My Friend Wendy: A Black Mother's Honesty and Pain
I met Wendy Allen-Belleville when I was a writer on the TV series WINGS and she was a writer’s assistant. She’s smart, stunning, and a general delight. She’s also the mother of a teenage black son.
The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, and Elijah McClain gutted so many of us and triggered an outpouring of emotion from my friend. Anger. Outrage. Fear for her own son’s life. I think it’s vital that people everywhere really understand what it’s like to be the mother of a black child in this country, so I asked Wendy to share her experience. Her answers to my questions are powerful. I haven’t edited a single response. I want her words to reach into your heart and resonate...
How old is Christopher now?
Christopher is now 18 years old. I know we all say about our kids – “S/he was just a baby!” I can’t believe when I look into his face it’s that of a man, not my little boy (although, he’ll always be my baby boy).
Tell me about him.
Where do I start?! Christopher is now a 6’3” gregarious young man who is an unbelievable athlete – track and basketball are his sports, and he’s broken school records in track. He has a big personality that lights up a room with a silly disposition to match. But what I love most about him? His big heart. He’s a teddy bear on the inside, always with his hand out to help a friend in need. That’s not just me saying this as his mother; I see the texts and phone calls he receives from friends asking for advice. (I know, I’m biased… but it’s all true.).
When did you begin to worry about him being a young black man in America?
I started to worry when he was five and started kindergarten. When we entered his classroom and saw that he was the sole black child in there, my flags started to go up. Not that I was surprised that he was the only black child – we knew the neighborhood we moved into was an affluent all-white community – but suddenly there it was, in a sea of faces, my child’s face stood out, and I knew that it would not be long before I’d have to have “The Talk” with him. I put it off for a couple of years, though, because I desperately wanted to put off having to lift his veil of innocence for as long as I could. At that point, he still assumed he’d have the same benefit of the doubt as his little friends; that there was no difference in perception between himself and them. He had no idea what would await him in the coming years because of the color of his skin.
When did you have the talk about what to do if the police ever stopped him for any reason?
As all parents of black children know, there is more than one type of talk. There are few different ones. They all arrive at the same conclusion, but there are some milestone-specific talks that need to take place to prepare black children. Here’s a general breakdown with the key message for each talk:
· The Introductory Talk – this is when the child is still very young and he starts interacting with other children. The point of this talk is to introduce him to the fact that he may encounter children who won’t want to play with him because he’s black. It’s a painful discussion in part because you can actually see the confusion on the child’s face... when those brown eyes look at you and ask, “But why won’t they want to play with me? Am I bad? What’s wrong with me?”
· The Heartbreak Talk – this is when your child, now an adolescent or teenager, encounters a situation whereby he can’t take the girl he likes to a dance because he’s black. The girl’s parents won’t allow it. You see it on the horizon when he starts to have a crush on a white girl, so you start to fear the worst from the outset. If the worst comes true and he can’t date her, he’s crushed. There is absolutely nothing wrong with him – but to that girl’s parents, his blackness is everything. You also have to warn your black son to be careful with his white friends who are girls, because even for an innocent friendship, that can have serious consequences for a black boy.
· The Law Enforcement Talk – this is when your driving-age child is going to be out there on the road without you. This is the most serious one, because it can lead to death - as has happened for decades. As the mother of a black son, I give him the following (sometimes panicked) pleas:
o If you get pulled over, comply with everything the officer says and be respectful.
o Don’t flinch and let him/her know that you are going into your glove box to retrieve your paperwork.
o Most importantly: DON’T RUN!
· The Get the Footage Talk – this is a new one I’ve deployed for my son. Whenever he leaves the house – to jog or walk the dog or take out the trash, or anywhere he may be confronted by someone who thinks he doesn’t belong – I say, “Be sure your phone is fully charged and be ready to turn on your video.” He doesn’t even have to ask why. He knows. It’s to capture the footage of someone who may call him out for existing in his white neighborhood.
Note: There is an overwhelming concern for parents of black children that we not fill our kids with fear or make them paranoid with these talks. We want them to live their lives as carefree as possible. We want them to have many friends of all races and feel free to make their marks in the world and follow their passions. But it would be a dereliction of duty as parents for us not to also warn our children about what they will encounter… because they will encounter these issues, one way or another. They need to know, and all the better to be prepared in advance.
I heard a young black protester say his parents had that talk with him way before the sex talk. Was that the case with you?
Absolutely. I gave my son his first race talk when he was seven; the sex talk when he was ten.
Has Chris had a racist experience?
Sadly, yes. His first experience was being called a nigger when he was 11 years old. I dropped him off at a birthday party for his best friend. Hours later when I went to pick him up, approaching the location at the park where the kids were, I was transported into a despair I’d never known before. It had just happened moments before I arrived, and I was told. I wanted to fly into a rage, but at the same time, not lose my composure as a mother. I had to keep myself together as I helped to clean up after the party. I was shaking. I was silently hysterical. It was a more severe pain than I had ever experienced myself. It was all I could do to get him and get in the car. Fortunately, we’d had the Introductory Talk with him, so he was not caught completely off guard. He handled it beautifully, taking it in stride. He kept playing. I’m still not over it.
Oh, boy. Many times, yes. In my 52 years I could write a book about all the instances of racism I’ve experienced. Here are some of the greatest hits (and I do mean hits):
· 4th grade when we moved to an all-white neighborhood, I was relentlessly called a nigger. Every. Single. Day. For a month. I had to walk past this group of boys who would perch themselves on a fence and as I walked by after school, they would scream it loudly. Oh, and they’d also throw soda cans at me – some of them empty, some half empty (so I’d get wet), and some full (so I’d get hurt).
· 4th grade when it was time for a square dancing project and this boy, Billy, refused to be my partner because he didn’t want to touch my brown skin. That became a big, schoolwide issue involving all the parents. It was embarrassing and devastating.
· Age 16 when I was accused of stealing in a store. Never have stolen anything in my life. But according to the clerk, I looked suspicious.
· Age 18 when I couldn’t go to the senior ball with a boy I liked at the time because I was black. His mom forbade it.
· Age 21 when I was looking for an apartment. I spoke to a lady who managed an apartment building in Northridge, CA. We spoke on the phone a couple of times and she was a nice as she could be: “Yes, my dear! We have many open units. Come here on Saturday and I’ll show them to you.” So that Saturday I went and rang the buzzer. She answered, saying, “Hello, Wendy! Come on in and we’ll get started! I’m in apartment 101.” I knocked on her door and as she opened it, her face fell. She said, “I’m sorry, there’s been a mistake. No vacancies” and slammed the door.
· Age 26 when I was in my car after a long day working on the TV show “Wings,” I was stopped at an intersection in North Hollywood when a man in an adjacent lane yelled, “Hey, NIGGER!!” at the top of his lungs. I was horrified at the vitriol of his anger. I had done nothing. I was just existing.
These are some of the bigger events, but there are also the microaggressions that have – and still – take place, such as:
· “You’re not really black, black... you’re okay!”
· “You’re pretty for a black girl.”
· “You are so articulate!”
· “Oh, you live in this neighborhood?”
Literally too many instances to count, but you get the idea...
You recently adopted Andrew, who’s 14 and Hispanic. Have you picked up on any difference between how the boys are treated?
Yes. Because Andrew is Hispanic and not black, and he’s smaller, when we’re out in stores, Chris, my older son, gets looked at in a suspicious way more often. He’s seen as more of a threat. With Andrew, he’s gotten questions such as, “Are you from here?” or “What country are you from?” (He was born in Anaheim). It’s also an interesting vision when my second husband, who is white, is out with the boys when I’m not with them. People scan the three of them and have huge question marks on their faces. My husband has fun giving them the What For whenever that happens. And for the record, my husband is very proud to have a multicultural family.
What message would you most want to convey to people who are racist?
This is tricky, because most people who are racist won’t admit they are racist. They become extremely defensive at the mere suggestion that they are. In general, what I say to those who are racist is, “It’s unfortunate that you’ve chosen this path of ignorance and you’re incapable of, or are unwilling to, open your mind to people of different racial backgrounds. Your racial ignorance is your cross to bear and does not diminish who I am in the slightest.” Also, depending on how the racism presents itself, I may also say the following:
· When someone calls me a nigger: “The fact that that word came out of your mouth says more about you than it ever could about me. I certainly hope you don’t teach this to your kids. Look in the mirror and seek help.” (I may say additional choice words, as well...)
· When a clerk follows me around a store: “Is there some reason you’re following me, watching me like this? Are you assuming I’m going to steal something?” I call it out head on, to make them uncomfortable and make it clear I know what they’re doing.
· When someone raves about how articulate I am: “Why wouldn’t I be articulate? I’m a college- educated, professional woman. What did you expect?”
In spite of my take on the state of race in this country, believe it or not, I remain hopeful. There is a national reckoning taking place that is gaining more and more steam. Not since the 1960s have we seen such an outpouring, and it’s already making a difference. We need this to continue. The time is now. In closing, I will leave you with this quote from the late, great Maya Angelou:
“It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength.”
A native of California, Wendy Allen-Belleville spent 18 years in Hollywood working at Paramount Pictures in the high-impact television industry. After working on hit sitcoms such as "Wings" and “Becker," she decided to put her talents into corporate communications and public relations. Soon, she became a communications thought-leader in Orange County, designing and driving strategic content in the voice of small businesses for maximum impact to promote their brands. Wendy lives a blissfully chaotic life in Orange County with her husband, Brad, their two sons, and two dogs. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.