Last week, Johnny Cole wrote this powerful open letter to a neighbor who complained about the "Black Lives Matter" sign he put up in his front yard.
"I wish I could talk to you face-to-face," he wrote on his blog. "I wish I could tell you why this sign means so much to my family. I wish I could tell you the ways our children, currently in second and third grade, have been the victims of both implicit and explicit racism in our town." The letter instantly went viral and has been picked up and featured on Fox Boston, WHDH, in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and in other local news outlets.
Cole, 38, is a high school vice principal living in Concord, M.A., with his husband Todd, 45, and their two adopted kids. Their daughter Cassie is eight years old and African American, and their son Amir is 7 years old and Latino. Johnny is Asian American and his husband is white. I spoke to him about the sign that he won't be taking down from his front yard, the letter he wrote to explain what it means to his family, and what it's like to raise his kids in the #blacklivesmatter era.
Did you ever hear from the neighbor who complained anonymously about your "Black Lives Matter" sign?
That particular neighbor is still unknown to me, don’t know who it is. A lot of neighbors have responded in really great ways. Everyone that I’ve heard from directly has been really supportive and has said I want a sign on my yard so we’re going to order about two dozen more signs this weekend and get a bunch more signs in the neighborhood. Which is so great.
Did you hear anything from the wider community?
Actually even the Chief of Police in Concord contacted me. I was a little nervous calling him back but when he spoke with me he totally calmed me down, because he said he wanted to make sure that I knew that he will protect us and our family with dignity and equity just like everybody else in Concord and he said he wants to make sure we are comfortable telling him if we feel like we are being harrassed because of our sign or because of my letter, or because our property is being harrassed in any way, or if my kids don’t feel safe, and that they would take it with complete seriousness.
Did you talk about Black Lives Matter with the Chief of Police?
We actually then had a really nice conversation about why we put the sign up. Certainly part of the Black Lives Matter movement, a large part of it, is bringing awareness to some of the issues with police and police shootings and killings of black men in particular, and it’s about a lot more than that. It’s about that homicide rate being so high for black men in comparison to white men, and then I realize that a lot of those deaths are not committed by police officers. But it's bringing awareness that this is a public health crisis. We need to do something about this. Those lives matter.
My husband and I are both educators. It’s about the achievment gap in this country. My kids will likely do poorer in school simply because of the color of their skin. And why aren’t we doing more to work with teachers to close that achievement gap and work with our school systems? There’s so much more wrapped up into that and I want my kids to know their lives matter, and I want to send the message to all of my neighbors, most of whom are white, that we all have to do our part.
In the letter you wrote to your neighbor you referred to discrimination your family faces in a mostly white neighborhood. What are some of those challenges?
There’s so many different facets of that. On the gender side and having two dads and two married dads, we get a lot of questions about people assuming that one of us is not the dad, I've been asked if I was the manny. You know, 'Where’s their mother?' At this point we’ve been here for seven years. People who live here know us, but … school officials that don't know us will ask us stuff.
On the adoption front people are constantly asking us if they’re siblings, or if they’re related and we say yep they are related! What they’re trying to get at is, are they biologically related. And I don't really think it matters, you know.
And then in terms of the racial stuff, just ignorance has been an issue for us. Cassie in kindergarten had a lot of issues with kids who didn't understand her hair, and made her feel pretty horrible about her hair to the point where she was crying before bed every night, saying she didn’t want to go back to school because she didn't have straight hair like all the other girls.
That must have been hard to watch, did the school do anything to help with that?
Thankfully the teacher was amazing. She worked it into the curriculum. She worked it out so that by the end of the week they were actually studying African American hair and texture and why its like that and celebrating it. All the kids were saying I wish I had hair like Cassie. So for the most part with the things that we run into like that, particularly the educators that they’ve dealt with at the elementary level, have been so great about re-affirming who they are, providing them an opportunity to celebrate who they are.
Why do you think that kind of affirmation is important for your kids?
Because the reality is that the white kids in this town, who come from heterosexual parents, who are not adopted, they don’t need that identity affirmed in the same way that my kids do because their identity is affirmed everywhere they look. There are so many families in town that look like them, most of the books they read, the movies they see, the TV shows they watch reflects their family. And so it’s been really great for friends, and neighbors and educators in particular to realize the power it has to incorporate families like ours into their conversations or in the curriculum, and particularly for the white kids in town to learn that not every family is like this and it doesn’t mean that it’s better or worse. It’s just different.
When you put the [Black Lives Matter] sign up how did the kids react?
When we put them up we had a conversation with the kids about why we were putting it up and what it meant, and our son who’s Latino said, “Well why don’t we have a Latino Lives Matter” sign?” I did say that’s a really good question, for right now we’re really focused on the alarming number of people that are dying just because they’re black. That increases their likelihood to actually die, and that’s not okay. We want to protect these people and help them live. And so you know they were kind of excited.
Our daughter, in terms of her racial identity, we’ve tried to help her celebrate that aspect of who she is. My mom was born in Indonesia and I grew up with her and my white step father and I denied a lot of my racial identity for a long time, and I was sort of ashamed of it. I didn’t want to hang out with other Asian kids and then as I got to my adult years I sort of realized that this is sort of of a ridiculous thing and that’s not something I want for my daughter. She’s going to get enough of that out in the world, she doesn’t need to get it in the home, too.
Looking at your original blog post, there are some comments that bring up All Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter and argue against the messages of Black Lives Matter as well. How would you respond to those?
We bring awareness to things that need to have the focus on them right now. Yes blue lives, police lives matter, and they’re not dying at alarming rates. So its not something we need to create a slogan for. Same with All Lives Matter. Everyone is not dying at alarming rates. Not everyone is a part of this achievement gap. And so you know that’s something that’s an important piece of this message that I wanted to get out there.
How do you approach talking about these high profile incidents where black people have died over the past year?
We haven't gotten into too many of the specifics of the high profile things. We let them know that like we talk about the social unrest, we say, well, you know, there was this police man and he shot this person and he killed him and it made a lot of people really upset because a lot of people don’t think that should have happened. And I think that most people would agree that no-one should have to die - and that no matter what the circumstances, it’s tragic when that happens.
And what about those incidents where people haven't actually died, but have suffered from some form of abuse?
The harder part I think is when we’re looking at the incident in McKinney in Texas, and the incident with the girl and the desk [in Spring Valley, S.C.], it’s harder to find ways to talk about that in a safe way for their age group. So we haven’t broached some of those as easily. I think someone dying, they’re at an age where they understand death. They’ve gone through the death of my grandfather and Cassie’s biological grandma has died … It’s an easier conversation to have at an age-appropriate level.
You know it’s harder to talk about, this police officer went into the girl’s classroom and slammed her to the ground. That’s really hard. So we’ve struggled having those conversations. We likely will probably wait a while before we have those.
But do you feel a sense of urgency to warn your kids about how to behave if they're approached by police one day?
We do worry, we want to have those conversations with them early enough so that when they are actually in those positions that they’re prepared. Our son loves to wear hoodies and sweatpants, he loves it, and right now he’s so cute in everyone’s eyes because he’s seven, and then three or four years from now, I think there’s going to be people who are afraid of him. You know we’re having those conversations with him now, about what do you do when a police officer comes to you. We don't let them play with toy guns. We have talked about how there have been accidents with the police thinking that the toys were real, and thats why its important you dont play with them.
But as they get older we will be teaching them things like don't put your hands in your pockets when a police officer approaches you, keep them up where they can see them. It’s those tactics that every parent of a black child has to teach their kids.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.