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'The talk': teaching black children about the world they face

Thomas URBAIN
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The father of Michael Brown, attending the funeral of his son who was killed by a police officer

The death of George Floyd and subsequent demonstrations nationwide have many families discussing racism -- but for many African American parents, "the talk" has long been a necessity in society where their children must learn the dangers of growing up black in the United States.

"I don't know any black parents that don't have the talk with their child," said Tiffany Russell, 26. "But it's now definitely a good time."

When Russell was three years old, after a dramatic incident, her mother sat her down, explained what happened, and advised her how to behave in the future: "You have to be careful about how you act, about how you react."

"You can't be too aggressive, too angry. She told me if a police officer stops me just don't say anything and just listen. Even if you're upset -- you cannot show that you're upset."

Glen Henry, a black father of four, spoke less to his two oldest children -- ages five and seven -- about how they carried themselves, focusing more on what they were likely to encounter.

A YouTuber, he filmed and posted the conversation. His wife Yvette was initially opposed to bringing up the topic so soon.

By the end of the clip, she was in tears.

Henry convinced her that recent events justified putting racism on the table with "children who should not have to learn this."

Brittany Everette, a 27-year-old bi-racial mother in Virginia, appealed to Twitter for help knowing if the moment had come to speak to her son.

"Children see the world as this bright, shiny place full of opportunity and wonder," she said, adding that her son who will start kindergarten in the fall sometimes dresses up as an officer.

But for Russell, shielding children is "not doing any justice."

"I didn't think it took away any of our innocence or any part of our childhood," she said. "It made us aware of our actions."

"It's the reality."

- 'Delicate balance' -

Everette and her husband, who is black, ultimately agreed two discussions were necessary: first on the question of race, and later on to discuss police brutality against black people.

In many ways the discussion is life-long, with added complexities at milestones including starting primary school, entering the workforce, getting a driver's license.

Joseph West, a partner at the law firm Duane Morris and a father, remembers what his own father told him before he went out for his first drive: he taught careful driving and respecting traffic rules, but also no fast moves in case of a police check, and a deferential tone even in case of an unjustified pull-over.

The message? "Even though the vast majority of law enforcement officers are good people, they in fact have the power to take your life -- and you are far more likely to have that happen to you if you are a black man than if you're not."

"It was a chilling realization to have at that time, and it is something that stays with me to this day," West said.

What's more, the message conveyed to girls and boys often varies, said Everette.

"Black boys go immediately from cute little children to threats, while black girls are sexualized and seen as mature at much younger ages," she said

"Their skin is weaponized the minute they enter puberty."

West had already discussed issues of racism with his boys, but delved into the theme once again as disturbing images of Floyd's death circulated online.

"There's a very delicate balance that has to take place," he said. "You want to provide enough information so that they can make informed decisions about their interactions... while not tamping down the confidence that you want them to have."

"There is a thin line between confidence which will help you be successful, and being overconfident which could get you killed," said the lawyer, who is also his firm's diversity officer.

After publishing an essay on Law.com about speaking to black children about the trials they will face, West said he received hundreds of mostly supportive messages.

Especially white men, according to West, told him that "what I had expressed never occured to them and that they were going to have that version of the talk with their children."

"And that was very gratifying."