me as a mother that I had brought my children up in such a way as to see the color of skin as an adjective, not a judgment. My children saw human. They saw police. They saw nurse. They saw teacher.
The other thing I saw in his eyes is what he verbalized. Choking back emotion, he said, “That’s the first time I’ve never been seen as black first, but as what I am: A policeman.”
We both had tears.
It’s a good memory.