Everyone has the talk with their children. No parent looks forward to sitting their kids down for a conversation about sex, but it’s a necessity. My greatest fear was that I’d wait too long to talk to my daughter about menstruation and she’d end up living out that fucked up scene from Carrie. So, I dropped the knowledge onto her innocent little 9 year old head. She didn’t seem to appreciate it (or look forward to it), but at least she knew what a period was when she got hers many years later. We talked about sex too, though not super in depth at that time. The talk is actually more like a running conversation that goes on for a few years, ramping up into more adult territory the older the kid gets. Starting with birds plus bees and ending with STDs, pregnancy, and how to be safe rather than sorry.
I’ve never met a parent that enjoyed this part of child rearing. You suck it up, though, and make sure your kids have the skills to navigate puberty, dating, and all of the embarrassingly banal things that will eventually lead to the wonders and terrors of adulthood.
But if you’re the parent of a black or brown kid, you don’t get to stop with the sex talk. You have another talk too, and this one rips your heart out.
I waited as long as I could to have this other talk with my daughter, because it felt like I’d be taking something precious away from her that she could never get back. My job had always been to protect her, but the more she grew and pulled away from me, the less I’d be able to do that, and it was my responsibility to prepare her for what the world had to offer, not just in the way of pleasures, but pitfalls too.
When she was within range of getting her driver’s license, I couldn’t put it off any longer. I sat her down and we talked about the color of her skin and how that could equate to real trouble if she was stopped by a police officer. She was 16 and old enough to understand the basic mechanics of racism, but she’d lived a moderately sheltered life surrounded by folks of all colors. She’d also grown up being told that if she was ever in trouble or separated from me in public, she should find a police officer in uniform (preferably a female because, pedophiles) and ask for help. Now I was flipping the narrative by telling her that she might not be safe in the presence of a cop. She didn’t understand how deep the roots of systemic racism stretched, that they were intertwined with the very foundation of this nation. That was part of what we talked about that day.
My daughter and I have the same wry, often inappropriate sense of humor. Even when we’re talking about something serious, we’re likely to throw in an irreverent joke or two. It’s just our way. But there was no joking during this conversation. She could tell I was dead serious and she took the hint that she needed to follow suit.
I told her that there were rules for dealing with the police. That she was to say yes, sir and no, sir instead of arguing, even if she was in the right. She was to give over her ID even if it wasn’t warranted. She was to stay in her car during a traffic stop, with her hands on the steering wheel. I warned her not to go digging around in her pockets, her purse, the rest of the car. She was to tell the officer what she was planning to do before she did it–I’m reaching for my license; I’m going to lean over for my registration.
She asked me, “What if I didn’t do anything wrong?” and my heart grew almost too heavy to bear.
My answer: “It doesn’t matter what you did. Just do what the police officer tells you. It could mean your life.”
She blinked, nodded, and didn’t argue.
Over the next few months and years, I reiterated all of these points ad nauseam. And when the news reported on another unarmed person of color who was brutalized or killed during an encounter with a police officer, I made sure to hit all of my points again.
Comply no mater what you did or didn’t do. Your life is at stake. Do you understand?
White parents don’t have to have these conversations with their children. They don’t have to stress that digging around in a purse or pocket for a license could literally cost that child his or her life. Smarting off could become a reason to shoot. Having a cell phone or a wallet. Approaching the officer for help could be a reason to shoot. Simply being black could be a reason to shoot.
Do you understand?
I don’t. I really don’t.
But this is the world we live in.
So, I hit my points. Again. Again. Again.
My dear sweet child, I want desperately for you to outlive me.
Please say yes, sir and no, sir.
Please keep your hands where they can be seen at all times.
Please come home alive.