Thursday, March 22, 2012

"The talk"

"SunMoonDome" Adam Leventhal
 I just heard an interview on NPR this morning with a mother and her two sons. She spoke of how when her sons each became about twelve years old, she sat them down and had "the talk." with them.

It's not what you might first think of. It's not that they will soon be men and need to know about the changes in their bodies. It's not about how they relate to girls, or about safe sex  - although those things are important to talk about with young male children, too.



"The talk," for African-American mothers like writer Donna Britt, is to teach your sons how to avoid being killed by the police in America.

She spoke of how difficult it is to tell your child - your cute, adorable, mischievous, rambunctious little boy - that as they grow taller and stronger and their voices deepen, they will invariably encounter some people who will fear them just for what they look like - and this puts them in danger.

Her two sons, grown now, spoke about their memories of "the talk." The older son spoke of how he felt there were rules he had to adhere to that his other friends -white, Asian, Latino - didn't have. And not only that they didn't have those rules - his friends didn't even seem aware the rules existed. He talked about riding in a friend's car and being stopped by police in Beverly Hills. His friend was sharp with the cop, raised his voice, argued. The man on the radio told how he sat still in the car, watchful, stricken with a growing fear and thinking, "Hey, c'mon, man, remember, you've got your black friend in the car."

If you think this is perhaps overly alarmist, too racially sensitive, perhaps you have a point. But on the other hand, if you are a parent, you would do anything to protect your child from the worst thing than can happen. Donna Britt knows what she's talking about - as she was growing up, her teenaged brother was killed by police in what she called "inexplicable circumstances."

Her second son is named after her brother. She spoke of how "the talk" evolves to fit circumstances. "My son is in track," she said, "and we have a rule - no running in the neighborhood."

American parents fear for their children at all ages, and as they grow more independent, our fears shift. The fear of stranger abduction may be over-blown in America, but nevertheless, we all teach our children how to be safe while in public. Don't talk to strangers. Don't get into strange cars. If someone approaches you aggressively, shout, fight, run to get away.

I am the mother of a son who is now 23 years old. Like most kids, he heard these lessons from me, from teachers, from other parents.

But he did not have to learn when he became a young man, that he might by shot dead if he runs, shouts, fights back.

When my son was in high school, he hung out with a group of kids, and since we lived out in Topanga, many miles from his school, he and his Topanga friends had a lot of weekend sleepovers for their friends from LA. One of these kids was Jamal, a skinny, long-legged rambunctious kid with a great talent for dramatic comedy, crazy acrobatics, and play-acting.  Just like the rest of the kids, he was loud, whooping, running, shoving, tumbling, falling, full of energy.  I have no doubt that Jamal is now grown and somewhere doing something creative.

But I think about Jamal now that Trayvon Martin's death is in our minds. As a black kid hanging out in predominantly white Topanga - was he always watching himself, holding himself apart, careful about how he behaved?

A recent rash of holiday-time burglaries here in Topanga motivated my neighborhood to start a Watch Program. We met with officers from the LA County Sheriff, posted signs, and exchanged phone numbers and email addresses so any strange occurrences in our street could be reported. So far, it's been quiet, but at meetings some folks did express concerns about strange cars parking on the street, or about the guys who pick bottles and cans out of our bins on trash days.

My son has been away at school for several years now, but he came back to spend the holidays with us. Now he is a runner, and each morning he went out to run our streets and mountain trails.  It never occurred to me to worry that he could be in danger of being killed because someone saw him running through the streets - and because he is white, he probably wasn't.

Think for a minute what this means in our country. Some American families have to counsel their young boys against the chance of being shot dead while pursuing their daily lives. And other families don't even have to think about it. How can there be such a divide?

I have a wonderful and talented co-worker who is an African-American mother of two darling sons - one is 18 months old, the other 2 and a half. Let's do all we can so that in ten years time, it won't be necessary for her to sit them down for "the talk."

UPDATE: I see there are some folks who feel the same as I do. Jenn at Juggling Life. Christina at Trees & Flowers & Birds.

8 comments:

Melissa said...

"Think for a minute what this means in our country. Some American families have to counsel their young boys against the chance of being shot dead while pursuing their daily lives. And other families don't even have to think about it. How can there be such a divide"?

This statement sums it up for me. Great blog.

Cheri @ Blog This Mom!® said...

This is so brilliant. And, sadly, so important that you said it. Thank you.

Another Kiwi said...

I watch the US from outside and much of it is depressingly similar. When it is different, it is frighteningly different.
Thanks for the post though, it is important that this gets to be widely known.

Karen (formerly kcinnova) said...

"The talk," for African-American mothers like writer Donna Britt, is to teach your sons how to avoid being killed by the police in America.

As soon as I read this sentence, I knew what the rest would be about. I missed hearing the interview, but I have read essays before and I imagine it would be highly appropriate for my 12yo and 16yo to listen to it with me.

I know that Jenn has written about white privilege before. I know that before my 19yo cut his hair last week, he looked like a homeless streetperson (esp. with his bare feet).

I'm going to link to your blog on facebook, because this post is THAT powerful. Thank you for writing!

Mrs. G. said...

Great post, G. I just watched an interview with Don Cheadle and he discussed "the talk" and the fact that he is still stopped regularly in Beverly Hills, cuffed until one of the cops recognize him and ask him for an autograph.

Jenn @ Juggling Life said...

There is nothing left to say, but I am still shedding tears.

When will things change? It's hard to have hope at a time like this.

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

And of course, all the wingnutzi told us that the election of Obama proved that there was no racism in this country anymore.

They've done nothing but prove the opposite ever since.
~

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

I never had to look over my shoulder, growing up.

As I wrote, the reality hit home when I saw the son of my closest friend in the immediate neighborhood, a sweet, well-mannered boy of 12, and thought, "In a few years, Kyle could have a similar problem." We don't have a neighborhood watch, but we know each other. There are a couple of stay-home moms and retirees who are the unofficial patrollers. I think the real key is to reach out to each other.