When some parents say they need to have "the talk" with their kids, they are speaking of that awkward conversation so many of us have had with a prepubescent child about "the facts of life." But for many parents these days, "the talk" is about something rather different than "the birds and the bees."
Recently, a friend and former student, Rev. David Snardon (MDiv '11), was visiting with me, and we were talking about the events in Ferguson, Missouri, where a young man was gunned down by a police officer. The young man was black; the officer was white. (Incidentally, I encourage you to read Rev. Dr. Shannon Craigo-Snell's excellent article, "Marching Into Danger," which appeared in The Christian Century and focuses on her recent experience as a nonviolent protestor in Ferguson.) David and I also talked about another incident in New York City, where a black man was killed by being placed in a chokehold and the shooting of a black man in South Carolina during a routine traffic stop.
David, who is also a pastor, mentioned that he had recently seen a film clip on television of a white woman arguing with a police officer who was demanding to search her car but refused to state the cause of the search. She was stopped at a roadblock, and her car was holding up traffic. She argued vigorously with the officer until a supervisor came over, took a look at the woman and told the officer to let her car move on. David told me he was watching the news story with his son. After it ended, he turned to his son and said, "Don't you ever do what she did."
Then David had "the talk" that many people today must have with their children. It's "the talk" about the dangers of being black, the necessity of saying "yes, sir" to the police officer, cooperating fully and immediately, keeping your hands visible, doing exactly what you are told, and not arguing (even if you believe strongly that you are in the right) so that you don't get hurt or killed. "The talk" that many parents -- black parents -- are having with their children is about how dangerous, how potentially lethal, it is to be a person of color -- especially a young black man -- in our society.
My children could always count on running to a police officer anytime they felt threatened or in danger. That's what we told them to do. But my children are not black. They are white. And for many citizens of our country today, our police forces do not represent safety, they represent a life-threatening danger.
Some people have argued that this is a case of a "few rotten apples" among law enforcement. And I personally know many fine policemen who place their lives on the line every single day to protect and to serve. I grew up in a home in which police officers and other emergency workers were not only heroes of our community, but close friends and even family members. But there is no denying that we have a problem in our country today which we must address. It is a profound problem when many of our citizens live in fear because of the color of their skin. A result and symptom of that problem is "the talk" that so many of our African-American neighbors are compelled to have with their children.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., once told the story of having to explain to his daughter why she couldn't go to an amusement park she had seen advertised in the newspaper. He said, as he explained the rules of segregation to her, he could see a pall, a tragic veil, fall over his child's face. A psychic wound was opened up that he feared might never heal. The wounds suffered by too many of our nation's children today are both psychic and physical.
My colleague, Rev. Dr. Kilen Gray, the dean of students here at Louisville Seminary, recently put it more eloquently than I possibly can. He said:
While African-Americans feel the necessity of survival to have 'the talk' with their children, we need to encourage our white sisters and brothers to have a much more necessary 'talk' of how they will work among their law enforcement friends to make this necessity a figment of the past. I just wonder, while we are training our children how to survive legal terrorism, what are the conversations being held within the majority culture? There must be a comparable conversation and action by all Americans so that the few who hold hegemonic filters will find no sanctuary for their misguided beliefs.
"The talk" that many black parents are having today with their children has become necessary. This is a tragedy beyond all words, and we must do whatever we can to make it unnecessary.