POV: What If White Parents Gave Their Kids “The Talk” That Black Parents Give
The killing of George Floyd and trial of police officer of Derek Chauvin is another moment for white children to learn about the disparities in society
My mom and dad schooled me in life lessons that still echo through the canyons of my mind. Figuring prominently among those lessons is “The Talk.” Every Black child’s parent knows it from when their parent wrapped them in the coarse blanket of love and sat them down for “The Talk.” That’s when they were told what to do—and what not to do—when the police pull up.
Black parents know their child’s life could depend on it. It could be the only thing that saves them in that flash of a moment. I know my life could still depend on it. I was reminded of this at the tender age of 17. I was pulled over and asked to produce my license and registration. I reached to get the latter from the glove box, and noticed the officer step back and unsnap his gun holster. I froze. I remembered “The Talk.” I survived.
These days, even white folks are learning about “The Talk.” But what they might not know is that once a Black child learns this truth, that knowledge marks the premature end of their childhood. As adults, we know life is unfair. But when we have to explain to our children that those sworn to serve and protect can’t be relied on to serve and protect them—can’t be relied on to be fair—that’s where the promise of America betrays Black families.
I remember my parents schooling me on all that my white friends could do with no real consequence, and how the same things could get me killed. Once I processed this, I understood the reality that the world has different rules for Black people, that the people who wear police uniforms get to play by different rules. I understood that the American ideal is only ever ideal for white people.
For me, “The Talk” was not a singular event, but a series of lectures that began when I was about 10. The content of those talks surely impacted me, but never more than when I saw the hint of a tear or fear in my dad’s eye. To me, his fear signified that beyond this point he could not protect me.
That was when I recall becoming aware that the world was not as safe for me as it was for my white friends. Taking safety for granted was beginning to slip between my fingers.
Actuaries know those born white live five to six years longer than those born Black. Recent research tracks the cause of this stubborn disparity to the physiological harm done to Black bodies by racism. It’s not just my diet and my life choices. It’s the actual stress and strain of wearing a target on my Black back. When you’re born Black, your childhood ends as soon as you learn that, every day, white folks are still stealing Black lives, they’re just doing it five to six years at a time.
Recently I wondered, what would happen if every white child’s parent sat him or her down for “The Talk”? It could be the same talk Black children get, with one difference: they’d be told that if they slip up and forget, if they ask the officer a question or even if they lose their temper and mouth off a bit, there may (or may not) be a consequence. But, because of their whiteness, the consequence would almost never be death. The parent would explain how white privilege wraps their white child in a soft blanket of love, protects them from the harsh condemnation of prejudice, and preserves their childhood well into their teens and early 20s.
I’ve read research that shows that 63 percent of white adults believe Blacks are treated less favorably than whites by the criminal justice system, and that 84 percent of Black adults believe Blacks are treated less favorably. Do white folks ever wonder why a full 21 percent more Black folks believe this? So many white people claim to be offended by Colin Kaepernick taking a knee to protest police brutality. Do they want to watch Black athletes play ball without having to think about their humanity, without having to think about them driving home from the stadium—driving while Black in an expensive car, which constitutes a “suspicious situation” and could easily become dangerous? I wonder if they don’t want to think about what would happen when an officer would be well within his “qualified immunity” rights to feel threatened by a large Black man, maybe larger than George Floyd, who might have a weapon or who might forget the things his parents told him long ago, when they sat him down for “The Talk.”
As nations go, America is a child. Someone needs to be the parent and sit America down for “The Talk.” The difference between Black and white in America is as stark as the difference between “thuggish behavior” and “youthful indiscretion,” as stark as the difference between “known gang member” and “young person with a bright future,” as stark as the difference between Tamir Rice and Dylann Roof.
Tamir was a 12-year-old Black child playing in a park. Those sworn to serve and protect Tamir drove up and instantly shot him dead. Dylann was a 21-year-old white man. He entered a church and shot a group of pious Black Bible-worshipers, killing nine of them. Those sworn to serve and protect Dylann apprehended him the next day. Police took him alive. He was hungry, so the officers bought him a Burger King meal.
America is a young person with a bright future. America is a thug. America is no stranger to youthful indiscretion. America is a known gang member. No one has ever sat America down for “The Talk.” Isn’t it time someone did?
This column originally appeared on April 12 on “Cognoscenti,” the opinion page of WBUR-FM 90.9, the University’s National Public Radio station.