We have an eleven year old son. Like many eleven year olds, he’s at that stage when he’s constantly pushing boundaries, always wanting to be allowed to do more and more. My wife and I spend a lot of time struggling with which privileges are appropriate for him based on his age and maturity: how much video game time is he allowed? How late can he stay up? Can he walk home from school without an adult? We mete these privileges out judiciously, sometimes grudgingly, and of course readily leverage the threat of suspending them when those stubborn eleven year old attitudes rear their ugly heads. It’s a ritual tug of war that shapes our children’s behavior in families across America.
I work in Boston and had a conversation last week with a colleague of mine about the Trayvon Martin case. That was when she told me about “The Talk,” a very different kind of family ritual of which I had been completely ignorant until then. I learned that parents of young black boys around my son’s age give them a set of “rules” to avoid raising suspicions from authorities when they are out in the world. Some rules seemed to make sense (although strange to have to discuss with an eleven year old), like “never reach into your pocket when talking to the police.” Others seemed absurd, especially for an eleven year old, like “never run anywhere” or “never hang around.” Still others seemed maddeningly conflicting, like “never travel in a group,” but “never go anywhere alone.” As we’ve all seen far too many times, failure to follow these rules can lead to anything from questioning by the police to, sometimes, death.
After work that day, my wife and I were discussing this Talk that some parents need to have with their children to keep them safe. My son, who was in the next room doing his homework, overheard us and rushed in, looking agitated.
“Wait!” he said, “There’s a talk you are supposed to have with me to keep me from getting shot?!?!?”
He looked betrayed and bewildered at the idea that we would let him go into a dangerous world and deny him vital information that he needed to be safe. He was also a little indignant, guessing that we might have been withholding this information from him “until he was old enough.”
My immediate reaction was amusement—what he had proposed was ridiculous. My son has got as much chance of being shot in his daily routine because someone finds him threatening as he has of getting hit by lightning. My next feeling was of relief and joy, because I don’t have to have this talk with my son. I can go to work every day, and he can go to school, totally free from these worries.
“No.” I said, “People like us don’t have to give that talk to our sons.”
But as soon as those words left my mouth, I knew this talk was far from over. In fact, it turned out that we were about to have the exact inverse of “The Talk” that parents of color have with their sons. Not about how we need to change our behaviors to be safe, but about why we don’t have to.
“People like us?” he asked, puzzled. What did I mean?
I had to think about it for a minute. What is it, really, that makes some people have to give the talk to their sons and makes us exempt? Is it that we make more money than they do? Or that we live in a suburb and not in the city? That didn’t feel completely true. I’ve heard of middle class, black families taking their sons to their suburban police departments to introduce them around so police officers wouldn’t be suspicious of them in the community. Obviously wealth and location doesn’t shield these families from these fears. There was really only one answer left.
“People who are white.” I told him.
At eleven, my son has learned a little bit about race in America. He’s been through six Martin Luther King Jr. Days and Black History Months in our public schools. To him, racism is the overt racism of the 50’s: a world of separate bathrooms and sitting in the back of the bus. Today, when black people can sit where they want, eat where they want, vote, and even become President, it’s easy to see how he thinks racism is a thing of the past.
But racism hasn’t gone away, I told him, it’s just different today. When white people see a black person they feel threatened in a way that they don’t when they see another white person. When a white person reaches for their wallet to identify themselves to a police officer, they are reaching for their wallet. When a black man reaches for his wallet, he could be reaching for a gun. So black parents teach their sons to keep their hands where everyone can see them. White parents don’t.
My son will never have to learn these tactics to survive. His freedom from this danger is a privilege that he was born with, that he didn’t have to earn, and one that we can never take away. And, it’s a privilege that we must work to extend to other boys like him so they, too, can live without fear.
That was “The Talk” we had with our son.