My Family and Alton Sterling


Last week, Susan Kim wrote about the need to confront the hate that is bred by fear, and the common resistance to naming hate—particularly in the wake of the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in early July. Here, Abby Wong-Heffter, a licensed mental health therapist and a member of The Allender Center Teaching Staff, shares a moving and challenging story about her family’s grappling with those tragedies, and about the imperative to teach her children about the realities of racism in America.

Alton Sterling died at the hands of the police on Tuesday, July 5. I first read about his unjust and brutal death via Facebook. I was grieved, though not as undone as I was by the mass shooting in Orlando only weeks earlier. But the murder of Philando Castile on Wednesday, July 6 created a different kind of distress for me. I was distracted enough by anger and shock that my work of sitting with clients felt absurd (and given that the majority of my clients are trauma survivors, this was particularly unnerving). I did not know how to continue my afternoon of sessions if we were not talking about Black Lives Matter and the larger plight of America. I wanted to hang black cloth over the door to my office and close up “shop” for the rest of the day.

Instead of my Facebook newsfeed, my husband was the one to alert me to Philando’s death. He suggested that we cancel our dinner plans with friends and take our two children to a vigil being held in downtown Seattle to honor Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Yes. Yes. I have been talking about and dwelling on matters of microaggression and both institutional and internalized racism with great focus and attention. I teach about it in my class at The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology. For my colleagues and I, this is what we discuss around the “water cooler.” But prior to this last week, I had not participated in such a way that asked me to step outside of my comfortable world, beyond my home, classroom, or iPhone screen. I hadn’t marched or attended a rally. It was time.

I hadn’t marched or attended a rally. It was time.

My husband had spent much of that afternoon, as he shuttled our kids between summer activities, explaining to them what had transpired that week with the shootings. Our daughter, nine years old, seemed to already possess some foundation of understanding and was quite willing to participate in the vigil. Our five-year-old son was inquisitive and eager to learn. Yet, recently, we have encountered him making statements that have left us reeling and puzzled. Within the last few weeks, the four of us attended the Beacon Hill Block Party, renowned for featuring great local hip hop and rap artists. While standing below the stage of one of the performances, he exclaimed, “This music is for black people!” I was surprised at his exclamation. My son attends a progressive preschool where he learns about Bob Marley and memorizes Malcolm X speeches. All of his teachers are either Black or Hispanic/Latino. He, as a Caucasian boy, is in the minority among his classmates. He is curious, asks a lot of questions, and is very tender. I puzzled over how he was still being encultured to draw conclusions that sound like what I expect to hear from one who has not known diversity, inclusiveness, and honor of different cultures and races.

Just a few days prior to these shootings, we were driving home from a camping trip in the North Cascades. Listening to This American Life to pass the time, we heard a segment featuring Black comedian, W. Kamau Bell. Bell shared an incident where he encountered subtle racism at a cafe with his family in the Berkeley area. He spoke about his own quandary of when and how to talk about racism with his 4-year-old daughter. As he sought the expert advice of his predecessors, he was advised that kids need to learn early about what it means for them to be Black in America. They need to know how to navigate a world still saturated in racism. I glanced in the back where my son slept soundly in his carseat. I furied at the unjust and maddening reality that, at least in regard to his safety, there is not a pressing “need” for him to learn about racism. If he plays in our local park and is pretending to shoot an imaginary gun, I am not in the least worried or concerned that he could be spotted as “dangerous” by a patrolling cop car. I KNOW that this is not the same reality for his Black classmates. I know that their parents live with a real and valid concern of the prejudices and stereotypes that could result in devastating consequences for their children. So, in some unmerited and unfair way, I can take my time teaching him about racism and can even prioritize the importance that he learn to read, tie his shoes, and manage a decent crawl or doggie paddle at swimming lessons.

The vigil was held in a public square in the heart of the financial/shopping district of Seattle. We carried umbrellas and a picnic dinner. The kids were both very willing to stand in the rain and with the gathering crowd. They peppered us with questions about all that they were hearing and observing. As activists, community leaders, and Black pastors began to speak, the kids earnestly attempted to participate. One activist weaved their way through the crowd passing out fluorescent orange fliers, cut in the shape of flames, bearing the name of Alton Sterling. Our son voiced desire to be able to have one too, and I attempted to retrieve one for him with no avail. He was momentarily disappointed but then quickly distracted by the possibility of playing on the jungle gym behind us. For a 5-year-old, I was proud of his inquisitiveness and curiosity and did not fault him for wanting to return to 5-year-old activities.

I noticed that, for the most part, I felt like an observer, maybe even a voyeur. Clearly, many—if not most—in attendance were part of the Black Lives Matter movement. Several held home made signs declaring outrage at police brutality and a broken justice system. Some held signs with photographs of Blacks who have been killed by police in the last several years. I don’t feel like an outlier in my living room or at the head of my classroom. I feel like a loud voice, a passionate voice, and maybe at times, a leading voice. But, this night I could feel a pull to be quiet, even timid. When the crowd shouted, “Not This Time” or “Black Lives Matter,” I found that I had to muster up courage to join my voice with theirs. Why?

We stood for an hour in the incessant drizzle and strained to hear the various speakers on their meager sound system. As we took stock of our drenched children and their attention spans, we decided it was time to head home. I could not locate what I was feeling as we departed. Deflated? Lost? Perhaps even more confused over what to do or how to be involved than I had earlier that day. But, I was glad for having gone to the vigil and thankful that there was a beginning to our conversation as a family.

We started walking back toward the Light Rail station to catch a train home but realized that, though the speeches had finished, the event had not and had transitioned into a march. The crowd had more than doubled since our arrival, and now the vigil was far more a protest. They stood in the intersection of Pine and 4th blocking traffic and began marching north, louder and increasingly impassioned. (It was not until we returned home to learn that the same time this march was happening in Seattle, five police officers had been shot at a similar rally in Dallas.)

My husband and I determined that it would be too much for the kids to extend the evening by marching, but we paused on the corner and watched. Our son pulled at my hand to get my attention as he spotted the orange-flamed Alton Sterling sign he had coveted earlier that evening—lying face down and torn. “You can have it, buddy,” I told him as he peeled it off the wet sidewalk. At the same moment, he took notice of a family huddled only feet away—an older woman and three little girls, about the same age as our kids, in matching rainbow striped leggings and white t-shirts. T-shirts with Alton Sterling’s name graffitied on the front. “Look! They’re all wearing matching clothes,” he exclaimed excitedly. The seeming matriarch of the group turned and spoke to my husband. “We are Alton Sterling’s family.”

As she spoke these words, everything took on sharper focus and seemed to slow. My mind and heart began translating in rapid-fire, crystallizing ways: the last few hours, the day, the month, and the two years since Ferguson. This night was not just about the chaos and violence our country is engaging around race, it wasn’t just about a plight that I rage against. Black Lives Matter is not simply a movement. The three little girls and this woman carrying flowers and holding candles—this is their STORY, their life! I was not reading this on my Facebook feed and I wasn’t seeing this on Instagram.

This night was not just about the chaos and violence our country is engaging around race, it wasn’t just about a plight that I rage against.

As I was swimming in thoughts and grief a younger woman, presumably the mother of the three little girls, came tripping out of the crowd of protesters with tears streaming down her face, gasping between sobs. “I can’t handle this,” she cried. She then took notice that her mother or aunt was speaking with us and she glanced down at my son and daughter. With torment in her voice she pleaded to my husband and I, “My kids aren’t any different than yours! Why? Why? Why?”

I was shattered by these words, their truth. I told her she is right and that I am so sorry. I reeled. I looked into the face of my husband and saw his tears and how powerless he felt. I knelt down to explain to our son who this family was and why they were crying. While I was at eye level with him, I was also at eye level with one of the three. She sweetly held out the votive candle she was holding and gestured it toward me, as if I should take it. I fumbled with words, and maybe said thank you, but that it’s her candle while still trying to acknowledge her generosity. Her mother, before walking away, said to my husband and I, “You all have a blessed night.” Her voice was genuine and gracious.

I began to weep, and my daughter took my hand and nuzzled her body close to mine, clearly seeking to comfort me. Again, I was at a loss as my 9-year-old offered me empathy. My husband wrapped his arm around both of us, and our son somehow wedged himself in at waist level. He thought we were playing a game, and his muffled laugh emerged from our family huddle.

I have to hold in tension the goodness that my 5-year-old is innocent, naive, and unknowing, and that we need to mourn, wail, and scream. And, we can’t wait any longer to teach him about racism.