News & Politics

The Talk – Part II

IMG_1653My son turned 13 this summer and in the past year, we have allowed him more independence out in the world. He walks to the coffee shop down the street and to rent movies and to the little market that sells candy. Each time he leaves the house, I worry. When he was little, he would dart into the street so I always tell him to watch for cars. I tell him to keep his money in his pockets because I’ve seen him leave the house waving a ten dollar bill around distractedly. I think about the problems in our inner city neighborhood and remind him to be friendly but cautious with strangers. I’ve instructed him to yell for help if someone attempts to touch him or harm him in any way.

But I worry.

I worry he’ll be hit by a car. I worry that someone will assault him and take his money. I worry that he’ll be taken advantage of in ways that I can’t or don’t want to imagine.

While he was at camp, Michael Brown was walking from home a convenience store in Ferguson, Missouri and was shot six times and left to die in the street. I talked to my daughter about his murder and the protests that followed because that’s the only thing I know to do – tell them about the world we live in, help them remember that there is so much more beyond the minutiae of our daily lives, educate them so that they can be part of a better future. When my son returned from camp, I told him I needed to talk to him about something and like most 13 year old kids, his eyes grew wide and he said, “What did I do?” I reassured him that he’d done nothing wrong and then I sat with him and told him about Michael Brown and as the conversation continued beyond Ferguson to institutional racism, my throat tightened and I struggled to release my words but I told him that every time he leaves the house to walk to the store, I worry about traffic and strangers but I have never once worried he would be hurt by the police. He took my hand and said, “I know, mom. Because I’m white.”

Yes. Because we are white.

Many of us like to think we are aware of our privilege. We can talk about it intellectually and abstractly and know that we have benefitted from the whiteness of our skin. But, sometimes, we miss the subtleties. We don’t think about the conversations we have with our children about safety and how dramatically they differ from the conversations other parents have with their children of color.

My son walks to the store and I worry about petty thieves or a car running a stop sign.

Another mother’s son walks to the store and she worries he’ll be killed by the very people who are supposed to protect and serve us all.

This is not abstraction. This is the reality of privilege.

Our conversations have continued, broadened, deepened. I asked him what he would do if he was walking with one of his friends of color and the police stopped them. His immediate response was, “I would demand to know why and point out anything the cop was doing that was unfair.” His voice was tinged with outrage and I realized that there was so much more he needed to understand.

“No. You do not demand anything of a police officer…” I began and he interrupted, “I will not stand by and say nothing!”

And this is the reality of privilege too – the belief that you will be heard, the belief that you can call out unjust behavior without serious consequences, the belief that justice will prevail.

And I took a deep breath and asked him to do the same and then I explained that demands only escalate situations and that he must learn to use his privilege to deescalate. I told him to pay attention to everything that happens, to take mental notes of names and places and chains of events, to be respectful with the police at all times. I told him to calmly ask questions and to say things like, “We want to cooperate” and “I’m just trying to understand what’s going on” and I hated every moment because I knew that I was basically teaching him how to play the game. But I also know that the price of my white son talking back to a police officer wouldn’t necessarily be paid by him and I told him that too. He was silent for a few moments and then said, “I understand. I have to be a witness and I have to use my privilege to manage the situation.” I nodded and he asked, “Why are you telling me this now?” “Because you are 13. Because you  are going out into the world without us more and more. Because I want you to see and understand what’s happening in the world.”

Because we have to do better.

This is the second of two parts – two mothers and two very different conversations with their sons. Read The Talk – Part I.

PHOTO CREDIT: VIKKI REICH

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One Comment

  1. “I understand. I have to be a witness and I have to use my privilege to manage the situation.”

    WOW. That is a very wise kid you’re raising, Vikki.

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