Pool Party


Image via Lands  End.

Image via Lands End.



After reading news of the pool party in Texas, I sit on my bed and talk to my daughter. She lies across the foot of the bed, listening.

“I think you already know, honey, that if the police encounter you and your friends, they’ll treat you differently because of your skin color.”

“Yes,” she says, and my heart begins to break again.

Part of my job as a mother is to teach her not to take for granted the privileges I have as a white, educated, middle-aged woman who looks harmless. As a teenager, as a person of color, the world sees her differently. I have taught her to speak her mind, and now I am afraid I haven’t taught her enough about keeping quiet.

There are lessons we all learn as women.

When she started to go out with friends, I had to teach her how to respond to street harassment. When she began to study at a coffee shop, we talked about how to deal with unwanted attention, with people who stand too close or who won’t leave you alone.

There are lessons about being a person of color.

Now we talk again about how to navigate an encounter with the police. This is a conversation African-American parents have been having for years, but I am new to it. Privilege has shielded me in a way that will never happen for my daughter.

In my mind is the picture of a white man, a police officer, sitting on a teenage girl in a bathing suit. As a mother, as a woman, the image makes me want to throw up. The disrespect for her body and her teenage sense of self leaves me both enraged and in tears.

“If they tell you to stop, or to sit, follow instructions,” my husband tells her. “Do exactly what they tell you to do. And don’t be mouthy.”

“When people start yelling, no one can think clearly. Nothing good happens when the yelling begins,” I add, trying to help her survive any moment of chaos between police officers and teenagers.

“But,” I hear myself say, “in the beginning, if you think you can get away, run and don’t look back.” The advice surprises me. Recent events have taught me what African-American parents have known for a long time – skin color will trump everything else. I no longer have confidence that a police officer will see my daughter as an honor student, an employee of the library, a girl with a generous heart. My job is to nurture that in her, and other young people, even in a world that can’t always see it. My job is also to keep her alive, in a world that’s hard on young people of color, and I fear that I don’t know enough to teach her. I fear for the spirits of people who have to learn to be quiet, sit down, obey orders. I fear for us all, when this is acceptable to us.


  1. Thank you so much for writing this and sharing it Mary. I will come back and read it again. I have to share with you that through all of the horrible and upsetting news reports of police encounters over at least the last year or two…..that image you speak of, the police officer and the girl in her bathing suit…it made me sick to my stomach. It really did. Just sick .
    Oh and one more thing, because I’ve known you since we were in Junior High, I am 100% confident that you are an excellent parent.

  2. Oh, Mary. What is going on in this broken, broken world? I’m going to share this via RevGals on Facebook.

  3. I live in McKinney and am horrified by this police officer’s behavior. We should not have to have different standards of expectations for behavior if our children have different skin color. My daughter is 18 and it never occurred to me to tell her to follow the direction of a police officer because I never worried she would be treated differently. My heart is breaking for our community, where 11 officers out of 12 appear to have handled themselves the way that we want all officers to handle themselves. Our community had a powerful prayer service last night and laid hands on our mayor and police chief, praying for peace, open minds and softened hearts for all involved. Thank you for loving your daughter and sharing your story with us all.

    • Mary Austin Mary Austin says

      Paige, thanks for your thoughts. I can only imagine the level of turmoil in your town right now. I read that it’s a diverse community, which is a gift, when we get to live near each other and get to know each other. Blessings to you and everyone in McKinney.

  4. Avatar Diane Lea says

    Oh Mary, I’m deeply saddened that YOU, or ANY OTHER PARENT, must have such a conversation with their daughter (or son). Love and prayers for you all. Paige Hanks said it beautifully above. I too am “praying for peace, open minds and softened hearts for all involved.”

  5. Avatar Laurie E Bradley says

    Mary: Both Bradley boys have had to walk the tightrope between intelligent indignation and sorrowful reality in their dealings with the world. Daryl had “the talk” many times when they were teens, and even now when they travel to unknown areas we urge vigilant observation and appropriate caution. Its appalling, disheartening, a blight. No person, especially a child, should have to be subject to such behavior. How can we keep our hearts light in the face of such actions? Prayer, hopefulness, and compassion is all I can offer. Much love,

    • Mary Austin Mary Austin says

      You ask the right, wise question — how can we keep our hearts light, with all of this in our lives? Much love to you and all the Bradley men. The world could use more gentlemen like them!

  6. Mary (and Laurie),
    Thank you so much for this post, Mary. It is so heartbreaking that we live in a society where we need to teach our African American children (and other minority children) about how to deal with a police force that we have learned not to trust. It feels tragic to have to teach them to be respectful, even when they are being mistreated, and if at all possible to run! Laurie said it well – how can we keep our hearts light in face of such actions?I am so sorry you both are dealing with this as am I.
    I am afraid each time my son goes out alone, and more so if he is late returning. Even the most well behaved teenagers are not always rational, and science teaches us that only a certain percentage of their frontal lobes are “online” at any given time. Here in Texas, we have almost declared war on children, especially non-white children, considering them adults far too early and permanently punishing for behavior that should not affect the rest of their lives. We do need prayer, hopefulness and compassion.
    I am thankful that as painful as it is to watch, the world now can see what is happening through the grace of technology. My heart is burdened not only for the future of our kids, but for ALL the children and adults who have been mistreated in the past.
    I also pray for the police who do their job compassionately and correctly, as well as those who are caught in a culture that cannot and must not be sustained. It will be painful for them to change, but not nearly as painful as the pain they have inflicted on their minority constituents. I am drafting a letter to our police chief to ask what he is doing to reteach our officers here in Austin, before we are caught on someone’s camera.
    Love to all.

  7. Thank you for this piece. While I am not a parent of a child with a racial mix, I am an aunt with a niece and nephew, who now have children of their own, again of racial and ethic mixes. I know this fear as her youngest son in brown skin, brown hair and brown eyes with a strong spirit! His brother is fair skinned light hair and blue eyed, I grieve for the fact that while they are brothers with the same heritage, one will face many more challenges than the other. While the youngest is just 5, I fear for his future and I know these are also the lessons my niece must teach him. I can only hope the slow wheel of change has moved along by the time he is a teenager. praying us through

    • Mary Austin Mary Austin says

      Praying us through…wise response! Blessings to your family as they navigate life’s challenges.

  8. Avatar Marcia B. Wilson says

    I am so incredibly touched by your words. I feel very saddened by them as well. I too am white but have great-nieces of color. I fear for them all the time. They too are kind, compassionate, smart, passionate, loving young women! I don’t see skin color. I hate the question of race on forms at places like the doctors and will often check other and write next to it, HUMAN. I feel we need to begin to look at everyone as being human and see past color, disability and sexual orientation. I too have been discriminated against. I am a lesbian. I attended my aunts funeral in the church my dad and his siblings grew up in, in rural Kentucky. I sat and listened as the “preacher” of God’s word told me I was going to hell because I love my wife. He said President Obama was going to hell because he supports marriage equality. Mind you he had no knowledge I am a lesbian. My wife thankfully had stayed at my dad’s in Tennessee watching some of the kids so she was spared. I feel for our Nation because so many refuse to open their eyes and hearts to take the time to educate themselves about things they know nothing about so they live in fear of those things/people. Get to know someone before you decide on the character of the person and that goes for young people as well. I am sorry your daughter has to learn these lessons on top of all the other lessons life teaches us along the way. I wish you and your family peace!

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