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For hundreds of years, Black families have been forced to have "The Talk" about race and police encounters in the United States.
Parents told Insider that these conversations are gut-wrenching for everyone involved, but they're necessary so youth are equipped with the tools and guidance needed to navigate society as people of color.
The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25 pushed tens of thousands of people to demand justice and an end to racism and police violence.
Ronnie Dunn, an associate professor at Cleveland State University, told Insider that he is "cautiously optimistic" because Floyd's death sparked a reckoning for white people as well.
Ronnie Dunn was four years old when he was first called a racial slur.
He had climbed up a tree with his neighbors, who were white, when their aunt yelled out of a window for them to get back inside the house and to "never let her catch them playing with" Black children again, referring to them as "n-----s."
"I, being a child, had no idea what had been said, and neither did my playmates — we all just froze," Dunn said. "But from the tone of her voice, we knew something was wrong."
Dunn returned to his house where he "fumbled" while trying to explain the incident to his mother. He remembered her demeanor changing before she lifted him into her arms, carried him to the living room, and sat him on her lap. She used a children's Bible book with a "European image of Jesus on the cover, sitting on a boulder surrounded by multiracial children" to introduce her youngest son to racism, Dunn said.
That was in 1965. Dunn is now an associate professor of urban studies at Cleveland State University, who vividly recalls feeling "burdened" by the "disturbing" realization that he was "being judged unfairly."
"It damages your self-esteem to grasp at such a young age that you are somehow viewed as less than other people because of something that's beyond your control," Dunn said.
"Racism has a profound impact on the psyche of both Black and white children because it instills a sense of racial inferiority in Black children" while teaching white children that they're society's "preferable aesthetic," he added.
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'The Talk' can be traumatic for both children and parents
This grim ritual has been a part of Black families for generations. Dubbed "The Talk," it involves parents educating their children about how and why the color of their skin will impact their lives and preparing them for inevitable encounters with police.
And, according to Denisse Weil Ross, who has a 9-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter, the sobering conversations can traumatize parents as well.
George Floyd died on May 25, handcuffed and pinned facedown by three Minneapolis police officers. A bystander captured his final moments in a video that prompted conversations about racism and police brutality.
Three days later, Ross' son walked into his parents' room while CNN was airing footage of Floyd's death. Ross wasn't able to change the channel in time so she looked on in horror as her child "watched the part with the officer's knee on his neck and George Floyd screaming out," she said.
At first, he didn't fully comprehend what had happened, Ross said, but that changed after a few hours of processing the violence he had witnessed.
"The whole day he was just asking questions: 'Why did it happen? Did that man do something wrong? Did he steal something? Why did the policeman do that? Isn't the policeman supposed to help? Is the policeman in trouble?'" Ross said.
So her husband talked to their child about racism and issues with policing in the United States.
Both parents wept that evening.
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'We want them to come home'
Muffy Mendoza told Insider that deep-seated racial injustice in the US has forced Black parents to develop this way of speaking to their children.
Over hundreds of years, white supremacists have used slavery, lynchings, police violence, and systemic inequities to maintain control over and terrorize Black Americans. "The Talk" has existed in different versions across each era and will continue to be necessary unless there's a substantive and sustained change in society as we know it, according to Mendoza, the executive director of a Pittsburgh-based support group for parents of color called Brown Mamas.
Mendoza, whose three children are 11, 12, and 18 years old respectively, described the conversation as a "blatant" look at the Black experience in this nation. She began her conversation with her eldest son by letting him know that "this is not his fault — this is the American system."
White supremacists will unjustly label Black people "whether they're wearing a hoodie, whether they're walking on this side of the road or running on that side of the street, whether they're a drug addict, or whether they're a dad trying to go out and get something for their kids," Mendoza said.
Having "The Talk" means "you name it all and you don't beat around the bush," according to Ross.
Ross explained to her son that "unfair and unjust things are still happening," so there's still work to be done to continue in the footsteps of Black changemakers like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks. Although people might mistreat him, she asked her child to be careful and conduct himself in a way that keeps him safe.
"We want them to come home. Everything comes out of that. We do it so that they won't be killed, so that they can survive — that's the baseline," Ross said.
Right now, her son is young and always accompanied by an adult. When he becomes older and that changes, Ross is considering taking him to the local police station near their home in the San Francisco Bay Area and introducing him to the officers.
"That humanizes my son to the police," she said, adding that she would like to tell the officers, "I just want to make sure you know that this is my son. This is his name. He's going to be in the neighborhood playing. He is a good boy."
Ross is also certain that her children will get pulled over by police once they're older and driving by themselves. So she plans to teach them practical strategies, like keeping their hands where the officer can see them, not making any sudden movements, answering all questions, and seeking permission even to get their car registration and insurance information out of the glove compartment.
They will also be told "not to be sassy or argumentative, but to act with a tremendous amount of caution," she said.
The onus is on the oppressed to survive white supremacy
Nia Rhodes Jackson grew up in Queens, New York, as the daughter of a Black studies professor.
It was common knowledge that Black people would have to "work harder, longer, stronger to get the same recognition as a white person," but that was "juxtaposed with the knowledge that they were capable" of greatness, just like the people that came before them and whose shoulders they stood on, she said.
But, neither she nor her husband, who grew up in Brooklyn, were given water or Nerf guns to play with. They understood early on that only white children could play with such toys. They also knew which neighborhoods they were welcome in and which to avoid.
They "came of age" in the 1980s, which were marred by several high-profile racial crimes in New York: The deaths of Michael Griffith, Willie Turks, and Yusef Hawkins as well as the wrongful convictions of five teenagers for gang-raping and almost killing Trisha Meili in Central Park.
That meant walking a straight and narrow path to succeed in life.
Today, Rhodes Jackson lives in Connecticut with her husband and four children — two girls, ages 14 and 10, and two boys, ages 7 and 3 — and finds herself guiding her oldest child the same way.
"I've told her, 'I don't want you walking into a store with people if they're being noisy. I don't want you to be accused of something,'" she said. "And so I don't think that that coaching by Black parents has changed in all these years."
Rhodes Jackson hasn't yet had that conversation with her sons, but it weighs on her mind.
"There's times when I look at my son and I think to myself, 'Well, right now everybody thinks you're cute and innocent. At what point will they think you're a threat?'" she said.
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'There is a certain sense of anxiety and stress that resides within our bodies all the time'
Black men are stereotyped as criminals and Black women are viewed as aggressive and angry, but Black families are still the ones having "The Talk," even though white supremacists are responsible for these discriminatory views, according to Mendoza.
"It should not be on the parents of the oppressed and the children of the oppressed to have 'The Talk' to try to de-escalate the emotions and physical reactions of white supremacists who we might just meet in everyday interactions," she said. "Why is this even something that we are having to engage in?"
Sheena Anderson-Francis, who also lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, has home-schooled her 8-year-old son for the last year. She worries constantly when he's not around her, even if he's with friends or at classes.
"There is a certain sense of anxiety and stress that resides within our bodies all the time," she said about Black mothers. "It's a kind of consciousness about whether somebody is going to be disrespectful to our children because they are Black."
She likened the worry that plagues Black parents to generational post-traumatic stress disorder.
"It makes me sad as a Black mother that I have to have these kinds of conversations with my son because, in a way, it strips away his innocence," she said. "I want him to believe in the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny and have that magical kind of childhood that other children can have. But, in a way, I rob him of that by having these very real conversations with him, which I feel like I can't not have."
Her own childhood in Atlanta was "dynamic" and "enriched" by Black history, she said.
So when she moved to California, Anderson-Francis said she was "offended by people" who didn't want to acknowledge race or teach their children about it.
That's something only a white person can say, she added, because "people are going to see my son and they're going to know he's Black and certain implicit biases are going to come up."
"So why are we not talking about race and why shouldn't we accept cultural differences?" Anderson-Francis asked.
Rhodes Jackson agreed, adding that it upsets her when people claim to be "colorblind."
"You should love me and my blackness versus erasing my blackness to love me," she said. "Don't say you didn't see color — say you saw it and you loved it."
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'White America is being confronted with this reality that they can't rationalize'
According to Rhodes Jackson, there's a limit to how much Black people can "give voice" because, in the end, white people need to be the ones that want to change.
"Women marched and fought for the vote, but, ultimately, they didn't have the vote. Men had to vote to give women the vote," she said.
The same logic applies to race relations as well.
"Black people can rally, can protest, can dialog, can write, can create art, but it has to be the person that is acting from the stance of supremacy that says, 'I understand I have to change the dynamic,'" Rhodes Jackson said. "While that change is going on, I still have to have certain conversations with my kids because I have to do everything in my power to try to arm them to exist in the world that they're in. My job is to keep my kids alive."
Dunn said also that Blacks cannot solve racism.
"That takes whites," he said. "Whites will have to solve that. We can work along with them."
"The Talk" is a result of Blacks being forced to "adjust to racism for survival," he said, whether it was during the Jim Crow era of "Don't do this or that when in the presence of whites" to today's discussions about police violence.
Acknowledging this "unfair burden," Dunn said he is "cautiously optimistic" about the present moment in history.
Floyd was not the first Black man whose death was caught on video. However, more people are being exposed to the underbelly of society today because of cell phones, social media, and the pandemic, which made it so "everything was at a standstill and there weren't any national distractions," Dunn said.
There was no part in the "horrific video" of Floyd's death that suggested that the police officers were afraid for their lives, "and yet, we have this casual snuffing out of a Black man's life over eight minutes and 46 seconds," he added.
"So now white America is being confronted with this reality that they can't rationalize or justify," Dunn said. "And now they are the ones who have to have a talk with their young child who was home and witnessing this.
"Now they have to have 'The Talk' and explain how that can happen in our society."
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