The Talk: Surviving Police Encounters While Black

The Talk is a rite of passage for many African-American children: parental warnings on how to handle racial discrimination from police.

  • Every generation we fail to address racial discrimination in our institutions is a generation of African-American children who grow up learning to silence and diminish themselves.
    Photo by Flickr/jbouie
  • Police are more likely to treat black children and teenagers as adults, often leading to violence and tragedy.
    Photo by iStock/p_wei

“Mommy, the darkest people get shooted and killed and sometimes the little bit lighter ones, too,” 4-year-old Quest McEwen mused a few months ago as his mother, Tessa McEwen, listened in shock. “So, that’s why I want to be good,” he continued. “Maybe I shouldn’t talk like this so I don’t get died.”

Quest wasn’t done fretting, however, when on a more recent morning, he worried aloud that he didn’t know “if Daddy’s dead,” because his father, Jelani McEwen, had come in late the night before following after-hours volunteer work in their Chicago neighborhood.

Like scores of black and brown families throughout the United States, the McEwens are struggling with the delicate-but-brutal balancing act of protecting their children’s innocence, while educating them about the realities of what it means to be black in this country.

For these parents and their children, “The Talk” has nothing to do with birds and bees. It is about surviving police encounters, being aware of your rights and learning how to live within a complex, systemic, centuries-old framework of race-based prejudice, violence and discrimination.

The Talk is akin to a rite of passage for many African-American children, especially boys and young men. Essentially, they are taught how to behave in the presence of police to mitigate potential harm: no sudden movements, don’t question why you’re being stopped, comply with all verbal commands, never raise your voice.

Make it home alive.

4/5/2019 8:11:58 AM

I grew up in a small city of 15,000 people in west-central Pennsylvania — with no black residents. Still, I and a friend, both about age 13, were thrown down an outside stairwell, shoved against a brick wall, and "thumped" with the officers' forearms. It wasn't about race. It was about teenagers dressed like Elvis in the 1950s being out after midnight. Part of it is the "us vs. them" mentality that makes police aggressive so as to not lose control of any situation. Part of it is the "tough cop" culture that teaches police to act this way. And yes, part of it is racism. But white teenage boys also need "The Talk," and black parents need to expand their "The Talk" to say that, yes, it's about race and you can get hurt or killed just for being black -- but you can get hurt or killed just for lipping off or saying (as I stupidly did), "I'll tell my uncle; he's a lawyer!" In those videos cited by Andrea, the WHITE boys are also arguing, insulting, etc., often due to alcohol or drugs -- and get hurt. Maybe not killed, but a broken arm is more than a nuisance.

10/8/2018 3:48:00 AM

Curious if black parents have the talk with theie children on how to deal with other black people? Far more blacks murder other blacks than whites or cops. Also, do parents ask why "the talk" is so ineffectual? In every single video where a cop uses violence against a black, the black is arguing, insulting, yelling or refusing to follow the officer's orders.

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