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When White Parents Have 'The Talk' With Black Sons

12/10/2013 03:39 pm ET | Updated Feb 09, 2014
Marlene Fine

Co-authored with Fern L. Johnson

"The Talk" is back. No, it's not a new movie or book, it's the dreaded but essential conversation every black parent knows must happen with their child, especially the boys, to explain what it means to be black in this country.

"The Talk" poses a particular challenge to whites who adopt African-American children. We are called upon to open ourselves to learning about and understanding the experiences of blacks. That means that we must have "The Talk" with our sons about how to deal with cultural perceptions of Black men as violent and threatening.

A good reason to bring up the "The Talk" has been New York City's controversial "stop and frisk" policy, which allows police to stop, question and frisk anyone who looks suspicious. Last month, a federal appeals court blocked a recent ruling that had rendered the policy unconstitutional. As a result, "stop and frisk," which was widely determined to unfairly target black and Latino men, continues in New York City. Another reason for having "The Talk" are the recent racial profiling charges leveled against Barney's and Macy's after Black shoppers accused the chains of profiling. However, the most significant reason to have "The Talk" was the acquittal this summer of George Zimmerman, the now notorious Florida neighborhood watch coordinator who killed unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin, whom he followed one evening because, as he told police, he didn't know him and he looked suspicious.

Many people in the United States hailed the election and re-election of Barack Obama as the first black President as proof that the United States had become a post-racial society. But race does matter. And the fact that most white parents had never heard of "The Talk" before Trayvon Martin's death, New York's "stop and frisk" policy or Barney's and Macy's controversies are a few examples of how it matters.

White parents don't normally deal with the issue of racism because, as a general rule, whites don't experience being stopped and frisked by the police. Whites don't know what DWB or SWB means ("Driving While Black" or "Shopping While Black") because they've never experienced either one. Ask a black person in the U.S. what these terms mean and they'll answer immediately.

Both of our black adoptive sons experienced DWB soon after they had their driver's licenses.
One was followed on an interstate highway by a state trooper who would alternate moving parallel in the left lane to get a good look at who was driving and then falling back behind the car. The other, who was sitting in a parked car with a Latino friend in the middle of the afternoon, was approached by a white police officer who asked his name and where he lived. When our son gave his address two streets away, the police officer instructed him to, "Be on your way." Fortunately, neither young man was asked to get out of the car. Other young black men have not fared so well.

One African-American family that we became friends with when our sons were in middle school told us that they didn't let their older son drive until they were comfortable that he knew how to be "properly deferential" if he were pulled over by the police. Until then, it had never occurred to us that we would need to add training in "how to act in the event that you're stopped by the police" to our list of teenage driving skills. So, we had "The Talk" with both of our sons before they learned to drive. While aching inside, we rattled off the drill: Show your hands, smile, do not appear threatening and never talk back. One of our sons insisted that he would sue any police officer who stopped him without cause, but we were pretty certain that he understood and would follow our instructions. We were all shocked -- especially the boys -- to learn the vital nature of our advice when their DWB came true.

Most whites are unaware of how racism works and how race, ethnicity and culture are linked. One reason for that lack of awareness is what feminist and anti-racist activist Peggy McIntosh calls "white privilege." McIntosh says that whites carry 'an invisible package of unearned assets' that include, for example, turning on the television and seeing members of their race, finding a hairdresser who knows how to cut their hair and having their success or lack of success be attributed to their race. Perhaps the most significant privilege whites have is the ability to know nothing about the experiences and cultures of people who are not like them.

In a society where race is still very much a factor, it's not just white parents of children of color who need to have "The Talk" with their children. We all need to teach our children about the consequences of cultural perceptions of race. In fact, it's time for all of us to have that larger conversation about race with each other.

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