This weekend, I was driving to the grocery store with my seven year-old daughter in the backseat when I came upon a police checkpoint. I waited my turn and reached in my purse for my wallet. I produced my license for the police officer but when he looked at it, he did a double take. The woman in the photo has long auburn hair (my hair is short and mostly grey), is nearly a decade younger than I am, and a good 20 lbs lighter. I joked that the woman in the photo was me but, given that we can renew online in the state where I live, the picture was now eight years-old and well, the intervening years had not been kind. He laughed and asked me a question in broken French (my surname is identifiably French) and I replied in equally broken French. He handed my license back, waved me on, and as I was driving away my daughter commented, “He was nice.” I felt a chill go down my spine as I realized that my casual and joking interaction with that police officer was setting my daughter up for that expectation of interaction with the police and I needed to think about how to handle future interactions in way that was better modeling for my black daughter. I didn’t know exactly what I needed to model but I was sure that I was setting my daughter up for disaster if, as she grew into adolescence and adulthood, she expected to be able to be as casual as I had been. When we got home I –honest to goodness, I kid you not- added “teaching black children to interact with police” to the tickler list I keep of things I need to research with regard to parenting.
About 24 hours later, Mike Brown was murdered by a member of the Ferguson, MO police department.
As I read, listened, and watched the coverage of how Mike Brown had been murdered and then unfolding militia-level police action against protestors in Missouri, I, like millions of others around the world, was horrified by what was happening. In, ahem, post-racial America. In 2014.
But my fear and horror was not only in the name of humanity. It was personal. I have skin in this game. My daughter’s black skin. I am raising a black child. In post-racial America. In 2014.
So I emailed a friend who is a black mother I deeply respect and I said, she seems so little but given everything, I think it’s time to have “the Talk.” When and how did you do that with your kids? Her reply, though completely reasonable and rational, was startling to me and shook me to my core. “There is no “Talk.” It’s just life.” She clarified that of course she reminds her kids how to behave in all sorts of situations, including with the police, but mostly they just see the way she and her husband act and know that’s how they expect them to behave.
I couldn’t even reply I was so racked with sobs. Despite all of the books I’ve read, straight forward conversations I have had with my daughter about race and racism, skill-building related to the importance of stewardship of my white privilege, and black friends and mentors I have, as a white person, I lack critical skills my beloved black child requires to survive as a black person. In post-racial America. In 2014.
But then, with pretty much everything else about parenting, when you get thrown shit you have no idea how to handle, you just figure that shit out and keep moving. So I did.
I went online and did that research I put on my list just a few days before. But I didn’t just research how to teach black children to interact with the police. I also looked at specifically how white parents should teach their black children to behave with the police. Because my mom friend is right. In black families, it’s unconscious modeling and even if I do it consciously, which I am committed to doing, it’s easy for me to unconsciously slip back into my privilege and I can’t make the police see me as black. It’s obvious I’m white and they’ll treat me that way.
That afternoon when my daughter came home from camp, I did what I always do when there is potentially frightening event in the news. I sat her down and told her what happened and what was continuing to happen to protesters and that she needed to understand that it was very far away so there was no reason to be afraid but that it was important for us to use this event to talk about things that she could do to help keep herself safe just in case. I explained that not all police officers were racist or shoot people without cause. It is their job to protect everyone but, the fact is that some police officers are racist and she needs to know how to do her best to be safe. We did role playing with me as the police officer (“Mama, if a police officer was really racist, he’d talk way scarier than that. Try again.”) and then her as the officer (Let’s just say if she goes into police force –watch out!!). I talked about remaining calm, being still, following directions, keeping hands in view. We talked about how she might do these things and then find the officer to be really nice – how great!- but if not, she’d be doing her part to stay safe.
Needless to say, it was an emotionally draining experience and knowing that I have many friends, on Facebook and IRL, who are white with black children I posted something about the experience. And yes, many of my friends were having the exact same conversations with their kids or asking for advice on how to do it from those who have. But I also see why many people will not understand why I would share such things with a seven year-old and why I would teach her such things at such a young age.
The first part is based on personal experience. When I was about little, I saw a snippet of the news – video of Vietnam that included discussion of guerilla fighters. I knew Vietnam was very far away so while I was scared, I felt safe. Then something happened in a city quite close to where I lived and there was discussion on guerrilla tactics. In my little kid mind I was convinced that gorillas were getting closer and closer to where I lived. I spent night after night for weeks, awake in my bed making plans for where I’d run and hide when the gorillas came to my house! Given the presence of the media in our lives these days, I cannot begin to assure that my child will not hear about Mike Brown’s murder, or any of the other awful things that have happened in the last couple of years, so instead of trying to keep it from her, I assure that she gets information that is correct and as gently as possible – from me.
The second part is that if this last few days has reinforced one thing, it’s that it is my job to wake the hell up, see where my child might potentially experience danger because of her race and get about teaching her either 1) how to avoid it or 2) how to most effectively handle it.
And with regard to her age, will a police officer randomly walk up to my seven year-old and harass her? Not likely at all. But she does not benefit from my white privilege umbrella all the time because she’s not with me 24/7. She has friends who are black and in black families. They have older siblings and parents. She could easily become collateral damage if they are stopped by the police and she does not know how to behave. In addition, she will not be seven forever. One day she will be a teenager, will all the asinine decisions kids make at that age. She will be driving. Black kids who grow up in black families get modeling in all these things every day. Black children adopted by white parents don’t get that benefit and in order to learn them they need 1) black role models and 2) white parents who are willing and able to see through their privilege to talk with them about race, racism, and how to deal with it and these things need to be reinforced over time in order for them to integrate them and be able to use those skills when they need them.
Last night my daughter and I attended a Moment of Silence event. One of the speakers who followed the silence gave an example of how to teach children to act with the police and then asked parents who had told their children similar to raise their hands. Before I could even get my hand up my daughter proudly proclaimed, “You did that Mama!” A woman in front of us turned around, looked me in the eye and said, “You’re doing a good job.” I dissolved into tears. After 48 hours of feeling like a completely ill-prepared and inept parent, I really needed that!