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I am a white American, born in Manhattan. My wife is a black Ghanaian, who moved to the States when she was a youngster. And so our son, Zephyr, is an interracial child with tawny maple syrup skin.
As I have watched him develop and learn to navigate this world over the last 3 years, I have done my best to understand and empathize with everything he is going through. When he gets frustrated with me for exercising my authority — “No, you aren’t going to watch another episode of Wild Kratts, you’re going to bed” — I remember when my parents were similarly insistent with me. When he’s feeling hurt because a child at the playground rejects his advances to play with them, I recall moments of social alienation in my life. And when he is sad because his visiting grandmother has gone home, I know exactly how he feels, because I wish she had stayed longer, too.
Because we’ve both shared those experiences, I feel comfortable telling him how to overcome the problems at their core and move on. However, there’s one larger, ever-looming element of his life that I won’t ever be able to truly understand: his interracialism. His skin color will undoubtedly affect his life in ways that are sometimes obvious and sometimes veiled. I will do my best to understand those moments, empathize with him and help him work through them, but I will be working from a place of pure love rather than the understanding that comes from living through something similar. As a parent — and a human being, for that matter — it’s frightening and depressing to consider the race-related issues he will face and have to surmount.
These feelings are compounded by the fact that over the course of my son’s brief lifetime, a string of young black men’s names have become headlines for all the wrong reasons on an all-too-regular basis. Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray — the list goes on and on.
These stories and the many like them have some alarming similarities. It is not unusual in America to be killed by a police officer if you’re young, black and unarmed. Though statistics on this issue are surprisingly scarce, the Washington Post determined that in 2015 alone, police killed nearly 1,000 civilians. And though black men only make up 6 percent of the population, they represent 40 percent of those killed.
As I have tried to come to terms with this grim, gruesome reality and the negative consequences it may have for Zephyr, I’ve realized I’m going to have to give him “the talk.” No, not the one about the birds and the bees. I’m talking about the one that black parents have been giving their children for decades. It’s a stern, ongoing conversation about how to interact with the police in order to keep them out of jail – and alive.
It was always assumed that if I ever came into the contact with the police, both parties would act respectfully and appropriately.
I didn’t even know black parents gave their children ‘the talk’ until I was at a barbecue a few years ago. In reaction to yet another police shooting of an unarmed black man, several of the black fathers in attendance were remembering when their dads first gave them ‘the talk’ before they had even reached middle school.
Definitely don’t run. No sudden movements. Keep your hands where they can be seen. Be polite. Don’t talk back. No matter what, don’t lose your cool. There will be another time to hold the police accountable if they overstep their authority, though you shouldn’t expect them to ever actually be held accountable in any meaningful way.
I was shocked and saddened that anyone needed to hear this warning. This is not a lecture I ever received from my father. There was never a need. It was always assumed that if I ever came into the contact with the police, both parties would act respectfully and appropriately. My parents weren’t worried about discrimination. They were more concerned with whatever I was doing to be questioned by the police in the first place.
Frankly, I didn’t get into much trouble as a teenager — just a couple of speeding tickets and a fine for sitting on a moving car. I never had to tell my parents “I don’t know” when they asked me why I had been stopped or disciplined by a member of law enforcement. A policeman never chased me, arrested me, pulled a gun on me — or worse. In all the interactions I had with the police, they were fair and polite. I knew what I had done wrong and the situation deserved their intervention.
If — heaven forbid — my son finds himself face-to-face with a police officer, I hope he was approached with just cause. I expect Zephyr to be treated respectfully and handled in a manner that is both lawful and ethical. Nonetheless, I’ll be giving him “the talk” — though it will break my heart to do so. I wish it wasn’t a necessary survival tutorial. Maybe someday it won’t be. That time needs comes sooner rather than later, because no child — no matter what the color of their skin — deserves to grow up in such a world.
Nevin Martell is a full-time writer, who covers food, travel, parenting and pop culture for many publications, including The Washington Post, Travel + Leisure and Fortune. Find him on Twitter @nevinmartell and at nevinmartell.com.