Most parents are challenged by having to have “the talk” with their teenagers. For many parents of Black children, however, “the talk” is not about the wonders, dangers, and responsibilities of sexuality. It’s about staying alive when interacting with police.
Thirty years ago, Peggy McIntosh taught me how I avoided having to have such conversations with my white children. I didn’t have to review a checklist for their survival: 1) turn off the engine; 2) roll down your window; 3) look the officer in the eye and look friendly; 4) keep your hands on the steering wheel in full view; and, 5) explain where you keep your license and registration and ask if you can retrieve them.
Black adults know the drill. Jim Vance, an iconic Black DC news anchor recalled his arrival in DC. He pulled over to ask a police officer directions. The officer’s nervous glance and hand sliding down to a holster reminded Vance of the checklist. In Tears We Cannot Stop, professor Michael Eric Dyson describes the fear and humiliation of being pulled over for “driving while black.” With his ten-year-old son Mike in the back seat, Dyson had to demonstrate how to survive and retain his dignity. This is trauma I’ve never felt.
The short documentary, “A Conversation with My Black Son,” explores the pervasive presumption that young Black men are both guilty and dangerous. The Equal Justice Institute, which shares the film, points out the “long historical narrative that constructed this presumption to justify white supremacy.”
After Freddie Gray was killed in police custody, Dr. Yohuru Williams recalled the 1942 Baltimore killing of serviceman Thomas Broadus by officer Edward Bender. Other examples differ in names and details, but the tragic results were similar for Tamir Rice, Tyre King, Cameron Tillman, Jordan Edwards, Antwon Rose, and more. Activist Terrance Heath, who described when his father gave him “the talk,” wrote of “Jim Crow Etiquette” – a code of behavior learned by slaves which remains active today: stay alive by never challenging or implying that white authority is in any way “in the wrong.”
As today’s protests and looting threaten to supplant the more fundamental lived experience of systemic racism, psychologists stress how important it is that parents are honest with their children and that children feel safe. Black parents are forced into this difficult conversation when those who are supposed to “keep the peace” are often a deadly threat.
Consider these actions. Do they seem reasonable and/or effective examples of anti-racism activism?
Action #1: Check your own reactions regarding Black children, whether you meet them in person or see them on the news. Share with others a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology about the racial disparities in attitudes toward children. It indicates that many whites see Black children ages 10 and older as “significantly less innocent” than their white counterparts. Phillip Goff, a UCLA researcher and author of the study explained that, “Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection…. Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent.”
Action #2: As the campaign heats up, remind each other of how the fear of Black men has been used in campaigns in the past. The infamous manipulation of Willie Horton back in 1988 helped George Bush defeat Michael Dukakis. Watch the “Willie Horton” campaign ad and ask yourself if a white man would have been used in it. (Also see Action #1 from June 2020 blog.)
Action #3: Support the reform measures proposed by the National Juvenile Justice Network on their website, including funding alternatives to incarceration, funding for social services and mental health counseling for at-risk children, and more. See the NJJN proposals HERE.