As a Black mother in America, I live with the knowledge that my children’s lives could be shattered at any moment by the insidious force of systemic racism. It’s like navigating a minefield, trying to guide them toward their dreams while knowing that one misstep could be devastating. And the misstep may not be their own. 

As head of operations at First Focus on Children, I’m lucky enough to be part of an organization working to change that unfortunate landscape. My colleagues and I strive each day to create the kind of world I want for my children and for all children.  

I want my children to grow up believing in their limitless potential; to dream big and strive for excellence but I can’t shield them from the harsh realities of being Black in this country. We have to have “the talk,” not just about the birds and the bees, but about how to survive an encounter with the police. I have to teach them that the rules are different for them, that they can’t afford to make the same mistakes as their white peers. 

To ensure their safety, we have had to establish a set of rules: Be respectful, don’t raise your voice, and always assume the person in charge is right, even when they’re not, especially when they’re not. It’s a matter of life and death. Any deviation from these rules could lead to tragic consequences, even if they’re doing something as innocent as holding a bag of Skittles and an iced tea, like Trayvon Martin. The heartbreaking truth is that in America, you can be killed for being Black if someone feels threatened, regardless of how irrational their fear may be. 

Systemic racism is woven into the very fabric of our society. It’s in the names of our high schools and highways, like Virginia’s Jefferson Davis Highway, named after the president of the Confederacy who fought to maintain slavery, or J.E.B Stuart High School, named for a Confederate general. Some local jurisdictions recently changed these names, but putting new labels on these places — “Emancipation Highway” and “Justice High School” — doesn’t hide the past or the truth. 

Systemic racism is in the history of our education system, where Black inventors like Granville Woods, known as the “Black Edison,” faced constant discrimination and had his work stolen by the likes of Thomas Edison. Imagine the brilliance and determination it took for Woods to obtain over 60 patents as a Black man in a time of such blatant racism. Yet, his legacy is largely unknown, erased by the same systemic forces that continue to deny Black excellence and innovation. 

Where is the justice for Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman whose cells were taken without her consent and used for medical research that has generated billions of dollars in profit? Her story is just one example of how Black bodies have been exploited and dehumanized throughout history. 

The erasure of Black communities and achievements is a recurring theme. The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, where a thriving Black neighborhood known as “Black Wall Street” was destroyed by a white mob, is a stark reminder of how easily Black success can be wiped out. Seneca Village, a predominantly Black community in New York City, was demolished to make way for Central Park in the 1850s. Oscarville, a Black town in Florida, was burned to the ground by a white mob in 1923. The Tuskegee Institute, a historically Black university in Alabama, was the site of the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study, where Black men were intentionally denied treatment for syphilis so that researchers could study the progression of the disease. There are countless examples of how Black communities have been destroyed and Black bodies have been exploited by white society.  These are the stories that were told despite attempts to keep them hidden. Imagine the untold stories. 

And yet, we are expected to be grateful for the scraps we are given, to be satisfied with a house and a car while our white counterparts enjoy generational wealth and political power. We are told to be patient, to wait our turn, as if we haven’t been waiting for centuries already. 

The hypocrisy is staggering. The same people who once denied our humanity and exploited our labor now enforce laws that disproportionately target and criminalize Black bodies. The very foundation of this nation was built on the theft of Indigenous land and the enslavement of African people, yet the descendants of those European colonizers now hold the power to impact our lives and limit our opportunities. The same people who claim to be patriots, who wave the American flag with pride, are the ones who venerate the Confederacy and its legacy of hate. They put up statues of traitors in the halls of Congress and expect us to honor them. The mental health impact of this constant onslaught of racism and discrimination cannot be overstated. 

Even our political leaders, who like to hold themselves up as paragons of virtue, reveal their true colors when they think no one is listening. The uncovered recording of Ronald Reagan, disparaging African delegates to the United Nations as “monkeys” who were “still uncomfortable wearing shoes” is a stark reminder of the deeply entrenched racism that permeates the highest levels of our government.  

Mitch McConnell cared more about unseating President Obama than he did about securing affordable health care for his own constituents. Strom Thurmond, the longtime senator from South Carolina, was a staunch segregationist who mentored current senator Lindsay Graham. The gifts just keep giving. 

What is the epigenetic impact of a true Confederate? Not the ones who claim they fly the Confederate flag to honor their family history, but the ones who believe in their hearts that Black people have no right to run this country, the ones who think we should be happy to have a house and a car. If we inherit generational trauma, do they inherit a legacy of racism and oppression? 

The trauma of racism is not just personal; it’s collective and intergenerational, passed down through centuries of oppression. The Black community has shouldered this burden largely alone, without adequate resources to heal and thrive. It manifests in health disparities, the school-to-prison pipeline robbing our children’s futures, and the constant fear that mothers like me carry. 

It is time for America to confront the wounds of systemic racism head-on. Healing from this trauma will require a reckoning on a national scale. It will require an honest accounting of our history and a commitment to dismantling the structures of oppression that continue to hold us back. We must acknowledge the brutal history of slavery and oppression that shaped our nation and commit to a process of truth, reconciliation, and restorative justice. We must invest in culturally competent mental health care and resources that prioritize the needs of the Black community and address the root causes of racial inequity and discrimination.  We need spaces where we can come together to process our pain and celebrate our resilience as a community. 

Each of us — every American, regardless of race — has a responsibility to educate ourselves about the long and pervasive history of systemic racism and the ways it continues to create inequities and injustices today. With that knowledge, we must use our voices to call out racism whenever and wherever we see it. But we can’t stop there. We must also actively work to dismantle racist systems and support initiatives that promote true equity, inclusion, and justice for all. Achieving a society free from racism will take a concerted effort from each and every one of us. We all have important work to do. 

As a mother, I know that this fight is not just for my own children, but for all children and for all the generations to come. By telling our stories and demanding change, we can begin to heal and build a more just and equitable future for all. I believe in the power of our voices and our collective strength. Together, we can navigate this minefield and build a better future for all of us. 

Our lives, and the lives of our children, depend on it.