How the myth that all Black parents give kids “the talk” about police is used to silence resistance
My mother told me that I should always fight for what I believe in, whether it brings me personal harm or not.
It’s interesting how so many of the stories we claim to be universal Black experiences seem to involve cutting ourselves smaller to avoid anti-Black violence. Stories involving that ever-present white woman—more perennial than any weed—who clutches her purse whenever she crosses our path, and how we all supposedly just want her to know we aren’t as dangerous as she thinks. Stories about “the talk” all of our parents supposedly give us regarding how to survive a police encounter by staying calm, compliant and non-threatening.
But my mother never gave me that talk. I could interpret this as yet another reason to feel left out of Blackness, this just one more self-effacing cost of my odd Hare Krsna upbringing, or I could understand my mother’s journey through religion as a feature of her Blackness, not as something undertaken in spite of it (I’ve only recently come to understand it as such). I could pretend that there were things about my growing up that somehow exceptionalized my relationship with my community, or I could deduce that my mother was one of many Black parents who knew well the violence of police—police who showed up constantly throughout my childhood to exacerbate my grandmother’s bipolar disorder during many crises and lock up my cousins—and who still didn’t give their children that talk.
My mother’s story matters. Not because there is anything wrong with “the talk,” necessarily. I sincerely believe most Black parents give it out of a pure desire to see their children survive. Yes, there are things a person can do to possibly deescalate violent encounters with the police, and when survival is all to consider, it makes sense that parents would want their children to do those things. It makes sense for a parent to believe survival is all to consider, too. But that doesn’t mean it is true that survival is all to consider. And my mother’s story matters because she is a testament to the necessity of considering other things.
My mother told me that I should always fight for what I believe in, whether it brings me personal harm or not. That message wasn’t always consistent, because no parent can witness harm befalling their child and not consider any other alternative, but it always recurred. To my mother, as Black a parent as any other, there are things more important than survival. My agency and freedom meant something, and they could never be replaced.
On Saturday, at the Second Step Presidential Justice Forum at Benedict College, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was asked by a student at the historical Black college, “If I’m your son, what advice would you give me next time I’m pulled over by a police officer?” Sanders replied that the student should identify the police officer “in a polite way.”
“I would respect what they are doing so that you don’t get shot in the back of the head,” Sanders continued, “but I would also be very mindful of the fact that as a nation, we have got to hold police officers accountable for the actions that they commit.”
Sanders’ words sparked an intense online firestorm, but they mirrored “the talk” in many ways. In both cases, the idea that there are things we can possibly do to not “get shot in the back of the head” becomes things we should do, so that even while acknowledging systematic problems with holding police officers accountable, the onus still gets placed on us. The prerequisite to our survival is reinforced as our “respect” and “politeness,” when we shouldn’t have any at all.
Again, I’m not saying that the issue is that some of our parents give us these talks. It’s that we are told this is the only story, that shrinking ourselves or being non-threatening in the face of anti-Black violence is always the right, good, sensible thing, rather than just the thing some of us or our parents did because loving Black people is complicated and we shouldn’t have to give up our freedom to survive, but sometimes we do. It’s that when being non-threatening is always right, and universally sensible, those who do not have the same complicated relationship to and investment in survival as our parents, like Bernie Sanders, can criticize us for not shrinking, and we can accept that as okay because what other story is there?
But we not only deserve to be able to put our freedom before our survival, sometimes we have to.
I’ve only ever been detained three times and arrested once, so of course this all must be taken with a grain of salt (the fact that this qualifies as “only” for Black people is another wild story), but in every instance there was something I could have done to avoid the situation. I could have shut up, backed down, accepted insult, given up on insisting that I was in the right, even though I was, and there have been plenty of other times when I have done these things.
But that I could have made myself smaller, stayed calm or complied and chose not to does not mean I was wrong. Does not mean I didn’t have sense. When Black people resist anti-Black policing, talk back, fight back, shoot back, it’s not because something is wrong with us. It’s not that we should have listened to some universal talk from some omniscient guides. It’s that sometimes our freedom and moves toward liberation matter more than our lives. They have to. And there must be other guides that show us how.
My mother taught me that I should always fight for what I believe in, whether it brings me personal harm or not. I don’t always follow her teachings. I will teach my children the same, although I am under no illusion that I will always be able to see them facing harm and not step in, at the expense of their agency. Being Black is complicated. I can only imagine that being a Black parent is more so. Give room for all of our stories, even the ones that highlight your own fears and shortcomings and lack of courage. Especially those. Maybe that is the only way we can overcome.