What Do We Tell Our Children?

In truth, "the talk" cannot save African-American boys. The larger talk that should be had with all children might.
03/28/2012 04:29 pm ET Updated May 28, 2012

In the wake of the death of Trayvon Martin, there's much talk about "the talk" African-American parents are having with their sons.

But, what about non-black boys; what about girls? What should we tell all our children about the shooting of one of their peers? How can we help them make sense of the nonsense that is racism?

For blacks, "the talk" will induct one more generation into a centuries-old rite of passage where parents destroy their children's innocent minds to save their racially-vulnerable lives.

"The talk" will explain what racism is and how it will very likely impact them. "The talk" will tell black boys that they must pretzel themselves every which way to avoid being killed. The list of things they cannot do will far exceed the things they can -- that can't-do list having grown over the years with each new attempt to defend the indefensible.

"Eyeball rape," i.e. looking at a white woman, was added with the lynching of Emmett Till; then standing in the vestibule of your own apartment (Amadou Diallo); telling a nuisance who turns out to be an undercover cop that you don't have drugs (Patrick Dorismond); being a journalist broadcasting a march protesting the undercover cop's shooting of Patrick Dorismond live via cell phone (Errol Maitland, beaten to near-death by police and arrested); walk to a friend's house holding a Three Musketeers candy bar with a silver wrap that can be mistaken for a gun (Andre Burgess); walk home with a bag of Skittles wearing a hoodie (Trayvon Martin).

But even this trampling of the psyche cannot inoculate a black child against a George Zimmerman armed with four centuries of racist precedent, a sense of entitlement and a gun.

In truth, "the talk" cannot save African-American boys. The larger talk that should be had with all children might.

My own 10-year-old granddaughter was so "devastated" by the killing that her mother took her to the march in New York City. The next day she spoke to classmates at at her predominantly white school. "We have to look to our future," she told me. "Things happen and we have to be prepared."

As people of every hue rally in sympathy, what can we offer our children to prepare them for the real world, in fact?

1. Tell the truth.

Trayvon Martin, a black 17-year old boy, was walking home to his father's house in the rain, wearing a hoodie, carrying a bag of candy and a soft drink and talking to a friend on his cell phone. A man thought Trayvon looked suspicious because he was walking in a predominantly white gated community. The man, a neighborhood watch volunteer, called 911 to report what he'd seen, was told to stand down, pursued the boy instead, got into a tussle and shot Trayvon dead.

2. Validate their feelings and their concerns.

If, after hearing the reasons why George Zimmerman thought it was OK to shoot Trayvon, your child -- like my granddaughter -- thinks something sounds wrong; he/she is right. There is no justification for killing a person who is doing you no harm -- even if you suspect they might; you could be wrong. Of course, some would say, you could also be right. But, what was George Zimmerman suspicious about? Is it really a death penalty offense for a teenager to "look suspicious"? When we countenance such irrational arguments, what values are we imparting to our children? What irrational arguments are we willing to accept from them?

3. Confront racism for what it is.

If an explanation doesn't make sense for shooting a white person; it doesn't make sense for shooting a black person. It's that simple. By his own 911-taped admission, Mr. Zimmerman approached Trayvon, Trayvon didn't approach him. Would he have been suspicious of a white child walking in the rain, his head covered by a hooded sweatshirt, talking on his cell phone? As a neighborhood watch volunteer, Zimmerman saw himself as an authority. Would a white child know how to distinguish a volunteer watchman from any other guy who jumped out of a car behaving suspiciously toward him? And, does the white child have the same experience of a society that has passed laws permitting others to harass, intimidate, even kill him, however innocent he may be?

How did the conversation with my granddaughter begin? "She had questions. She asked 'who is Trayvon Martin,'" said my daughter. "Even though this circumstance may take you, as a parent, to places you're not comfortable going, or even if you think your child may not be ready, I think it's important to speak about justice and fairness, even racism. It's all around us and we have to find a way to bring the conversation to children without fear."

And, that's the point. Racism breeds fear and tragedy. Conversations breed understanding. And understanding saves lives.

ᅡᄅ Janus Adams 2012