Dear Security Guard, Sorry My Son Is Black

A mother drives her son to a friend's house, as she has done dozens of times before. Only this time ...

Sharon Van Epps is a writer living in Seattle. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times and other publications.

Dear Sir,

Yesterday, you detained me at the gate leading to the scalloped lawns and multimillion-dollar homes that you guard. I want you to know that although I expressed irritation in the moment, I understand you were only doing your job. My 8-year-old Volvo with the scrape on the side and dirty hubcaps clearly didn’t belong in a neighborhood with heated swimming pools, gourmet kitchens and tiled patios overlooking the eighth fairway.

I acknowledge that I didn’t look particularly put together, certainly not the way a woman who lives in a mansion should look.

But maybe your caution wasn’t merely about my car. Maybe it was about me: my hair undone, my face unmade, my clothes unpressed. I’d had a hectic day. I’d put in hours at my desk before starting my second shift, driving my kids all over town after school. I acknowledge that I didn’t look particularly put together, certainly not the way a woman who lives in a mansion should look. I probably didn’t look good enough to be friends with someone who lives in a house with seven fireplaces and 5.5 baths.

When you demanded my last name, I hesitated, and I can appreciate how that may have aroused your suspicions, but I just needed to process the request. You see, I’ve visited your lovely community at least a hundred times before, and no guard has ever asked for my name — not even you, sir, whom I’ve encountered on dozens of previous occasions. Now and then you ask the name of the resident I’m there to visit, which seems fair, but yesterday, for the first time, you recorded my name, or rather my husband’s name, on your clipboard.

OK, I confess. Confusion wasn’t the only reason I stalled. Forgive me, but you’re a senior gentleman, and with the noise from the road, I feared you wouldn’t be able to decipher my last name. Trust me, nobody gets “Van Epps” the first time. They hear “Bennett” or “Van Ness,” and spelling out V as in Victor, A as in Apple, N as in Nancy, then a space, then capital E as in Easter, P as in Peter, another P as in Peter, S as in Sam is exhausting. We would’ve been there for hours. So that’s why, as I sat there deliberating, my 13-year-old son offered the more user-friendly last name he shares with my husband, which is the name the residents of your lovely community would recognize.

As you can tell from his quick thinking, my son is a smart boy. You’ve seen him before — he’s usually the only Black male riding in the car with me, his white mother. More often than not, I arrive at your gate with a car full of boys, all white except for my son, and I’m granted instant entry to your lovely community, despite the toxic cloud of Axe body spray pouring from the vehicle (Axe is very popular at my son’s middle school).

Yesterday we were an anomalous grouping: just me, my son and another young Black male in the backseat, a boy who looks more like a high school freshman than a seventh-grader. So while it may have looked like I was a criminal mastermind rolling in with my crew to case the mansions of your lovely community, I want to reassure you that I was there to drop my son and his friend off for soccer car pool as I’ve done so many times before. I realize that you couldn’t see the boys’ soccer uniforms, and it was unfortunate they were wearing the black training kits. From where you stood, the team logo and player numbers were obscured. All you could see was black. Plus, the car was dirty.

I also want to apologize for getting a little testy when you stepped in front of the vehicle to record my license plate number. I shouldn’t have challenged you, given the strong possibility that you keep a firearm in the guardhouse. Of course you can’t remember the hundreds of cars you see every day! How could you? At the same time, I hope you can understand why I reacted when you claimed to log the license numbers of all entering vehicles. As Judge Judy says, don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining, sir! Admit it — we looked like a carful of gangbangers. That awful rap music my son was playing didn’t help. Better safe than sorry.

In closing, I want to assure you that I’ll try to be more cooperative next time. After all, you were only doing your job. However, you should know: The Black security guard who works a different shift, the one who looks kind of Ethiopian, like my son? He always waves us through with a smile. You might want to report him to management.


A Smart Boy’s Mom

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