In light of the Zimmerman ruling, a friend of mine who is black asked his circle what he should tell his son. Dude, I don't know what you should tell your son. But what can I say about it?
Injustice exists. Not just where you are but everywhere. Sometimes people are treated unfairly, are hurt, are damaged, are killed. When that happens as a result of human actions against others, it is wrong. Always. Not just when the victim looks like you or lives like you or eats like you or believes like you or has sex like you... It is wrong, period. Always.
Much of what happens is a result of what some people assume or believe about other people. Many of the ideas we have about one another are sometimes right and often wrong. That is true about a single individual whom you judge on gossip rather than personal interaction, and it is true about groups of people whom you judge by stereotype rather than personal interaction or fact checking.
So it's a cliche but it's true that you should be part of the solution. This means you should treat people with the same courtesy you would expect for yourself. And it is also true that this is not the answer or the real solution to the real problem. But you have to have a premise and an expectation on which to judge people by their actions.
Be angry. Which is not to say you should be mad at others all the time. But be angry that injustice and inequality persist. Accept every struggle as your own. Because it is. When your son is at an age where he can hear this there will be other examples but these serve as noteworthy: Recently, the NAACP took a stand for gay rights, Occupy has organized for civil rights on multiple fronts. In the 1960s, labor and black civil rights activists sometimes partnered. Everyone's struggle is your struggle even when it isn't because it is. You cannot expect others to see us as "in it together" if we are not.
Know how to use that anger. It is the reaction that tells you something is wrong and it is the motivator to do what is right. But it is not the form your response should take. You can be angry about injustice and make that known without engaging in harmful behavior. Hold others accountable to that standard. Make anyone who wants to engage with you -- or the appropriate social agencies -- engage from the intellect, not the emotion. Because one cannot respond until one stops reacting. Know the difference between reactive and responsive.
Do not believe in invisible forces like "them" or "society" or "the system" for why things happen. Do not expect invisible forces like them or the system or even a god to fix it or explain it or make it right in the end. None of those invisible forces ever will -- YOU will, people will. When we make people or causes invisible we have no way to find them, confront them, change them. Identify who, what, and how. Demand to know why. And then demand a solution. Or get with others and look for one.
Expect that life is unfair and people will judge you unfairly. Black men are dangerous, women are incompetent, Latinos are lazy. You may not be able to win the debate or overcome the obstacle each time you find it. But take it to a new forum. Be engaged in some way.
Acknowledge that prosecution influences persecution. Go after the penal system, or agencies within it, for perpetuating unfair law enforcement. Demand we do better there. Understand how the way that part of our society works influences how different people are percieved differently, how that reinforces stereotype generally and discrimination more broadly.
Do not run from confrontation when someone challenges your ideas and views about life. Do not expect to always agree on these but embrace the opportunity to be questioned on your views -- and to examine them yourself. Those who reject this kind of confrontation only exacerbate misunderstanding and perpetuate the social conditions that give us discrimination and persecution.
Cooperate and collaborate with those who are not like you, do not think like you whenever possible. Do not surround yourself with these people as your friends, however. If they do not believe you or "your kind" have the same rights as everyone else, they are not your friends.
None of this is new. This may not be particularly insightful. It may not protect you from real harm. But none of us is truly protected from real harm. There is risk. That's life. That sucks; it's deflating. Maybe you tell your son to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. Eric Holder just gave a speech about this very idea in having to talk to his son. Some of us care. About people in general. About people specifically. About white America and black America and religious America and atheist America and male America and female America and straight America and gay America..... And some of us care about humans beyond even those tags and beyond our borders. You could tell your son that I care about him and want his experience to be better than what it might have been in the past. And that maybe he can want the same for everyone.