My son and I had “the talk” on Saturday.
Not that talk. I only wish we could have been talking about sex. Talking about sex is so easy. A lot easier than talking to your black son about race in America.
I’ve been trying to find a way to have the talk with him for at least two years, but it turns out that it’s really, really hard to sit down and tell your black son that some people in America, including police officers, will perceive him as dangerous all because of his skin color. It’s hard to teach your child about wearing a hoodie while black. It’s hard to teach your child about driving while black, walking across the street while black, sitting in a park while black, standing on a street corner while black.
My son doesn’t yet know what his black body in public spaces signifies. He doesn’t know that others will perceive him as a threat. He doesn’t know that he is the one who is actually in danger.
He has been protected by spending the first nine years of his life in Ethiopia. He has been protected by living in a very small community where everyone knows him. He has been protected by living in a community where Native Americans, not African-Americans, are the target of racism. He has been protected by the white privilege of his parents.
I want to continue protecting him. And that’s so hard when protecting him, when keeping him as safe as I possibly can, means making him feel unprotected, unsafe.
The need to have this conversation has been weighing on my mind. I’ve been waiting for an opportunity, an opening. A start. And on Saturday, there it was. We were talking about what might happen if the police pulled me over when I was driving across town without my driver’s license. And he said something offhand about how it didn’t really matter because it’s not like the police would pull a gun on me or something.
“Well, actually…” I began.
I kept it short and as simple as I could, but he still interrupted me several times.
“I don’t understand.”
“You can’t mean that.”
And finally, “I don’t want to know about this.”
I don’t want him to know about it either.
He keeps voicing the rational response, what our logical minds would tell us, but logic doesn’t play a part in this.
The police are here to protect us. The police would never pull you over unless they had a reason to. The police would never hurt you. The police would never shoot you unless you had a gun and tried to shoot them first. This kind of thing only happens to “gangsters.” This kind of thing only happens to criminals.
We talk just a little bit about Michael Brown.
“What about his parents?” my son asks. “They must have been so sad.”
We talk just a little bit about Tamir Rice.
“I think I feel sick,” my son says.
I think about twelve-year-old Tamir Rice and look at my own twelve-year-old son, and I feel sick too.
We sit in silence for a few minutes as he tries to digest what I’ve told him.
“If I marry a white lady, maybe my kids will be so light that I don’t have to have this talk with them,” he says.
“I hope you don’t have to have this talk with your kids,” I tell him. “I really hope you don’t.”
And I wish I knew how to change this world so it could be different, better, right, so that my son doesn’t have to have this talk with his children no matter what shade of brown they are.
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