Christi Griffin, the president of The Ethics Project, wanted this to be different. She wanted to invite mothers of other races to hear directly from black mothers the reality of raising a black son in America. She wanted them to hear the words they each had said to their own sons, in different variations over the years, but all with the same message: Stay alive. Come home alive.
She wanted mothers who had never felt the fear, every single time their son walked outside or drove a car, that he could possibly be killed to hear what that felt like.
Griffin’s son, now grown, had never gotten in trouble nor given her any trouble growing up. But when her son was 14 years old, the family moved into an all-white neighborhood. She took him to the police department to introduce him to the staff. She wanted the officers to know that he belonged there, that he lived there.
When he turned 16, it was time for another talk. Every single time he got into his car to drive, she made him take his license out of his wallet and his insurance card out of the glove compartment.
“I did not want him reaching for anything in the car.”
He graduated from college with a degree in physics.
Marlowe Thomas-Tulloch said that when she noticed her grandson was getting bigger and taller, she laid bare a truth to him: Son, if the police stop you, I need for you to be humble. But I need more than that. I need for you to be prepared to be humiliated.
If they tell you take your hands out of your pockets, take your hands out. Be ready to turn your pockets out. If they tell you to sit down, be prepared to lie down.
You only walk in the street with one boy at a time, she told him.
“What?” her grandson said. In his 17-year-old mind, he hadn’t done anything wrong and nothing was going to happen to him.
“If it’s three or more, you’re a mob,” she said. “That’s how they will see you.”
She started to cry.
“Listen to me,” she begged. “Hear me.”
Finally, she felt him feel her fear.
If they ask you who you are, name your family.
Yes, sir and no, sir. If they are in your face, even if they are wrong, humble yourself and submit yourself to the moment.
“I’m serious,” she said. “Because I love you.”
She told him she would rather pick him up from the police station than identify his body at a morgue.
When her grandson left to go home, she called her daughter to tell her about the conversation. Her daughter asked her what she had said, because her son came home upset, with tears in his eyes.
“I hope I said enough to save his life,” Thomas-Tulloch said. “I’d rather go down giving him everything I got.”
Parents Talk Back, Black Moms Tell White Moms About the Race Talk
I don’t live in a socio-economically deprived neighborhood. I haven’t been denied a good education by my local government. I don’t generally feel trapped by my circumstances. But I do feel every bit of my six-foot-four-inch, 250-pound body, and every bit of my black skin. And lest you think I am exaggerating in the above scenario, know that it contains elements of the deaths of Michael Brown, Oscar Grant, Kajieme Powell, Eric Garner, and others.
The fact is that being a B.B.M. has consequences. Being a B.B.M. is why I smile quickly. It’s why I don’t usually stand to my full height. I slouch and bend. When acquaintances haven’t seen me for awhile, I often hear, “I forgot how tall you are!” I know you did. It’s because I’m trying to make you forget. This is what being black in America has done to me, to others like me, and in some sense, even to you. It’s not that I think that I will be killed by a police officer. It’s just that if I am, it won’t be a surprise.
W. Kamau Bell, On Being a Black Male, Six Feet Four Inches Tall, in America in 2014
We have to teach our baby the golden rule; to be polite and respectful; to not talk to strangers. To teach him to be loving, kind, and respectful. We want him to learn and know he can be anything he wants to be in this world.
But we also have to tell him that, if a guy follows you after you buy a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea, run back into the store and stay there. We have to tell him not to play his music too loud – but also that, if he does and someone asks him to turn it down, to do it, even if that person is mean, because anything is better than dying over his stereo volume.
But when do these kind of edicts end? Akai Gurley was 28, and he opened a door to a stairwell in a badly-lit housing project this weekend, and received a bullet for his trouble. He leaves behind a two-year-old, who no longer has a father. What is the lesson here for my son? Don’t open doors? Don’t live in a housing project? Don’t be poor? Don’t be in the wrong place at the wrong time?
So do we now start the conversation – The Talk – earlier? At 10 years old maybe, or eight? Should I tell my son – should I have to tell my son – that, even if the police are wrong, that even if they treat him as less than human, that even if they are doing something unfair, that he should not speak up in order to preserve his own life?
Do I teach my son to never walk in the shadow of a single building, to never wear a hooded sweatshirt, to never cosplay as his favorite anime character, to never accidentally startle someone? How do I teach him to tiptoe in the world and still be confident in himself? How do I tell him these things and yet also teach him that the world is amazing and he can grow into anyone he wants to be?
Personality and proclivities aside, I cannot change that my son is going to grow into a tall, young black man, and be subject to other people’s perceptions of him as threat – my baby boy, who today is clapping and singing little vowel sounds from his crib.
I realize, as I outline the growing lists of “don’ts” that I will hand my son at different points in his development, that if I tell him these things, I am raising him to be fearful. More than that, I am stifling his development as a person: how can he have a full childhood and grow into a capable adult, unless he has the space to make mistakes?
I shouldn’t have to train my boy to live his life to deflect the danger of other people’s warped perceptions of him. I shouldn’t haveto teach him police avoidance techniques and ask him not to act out as we did as teenagers and to willingly swallow other people’s disrespect – all to keep him breathing in a world that feels so sickeningly unfair.
In reading posts and articles and reading Sunday news stories I am seeing an overwhelming amount of stories about african american people having “the talk” with their sons and daughters. “The Talk,” as stated above, is a discussion about surviving police interaction.
I really don’t remember having “the talk.” I remember leaving a grocery store and my mom barking about always having a receipt and a bag for the items that you bought, that way nobody could say that you stole them. A far cry from “the talk,” but if you can avoid having interaction with the police then I guess your chances are better.
Even though I don’t remember having the talk i feel like i always knew the things that were in it: if you stop, keep your hands on the wheel. Don’t make sudden movements. Say “yes sir/ma’am, no sir/ma’am.” Keep your hands where the officer can see them. If you’re going to go to jail, don’t resist because that makes it worse. I followed these rules the first time I got stopped when I was 23, every time I got stopped when I was working with DA’s offices and even recently when I got stopped.
You might look at those rules and say “Jeremy, that’s just respectful. You should do that because it’s the right thing to do. Good job, Jeremy.” Sure. Thanks. But I’m not doing it for those reasons. But ‘preciate ‘ya, I really do.
I’ve told this story before, but one time I drove into the back of a truck on the road in the country while going to court. I had my suit on and suspenders on and everything. I got out of my car and started walking to the other guy because that is what you do for those sort of things, exchange insurance and whatever. The guy in the truck got out and told me to get on the ground. I didn’t know why he said that and I kept walking towards him. He reached in his back pocket or whatever and pulled out a badge indicating that he was from the local police department and instructing me to get on the ground. I did so immediately. I had about 5 inches and 20 pounds on him. Later on I thought about what could have been in his back pocket. Maybe nothing. Maybe something. I’ll never know.
I’ve said this a thousand times: I respect police officers. I respect the hard work that they do. I am glad they make my area safe. I want police officers to go home to their families or whoever else at the end of their shift. But I also want to go home too. If I had kids I would want them to come home too.
These talks happen. They happen in single parent households and 2 parent households. Maybe you’ve never seen one happen, but they happen. Maybe you’ve heard someone else talking about it, maybe you didn’t. Maybe the recipient listens to the information and governs themselves accordingly, maybe they don’t. But these conversations happen.
What should you do about this? I don’t know. But understand just as there is training on the part of police, there is “the talk” in our communities.