Like most parents, I give my son “The Talk” to educate him about staying safe. Now, once again, it’s about staying alive.
How to talk ? That has been the question I’ve asked myself each day since the February 26 events that have now become a painful marker throughout the country.
It was the rainy evening when the tall and slender teenager named Trayvon Martin, 21 days after his 17th birthday, was shot in the chest and killed in Sanford, Florida by the self-appointed, armed, neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. Trayvon was visiting his father at a gated suburban community, and had gone out to a nearby 7-11 to buy Skittles and ice tea before the NBA All-Star game. Twenty eight year old Zimmerman, driving in his SUV, noticed Trayvon, decided he looked “suspicious,” pursued and finally killed him. Zimmerman, who outweighed Trayvon by more than 100 pounds, claimed “self defense.”
Despite having a cell phone and identification on his person, Trayvon was identified by the Sanford Police Department only as “John Doe” for three days as he lay in the morgue.
Trayvon’s father, Tracy Martin, reported that the Sanford Police Department told him they there were no charges against the killer, and considered this a matter of “self-defense.” Finally, Zimmerman was arrested and charged with second degree murder, after weeks of daily pressure of marches, social media campaigns and online petitions, large rallies, school walkouts, prayer and town hall meetings, and ongoing TV coverage — an intense focus that resulted in the stepping down of the town’s police chief and recusal of the initial prosecutor. Until now, it seemed that Trayvon’s death was perceived by Sanford police as just another, unimportant demise of a young Black man whose life was worth nothing.
As the days and weeks progressed without an arrest, information from Trayvon’s family and later, from Zimmerman, began appearing in the media. Trayvon’s family had to sue the Sanford PD for release of the most impactful information. The 911 tapes that were finally obtained and released to the public, galvanized the nation. In them, it was clear that Zimmerman was pursuing Trayvon.
But maybe the most powerful recording was the one in which a young, panicked voice is heard screaming for help, followed by a gunshot. That… was the one that pierced me. As mother of a 16 year old boy, I would recognize that scream – anywhere. I had the blessed good fortune of watching the NBA games that day with my own son, while Sybrina and Tracy’s son lay in the morgue, his young life so ruthlessly taken from him.
It was reported that when the police played that tape for Tracy Martin, he “cried like a baby.” The Sanford Mayor said that the tape was so difficult to hear that he himself had to “step out.” Everyone in the room, he said, was in tears.
And when I heard the tape, I cried too…like a mother. I imagine that across the nation, many other mothers were weeping along with Trayvon’s mother and father. After announcing the incident and the Colorofchange.org petition for justice in my university classes, I heard back from some of the students. One woman said she and her husband, weeping, had listened to the 911 tape. She could not sleep that night.
I could not get the sounds out of my head, and to this day I try to anticipate when the tape will be played on TV so I can turn the sound off. Eventually I thought: it is right to be unable to forget about this young man’s death and just go on with business as usual. It is as it should be. Trayvon’s innocent voice was violently taken away; we need to become his voice. I learned about the petition for justice and began telling as many people as I could about it. So far, more than two million people have signed.
As the nation began discussing this case and racial profiling, numerous people of color began publicly sharing their concerns for their children, and so white people in America became more aware of something referred to by many African American parents and others as “The Talk.” In short, The Talk is advice parents give their children to help ensure that they stay out of trouble and, bottom line, stay alive — in a world where children of color, particularly Black boys and men, are considered suspect and are still objects of racial profiling. It is still a world where the lives of people of color have been undervalued and underprotected by law enforcement institutions; where there is an assumption of guilt, an uneven and unjust overprosecution of people of color when they are suspects, and an underenforcement of laws when they are victims.
People of my generation still remember the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a 14 year old African American Chicago boy who was visiting relatives in Mississippi. Emmett was accused of flirting with a white woman who was the proprietor of a local store he visited. Emmett was kidnapped from his bed by the woman’s husband and his half-brother. He was beaten, had an eye gouged out, shot in the head, then weighted down with a 70 pound cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire, and dumped in the Tallahatchie River. His bloated and disfigured body was recovered from the river three days later. His mother insisted that his body, with its destroyed head and face, be viewed unaltered during the funeral, so people could see the reality of what was done to him. His murderers were acquitted, but later admitted killing Emmett. They were never brought to justice. In our country, and not just in Mississippi, there have been many Emmett Tills, many young and adult Black males who have been profiled, targeted, and murdered, with impunity.
After Trayvon’s murder, more of these stories have begun to be told. It is clear that racial profiling is very much alive, and that boys and men of color, especially African Americans, are still being targeted and victimized. Along with these stories, we have heard different families’ own versions of “The Talk” designed to keep their children alive.
As mother of my son, who has mixed ethnicity, I have my own version of The Talk – an ongoing conversation that I have been carrying on with him ever since he was a little boy. I have always been interested in seeing how he identifies himself. As he grows up and nears manhood, though, what started as an exercise of pure mommy-baby love and to some extent academic curiosity, has increasingly become part of my maternal mission to keep him safe. As years pass, I become acutely aware that because his beautiful appearance is ethnically ambiguous, a society that feels a need to neatly categorize people by “race” (a concept that many scientists now agree has no biological basis) perceives and responds to him in varying ways, according to whatever context he happens to be in.
Race, in our society, originated as a designation created to decide who to enslave, who to value highly, and how to govern groups that have varying ethnic and cultural characteristics. The color of one’s skin, in this country, has been the most weighty (though not only) factor, resulting in pseudo-scientific rationales for many discriminatory laws and practices. The darker one’s skin, the more harshly is one treated, and the more likely one is to be profiled, discriminated against, targeted for mistreatment, and the less one’s life is valued.
What has this meant for my basketball-playing son, a tall, quiet, golden-hued, curly dark haired boy with an infectious laugh, who claims as his heritage ancestors from Sicily and Nicaragua, whose predecessors include the dark-skinned Moors of Africa and blond-haired peoples of southern Europe, the indigenous Mayas of Central America, Spanish colonialists, and who knows who else? What kind of talk does he get?
We started, probably like all parents, with admonitions to avoid stoves and electrical outlets, to stay on the sidewalk, not run into the street, not cross without supervision, not talk to strangers, to not take anything from strangers unless a parent was there and said it was OK, to not be tricked into going with a stranger, even if they claimed mami or papi was hurt and said it was all right.
After that, The Talk ramped up. We morphed into the idea that there are many good people in the world, but there are some bad people, too, and it’s sometimes hard to tell who is who. September 11, 2001, provided numerous teachable moments along with the catastrophe. Bottom line, don’t be too trusting, no matter how friendly someone might seem. We exercised caution with visits to friends’ homes, made sure we trusted the parents and the kids, that there were no firearms in the home, we limited sleepovers and overnight camping trips to those whose parents we knew well and trusted implicitly. We made no benign assumptions about teachers, coaches, clergy. Try to identify potential trouble at a distance, and stay away. Tell an adult to stop if any touch or behavior feels uncomfortable, move away from the person, and tell us. Don’t fight unless there’s no other way out and your life is in danger. Then, fight like hell. So far, still a Generic Talk.
When my son got older and started venturing out independently with friends, The Talk got more complicated. There were still generic components. For example, don’t do silly (motherese for dangerous / illegal) things. If others do things that don’t seem right, step out, use one of any excuses, and call for a ride home. If you’re approached by a police officer, be polite, don’t argue, answer clearly. Do. Not. Run.
But clearly, treatment in public began to vary according to where and with whom he was hanging. How to talk about these situations without blaming victims, or accepting injustice as an unchangeable status quo, while still providing protection? Luckily, my son and I talk to each other easily, and every situation, every anecdote, gave me a chance to add another bit to The Talk.
Like the time he and some friends were skateboarding at Pacific Theaters when there was a robbery and police intervention. The plaza was shut down and all the kids there were told to sit down on the concrete and not leave the area. The police officers went from group to group questioning the young people. When they got to his group, the officer asked if they knew a tall, dark skinned youth. His short, white friends laughed, and said something sarcastic in reply. The officer laughed along and moved on. When my son told me the story, I wondered if the response would have been so benevolent if he had been hanging out with some darker skinned (or taller) friends that night. I added to the ongoing Talk an admonition about always avoiding sarcasm with police.
Then there was the night I picked up my son and some of his Black friends from basketball at the Westchester Y. As I drove them home, I heard a siren, saw the red and blue lights behind me, and realized I was being stopped. For what, I had no idea. My son’s friends that night ranged in age from 15 to 17, in height from 5’4’ to 6’5’. All sweet and respectful boys-becoming-young-men. As I pulled over, portions of Chris Rock’s comedy routine “How Not to Get Your Ass Kicked By Police” (www.youtube.com/embed/uj0mtxXEGE8) flashed through my mind.
I narrated a far less funny GP rated version as I stopped the car and waited for the officer to approach. Now watch, I’m going to: Turn on the dome light, have my ID out, put my hands on the wheel in plain sight, not make any sudden movements, be calm, be polite, answer any questions respectfully, make some eye contact without staring.
The officer approached and shined his flashlight into the car, playing the light over the youthful faces and athletic bodies of the boys whose parents had entrusted their children to my care, and over my own precious son.
“Where are you going?” he asked me in a serious tone. I thought how I am usually not asked where I am going when I’m stopped by police in neighborhoods populated by lighter complexioned inhabitants, and when driving with lighter complexioned passengers. I remembered Chris Rock’s words, and bit my tongue to keep any smart comment left over from my Brooklyn cab driver days from finding its way into this situation. After all, I had priceless cargo, four irreplaceable young lives, plus my own, in the balance. I played it straight. “Sir, I am taking my son’s friends home from basketball practice, and then we are going home.”
Suddenly, it seemed he saw us. Really saw us: a mom, a son, and three other baby faced guys in various phases of becoming adult athletes and young men. His tone changed, softened. “Your brake light is out. I’m giving you a fix-it ticket.” The tension palpably eased. I smiled and made a comment about my old car’s lights always blowing out. “You want to be careful with that, especially driving around with kids.”
Ticket accepted, I slowly drove off. I recapitulated for the guys what I had done. I added, “If you’re calm, then that helps the police not to feel afraid. When they feel afraid, that’s when they make bad mistakes.” I slowly let out my breath and started to breath normally again. We considered getting ice cream. I realized I had just given them all “The Talk.”
At home with my son, I added another paragraph to The Talk. This was a painful truth to convey. That my ambiguous looking son may experience different kinds of treatment from police and others, depending on who he happened to be with, and what neighborhood he was in. That means, I said, the same behavior will be perceived differently by police and others, and will be responded to differently. Different assumptions will be made. Fooling around, mouthing off, with a group of white friends may be chuckled at, and the same scenario with other kids of color can be dealt with reflexively, harshly, and result in a totally different, even tragic, outcome.
Some weeks later, my son’s buddies played basketball without him one night. They finished earlier than the time one of the dads had arranged to pick them up. They decided to walk a couple of blocks to get some food. Two bald white guys passed them in a car and yelled, “Hey, niggers, go back to Inglewood where you belong!” The boys ditched the idea of food and quickly headed back to the Y. The two guys turned their car around and followed them. Luckily, the dad had arrived and the boys got into his car safely.
We parents give our kids The Talk then hope and pray that circumstances and guardian angels will cover the rest. But the time has come to go further – to shine a light on racial and also on sexual profiling that is still a part of the fabric of our country, and to finally put an end to it, so that ALL our children can get home — alive and safe.
I watch Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin as they do what’s necessary to get some justice for their son Trayvon. Despite their strength and grace, their eyes tell us what it is like to have a hole permanently blown out of your heart. Hearts that, as Sybrina teaches us, are not black or white, but red. We all want the same things for our children – safety, care, respect, opportunity, and equal treatment under the law. Let us continue coming together to guarantee that all our children live to realize their dreams.
J.T. Luna is a mother, psychologist, writer, university professor, and volunteer first responder.