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Forest Whitaker Falsely Accused of Shoplifting: How Do I Explain Racism to My Son?

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Normally I do not let my seven-year-old son Malcolm watch the news. My wife and I believe that it is just too early in his young life to expose him to the complexities of a complicated world. The constant barrage of violence, murder and other inappropriate material can poison the mind of any child, much less one in the second grade.

But on Monday, as he was enjoying the President's Day holiday at home, Malcolm quietly snuck into my room when I stepped away from the television for a moment. I was watching CNN, and upon my return, I found Malcolm sitting in my spot with a disturbed look on his face. I quickly turned off the television and asked him what was wrong.

The questions began to pour out.

"Why would a father not want any black nurses to care for his baby at the hospital? He only wanted white nurses? Why would that matter?" he asked.

He had seen the report about a Michigan nurse who is suing a hospital, claiming it agreed to a man's request that no African-Americans care for his baby.

"Why would a man slap a baby for crying on an airplane, and call him a name? Isn't that what babies do, they cry?"

He was responding to a conversation about the Idaho man accused of uttering a racial slur and slapping a crying 19-month-old boy on a Delta Air Lines flight. He didn't know what name the man actually called the baby or what that means. We haven't had to have that talk yet, but unfortunately, we may have to soon.

There was also a discussion on about how Academy Award-winner Forest Whitaker was falsely accused of shoplifting in New York.

Did the store only think that the man who is a famous actor was stealing just because he is black?" Malcolm asked. "Why do white people still treat us this way? I thought you said all of this kind of stuff happened a long time ago when TV was in black and white"?

Those were his exact words. For the rest of the day I contemplated if this was the time to have the age-old discussion that every black parent has to eventually have with their kids. Especially their sons.

As the one year anniversary of the Trayvon Martin shooting approaches, I couldn't help but wonder how much we've learned as a country in the past year about racial prejudice. Furthermore, what we as black parents still have to endure when discussing these issues with our children. Last year, after Martin was killed, there was a long nation wide conversation about "The Talk".

My mother had it with me when I was young, and unfortunately, I will soon have to have it with my son. Last year, after the entire country was in an uproar about the Martin incident, I contemplated if it was time to have this talk with Malcolm, and actually wrote about it.

At the time, my wife and I decided to allow Malcolm to keep his innocence a little longer.

This is the talk that teaches him that in life, some things are not going to be fair. That there are going to be some white people who will not like you simply because you are black. While reinforcing the notion that just as there are bad white people, there are also good white people. Just as there are bad black people and good black people. And that devils come in all colors, as do angels. I will have to teach him about what to do when he gets stopped by the police. How even if he didn't do anything wrong, it is imperative that he keeps his cool, knows his rights, and remains calm.

That whenever you go to a store, you always have to remember to ask for a receipt so that nobody can accuse you of stealing like they did Forest Whitaker.

That there will be some white people who look at you with eyes of fear as you get older. That you will not always be the cute little kid with long dreadlocks who looks like your daddy.

You will be seen as a threat, a menace, a criminal, you will see the fear in white eyes. You might see white women clench their purse when you walk by, you'll see them scared to come on the elevator with you; you'll have taxi cabs that don't want to stop for you; you will have professors who don't think you are smart enough to be in their classroom; you will be followed around stores because they want to make sure you are not stealing; you will have white people who will literally will be terrified of you; and I can speak from experience because those are all situations that I have personally dealt with multiple times.

The "post-racial America" is a fantasy land that doesn't exist. I want my son to grow up to be proud of his race, his culture, his identity as every child of any race should. Unfortunately, far too often, as Malcolm will soon experience, the connotation that the world has for the term "black" is not always a positive one.

Soon, we will have to teach him these things for his own safety. I wish we did not have to take away his innocence, but for his own well-being soon we will have to.

This blog originally ran in The Washington Post.

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