What parents tell their black sons about the police
The following post originally appears on Gawker. It was written by Jazmine Hughes.
By: Jazmine Hughes
A Tumblr quote floated over to me about around the time of Trayvon Martin’s murder, from a Jonathan Lethem book that I’ve never read (The Fortress of Solitude). At this point, I don’t really need to read it, because it’s already asked me the most important question I’ve heard in a long time: “At what age is a black boy when he learns he’s scary?”
This question retains its relevance now more than ever. Some have called Michael Brown’s killing and the newly newsworthy manifestation of systemic racism and state-sanctioned brutality against black men a reproductive issue, arguing that it prevents women and men from their right “to parent the children we have in safe and healthy environments:” It makes people afraid to have black babies, because they won’t stand a chance. As a black woman, nothing will stop me from bearing and raising my future child, but nothing will stop me from raising them in fear.
Such is the burden of black parenting. Being a black parent, especially of a black boy, comes with the added onus of having to protect your child from a country that is out to get him—a country that kills someone that looks like him every 28 hours, a country that will likelyimprison him by his mid-thirties if he doesn’t get his high school diploma, a country that ismore than twice as likely to suspend him from school than a white classmate.
This fear has fueled a generational need for a portentous, culturally compulsory lecture that warns young black men about the inherent strikes against them, about the society that is built to bring them down. It is a harbinger of the inevitable, a wishful attempt at exceptionalism, passed down like an heirloom.
Every black male I’ve ever met has had this talk, and it’s likely that I’ll have to give it one day too. There are so many things I need to tell my future son, already, before I’ve birthed him; so many innocuous, trite thoughts that may not make a single difference. Don’t wear a hoodie. Don’t try to break up a fight. Don’t talk back to cops. Don’t ask for help. But they’re all variations of a single theme: Don’t give them an excuse to kill you.
I needed advice on how to do this, so I reached out to a small group of people. For black parents, I asked: What rules, warnings, survival tactics are you giving your children as you raise them? For black youth: What have you been taught? What did you learn on your own? And for everyone: What would you have told Michael Brown before he left the house that afternoon?
Angela Jackson-Browne, 46, Indianapolis, In.
I have raised a white stepson, who is 26, and my own black son, who is 24. My conversations with them concerning the police are different depending on the circumstances they are entering into.
When they are together, I have taught my white stepson that he will be treated for all practical purposes the same as his black stepbrother. He gets that his white privilege is null and void when he is hanging with the “brothers.” I have also taught my white stepson that when he is alone or with white friends he will be treated with a certain level of privilege that his black stepbrother will never know, and he has seen this happen time and time again. Ironically, he is the one who likes to sag his pants, yet he has never been harassed by the police even in situations where he probably should have been.
My black son—I have always taught him to treat the police the same way he would a Klansman, because in parts of the south where he grew up, they were often the same. He is taught to interact with them as little as possible. Get stopped for a traffic violation: Use your Sunday school manners. Keep your hands where they can be seen, and above all else, do not argue. My daddy passed on that lesson to me, and sadly, if I have grandchildren, it seems they too will have to get this same, dirty lesson.
Michele Sims-Burton, “fifties,” Alexandria, Va.
I have a 24-year-old son. I have given him the talk. He has been with me when the police stopped me, primarily because the police recklessly eyeballed my son, and didn’t see me—the little old lady—driving the car. So he knows the drill. Ask the police before you reach for your license. Ask the police for permission to get your insurance card and registration out the glove box. Do not answer any questions. Just do as you are told.
Once my son and I were getting out the car at the shopping mall, the police approached him and asked him: “Did you just leave the mall?” I intervened. I instructed my son to “never, ever answer a question from the police.” Ask the police: “Am I free to go?” Do not answer any questions. Be polite. Be cordial. But never answer any questions. Keep asking: “Am I free to go?” “Am I under arrest?” “What are the charges?” “May I make a phone call?” However, do not move suddenly. Do not get smart-alecky. Do not run. If the police start swinging, drop to the ground, protect your head and vital organs by curling up in a ball on your knees.
I’ve given my son this talk. And it terrifies me that in 2014, I text and call my son throughout the day not because I miss him so much, but because I am checking on his safety in this racist, militaristic society.
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