A friend had just clued my husband and me into the story about the ill-fated gorilla, Harambe, and the woman whose son fell into his enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo. Being an over busy, over-committed, stretched-beyond-the-max parent, I'd been on hiatus from all things news media. I hadn't so much as turned my face toward the week's worth of newspapers stacking up on my dining room table amid election mailers, voter guides, bills and the endless school detritus announcing projects and jog-a-thons and field trips and summer camps. Clearing that mess was somewhere at the bottom of my To-Do list just below the many tasks related the 5th grade promotion celebration and lazing on the couch for an episode of Game of Thrones.
Yet, like so many others, I had an opinion—a compassionless, imperious, judge-y opinion—about a mom inattentive enough to let her three-year-old nosedive into a moat at a gorilla exhibit.
Poor Harambe, I said. What an idiot that mother is, I said.
Not my finest moment, but my trusty-rusty inner voice fixed all that. She shook me by my shoulders and backhanded me across my cheek. Oh, like you're so perfect, Aaryn! Remember the time when Ruby went missing while boogie boarding at the beach? That was somethin' else, huh?
Oomph. Do I ever remember that.
Like the Cincinnati mother who looked away for a moment to attend to another child and then tried to follow her baby into the zoo exhibit, I'd looked away long enough to rescue some sand-dusted peanut butter and grape jelly sandwiches from a group of bully seagulls. In the next moment I was running into the ocean to rescue my daughter, the hem of my green strapless sundress trailing behind me in the water. The boy Ruby had been with (they were supposed to stick together) was standing with the seven other moms keeping watch at the shoreline. None of them knew where she was.
All the vigilance, and Ruby was gone—as in take all the gone and make it go away. That's how gone she was.
It wasn't until I was running toward the lifeguard station, my dress clinging to my legs, my stomach in my throat, that I saw her walking up the beach from 50 feet away, dragging her board behind her.
Yeah: I knew way better than to castigate this then-anonymous Cincinnati mother.
"You know," I said to my friend after our hilarious but albeit low-hanging-fruit jokes had subsided, "If the mother were black, CPS would be at her door."
I was not far off track. (And yes, this story cannot be separated from race, so spare me the angry-white-people letters about how I make everything into a race issue.) Once it was revealed that the child and his parents are black, the fury took on a whole new force.
Worse than Child Protective Services being called is the cyber-lynch mob that has no inner voice to throw a glass of cold water in its face. It took t-minus 14 seconds to gather tens-of-thousands of signatures calling for the child's mother to be investigated (and she is being investigated). Her name was published, her family photos—depicting a very normal-looking, loving family—shared widely for public consumption and evisceration by trolls and media alike.
This woman's employers were barraged with hateful comments on their Facebook page and in calls to their office. Her husband's so-called criminal past has been spelunked and analyzed, examined and critiqued more than Donald Trump's, as if it were in any way relevant to the kind of parent he is. And let's remember: This gainfully employed, and by all appearances loving father, wasn't even at the zoo that day. I repeat: He wasn't even at the zoo that day.
America is nothing if not proficient at lynching innocent black men.
As Shaun King reported for the New York Daily News, numerous otherwise-good parents in Kansas, Little Rock, Brookfield, Pittsburgh and San Francisco have had similar zoo experiences over the years without so much as having their names uttered by vigilante, do-gooder citizens. These parents were never outed by a pontificating and moralizing media.
Nobody in these families had their personal photos made into public commodity. Their employers weren't pressured to fire them. None of them suffered public background checks and excoriation. In fact, at least one got a settlement from the zoo for wrongful death. This is the shield of white supremacy.
The fact is that no parent, regardless of race, can keep an eye on their children 100 percent of the time. Parents make mistakes, sometimes with the most horrific and unimaginable of outcomes. I think immediately of parents who, in the lowest of moments, have forgotten a child in the car while they went off to work. We've all read these stories; entire radio programs have been dedicated to covering them. There is even a medical name for it, Forgotten Baby Syndrome (FBS), an affliction suffered by white people. Black people suffer instead from Unfit To Parent (UTP), which offers little to none of the protections inherent in an FBS diagnosis.
Most of us, of course, cannot fathom leaving a baby buckled into a car seat all day; or losing sight of your kid in the water; or your spirited three-year-old future base jumper bee-lining for the gorilla. But we should try harder to fathom it, and then distribute the compassion equitably.