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Teaching Our Children to Tell and Talk Can Help Heal

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Recently two white, plain-clothed Evanston, IL police officers chased my 13-year-old African American son as he attempted to put his bike away in his own backyard. Without identifying themselves they handcuffed him first and asked questions later. The reason offered: he "fit the description" of a burglary suspect because he was a black male wearing cargo shorts. They made him feel like a criminal even though he had committed no crime.

It was scary stuff for a young teenager and frightening for me, his mother, who witnessed the encounter. When I alleged racial profiling and went public over police handling of the matter, something unexpected happened. Other African American mothers quietly came to me reciting similar stories of their sons and daughters being stopped and harassed by police.

Take the case of one African American mother who told me her high school son was headed to a predominately white neighborhood to work on a science project with a classmate when, according to her, a police officer told her son to go back to "his side of town."

It's bad enough her son was stopped for no apparent reason, but what's troubling is that her son never mentioned the incident until months later when the family happened to be discussing police harassment against young African American males.

When I spoke out against racial profiling critics said I was playing the race card. I believe I was speaking truth to power. Police interrogation is a common rite of passage for African Americans, males in particular. To be sure, young African American criminals exist, but so do young white criminals and criminals of all colors and ethnicities. The crimes of the few should not be used to paint all of a similar hue with the same brush. When young white males shoot up schools and theaters, police don't treat all white males as potential mass killers.

African American males have long been considered suspicious and guilty until proven innocent. Dr. Khalil Muhammad, an historian and director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture has traced the history of U.S. criminality and its tenacious association with people of African descent in his book titled The Condemnation of Blackness.

According to the New York ACLU, in 2011 in one Brooklyn neighborhood blacks and Latinos made up 79 percent of stops even though they represented only 24 percent of the population. Given the U.S.'s racial history, it stands to reason that if blacks and Latinos are disproportionately stopped and frisked in a city such as New York, they will be disproportionately targeted in other cities and suburbs, even as teenagers.

My situation was rare because I witnessed my son's handcuffing and detainment. Most often, teens subject to police interrogation do so alone or in the presence of other teens. Afterwards they are left with no context for what happened or knowledge about whether their stop was legal.

While most African American parents prepare their children with "the talk" -- warning them about the possibility that they may be stopped by police some day just because they are of African descent, most parents are not prepared to handle the aftermath of what can be a traumatic event. I know I wasn't. My son was angry and hurt.

That's why in addition to teaching our sons of color at around age 11 or 12 what to do if stopped by police, we should teach them to tell us right after it happens. The mother who found out months later said she would have filed a complaint had she known sooner. But more importantly, she would have been able to help her son process what happened to him.

Mental health experts say the most healing ointment parents can apply is to initiate talk about the incident. That, of course, is easier said than done. Teenagers don't always want to talk to their parents about what they had for lunch, let alone about an incident that might engender shame or guilt. In addition, secrecy, a tool of survival for African American families from slavery through Jim Crow, still exists in some households where traumatic events are left unsaid. That history, along with a modern-day, anti-snitching culture, can set teenagers up for psychological damage.

Kesha S. Burch, a Chicago-based psychotherapist, says parents can never talk about these incidents too much. "Parents can help children contextualize these events," she says. "Talking is the most important way to combat any more long-term trauma." Burch says one month after the incident, if your child shows signs of anxieties such as not engaging with friends or not enjoying past activities, seek professional help.

The repercussions of not talking about traumatic incidents are grave, according to Carl Hampton, a clinical social worker who counsels adolescents. Hampton, who is African American, grew up in a predominately white suburb and says he remembers being stopped by police for walking the family dog in his own neighborhood. He says his teen clients who do not speak up about these types of micro and macro aggressions feel further traumatized. "When people believe they should have stood up for themselves but they didn't, it's very dehumanizing. It just makes them doubt themselves and engenders a lot of shame," says Hampton.

Of course, standing up does not have to mean going public like I did. It could just mean reminding your child on a regular basis to tell you right away if they are harassed by police or by others. If you don't know about it, you miss an opportunity to help your child heal.

Psychologist Henry Perkins, father of two adult African American sons, was recently stopped by police because he "fit the description" of a suspect, schooled his son early. He says it's important to have "the talk" because it can help children anticipate and practice how to respond if approached by police in the future.

"The talk is protective, helping them be aware of social cultural realities," he says. "It helps them frame incidents that might happen."

Perkins notes that children of middle and upper middle class families are more likely to be affected by negative encounters with police because those children are more likely to believe that police work for them not against them.

Still, he says, it is unlikely that one incident with police like ours will have a lasting or damaging effect as long as the child is able to process the incident with help. "A loving family is protective, too," says Perkins.

So in addition to teaching our children how to handle themselves when stopped by police, we must also teach them to tell us. With knowledge of the incident, parents can decide how egregious it is and whether it warrants further action. Lastly, we must encourage them to discuss so we can help them recover from their hurts. In this case, talk is not cheap. It's therapeutic.