It is one of the most difficult and painful things that anyone raising black children has to do. To sit your children down and tell them how they must behave when interacting with the police — to be calm, show their hands, avoid sudden movements, follow instructions, and always be respectful. The Talk almost always ends in tears. After all, how do you tell the young, beautiful, innocent children you love that they might be harassed or even killed by the very people who have vowed to protect them? There is no perfect time for having The Talk. Indeed, oftentimes, it is a response to a specific event — typically another senseless killing of a black person — that your child has heard about.
That was the case for me, both in first receiving The Talk from my father and later giving The Talk to my own kids.
M y first memory of getting The Talk was around May 13, 1985. I was 9 years old and had relocated to Philadelphia less than two years earlier with my family after we fled political persecution in our home in Zaire. That evening, we were watching television at home and, like many other Philadelphians, were engrossed by a live feed of the standoff in West Philadelphia between the police and members of MOVE, a black liberation group. During the coverage, we saw a grainy image of a police helicopter circling ominously above a rowhouse on Osage Avenue before it dropped a strange object onto the roof. That object was a satchel containing four pounds of explosives. It unleashed a devastating explosion and fire that killed 11 people, including five children, and destroyed more than 60 homes and a beautiful community. The city let the fire burn. (Even today, nobody from the city was ever held accountable and the city has never formally apologized for this tragedy.)
As a child, I was stunned and horrified by what I saw before my parents had quickly turned off the television. The image was closer to a scene plucked from a World War II reel than a residential neighborhood in my adopted city.
At that point, my father — probably like many other black parents across the city — had no choice but to give me The Talk, though I am sure he didn’t know at the time what it was called.
While I have forgotten his exact words, I know his advice was short and effective and boiled down to a warning against defying the police. His (very rational) view was: If they can bomb a house in plain sight, what do you think they would do to you when nobody’s looking?
Though The Talk left me shaken and confused, it did instill in me, as a black kid, a fear of and respect for the awesome power that the police wield, even as I later worked alongside some dedicated officers as a federal prosecutor and then, as the city’s top lawyer, personally negotiated the city’s largest settlement in a police shooting case in 2017. This dread was critical for survival in my North Philadelphia neighborhood that was teeming with police in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
W hen I had children — a boy who is 11 and girls who are 9 and 6 — I foolishly thought that it would be up to me to decide when to have The Talk with them. I was wrong.
The cold-blooded murder of George Floyd dictated the timeline for having, or repeating, The Talk with my own children. But it could have been the killings of Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, or countless others.
Despite having access to more resources and books than my father did, I did not do any better than he did in delivering The Talk. My version was short, awkward, and, in retrospect, woefully bewildering for my children.
I told them that, as black people, they had to always listen to police, and then explained how Floyd was murdered and how people’s anger over his killing, and others like it, keeps happening. Two of my three kids cried during The Talk, with my middle one holding back in a youthful attempt to display strength. They were all scared, confused, and anxious. I was angry that I had to inflict pain on them and that I couldn’t promise them that it would be OK. It did not go according to script, to say the least.
A fter my failed efforts at The Talk and seeing that my kids remained upset, I thought about how I can engage with them more productively about this moving forward.
First, I plan to continue to offer them the cultural and historical context for our country’s systemic racism in policing and beyond. Police killings of black people seem random and out of context to them, though they are not to me or many black Americans. Over time, I will share with them not just the story of how America has never truly grappled with its original sin of racism, but also the slights, humiliation, and pain that I have suffered throughout my life because of my race. I will also point them to the wonderful anti-racism reading lists that have become invaluable for just this task.
Second, I will need to take care of myself to take care of them. When I spoke to them, I was drained and not OK. They plainly could hear the anxiety, anger, and fear in my own voice, which was far from reassuring. As I continue to have these conversations with them, I want to make sure that either I have gathered myself, or am honest with them about the toll that this has taken on me.
Last, I plan to do as much listening as talking with my children about these issues, especially as they inundate me with questions. While I might not have all of the answers, I see my role as their parent to give them the space they need to explore these questions at their own speed. So every couple of days I have been asking them, individually, how they are feeling and, after some bobbing and weaving, they have tentatively shared with me what’s on their mind. It’s been eye-opening for me.
W hile I have a lot of work to do going forward, my hope, too, is that it is not only black families who are having these conversations. We have borne the tremendous weight of anti-racism education for too long and it is enough. White parents should be having modified versions of The Talk with their children so they too understand their privilege and the nature of structural racism that favors them.
Racism and dehumanization of black people is not a black problem; it is a problem that every American has an obligation to fix. The need to have The Talk with our children and with each other about the role of deep-rooted institutional racism is fierce and urgent right now. I know that I am ready to be part of those conversations.