Gretchen L. Kelly, Author

“The Talk” That Proves Racism Is Alive

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“The police in New York City
They chased a boy right through the park
And in a case of mistaken identity
The put a bullet through his heart
Heart breakers with your forty four, I wanna tear your world apart”

-The Rolling Stones, Heartbreaker

Do you worry about what others think of you? I know I do. I worry about it too much. My worries are there because I want people to like me. But imagine if simply being you made others uncomfortable. Imagine if walking around in your skin caused fear. What if upon seeing you a person’s eyes enlarged, they backed away, they avoided eye contact or even turned and walked the other way.

Last summer I read a post by Questlove (Drummer of the Roots) on the Huffington Post blog. He wrote about how he has to worry, all the time -everywhere he goes, about what others think of him. Of how they may react to his appearance. I cried quietly as I read it. He detailed living his life, walking around trying to not be imposing. He described what it’s like to put fear in people simply by looking the way you look…

“All the time I’m in scenarios in which primitive, exotic-looking me (6’2″, 300 pounds, uncivilized afro for starters) finds himself in places that people that look like me aren’t normally found. I mean, what can I do? I have to be somewhere on Earth, correct?”

He routinely turns down invitations to swanky places because it’s “been hammered into his DNA to not ‘rock the boat’ “

I won’t attempt to summarize any further what he wrote because I won’t be able to do it justice. You’ll have to (click the highlighted link above) and read it for yourself. He wrote this right after the acquittal verdict in the Trayvon Martin case.

I wish I could say that his story is rare, an anomaly. Sadly it’s not. It is so common that African American parents in our country have to explain to their sons at a young age how people may perceive them and react to them.

They have The Talk with their sons.

No, not the sex talk. This is a conversation aimed at preventing young black men from inciting violence or suspicion or incarceration because of the color of their skin. This conversation informs these young boys that they must tread lightly around white men and police and other authority figures. Tragic stories abound of young black men being roughed up by the police for no reason. Young black men being killed because they didn’t defer to authority even in the face of extreme and obvious injustice. Young black men being shot because they were simply there.

Don’t talk back to white men.

Don’t try to explain, even when they have obviously mistaken you for someone else.

Don’t run down the street, someone might think you stole something.

Don’t hang out on the corner with a group of friends, they might assume you’re in a gang.

Don’t reach for your phone, they might think you’re reaching for a gun.

Move slowly.

Keep your hands visible at all times.

You may say that these are reasonable instructions for anyone. But I don’t know anyone personally who has been arrested or killed who did nothing wrong, committed no crime. Because I’m a white woman living in suburbia.

I have never had to tell my son that if he is running down the street that someone may assume he has committed a crime. Think about the absurdity of that for a minute. Don’t run. Your game of tag or your attempt to race to a friend’s house may be perceived as a threat. Think about telling your son not to run down the street. Ever. That is the reality you face if you are the parent of a young black boy.

This isn’t a new thing. The Talk dates back to 1863 following the Emancipation Proclamation. When slaves were freed in rebel states they were told to not celebrate openly, to essentially “fly under the radar” to avoid giving angry rebels cause to go after them. What I learned after the Trayvon Martin case was that The Talk still exists. It’s still relevant and necessary.

The Talk is a sad part of coming of age in the black community. And I had never heard of it before. Such is the privilege of being white in America. You can say you know racism is still alive in our country. You can have your heart ache with each new story of a son and a brother being shot. But if you’re white in America, you don’t know what it’s like. This is a reality that has been around for over a century and most of us have never and will never experience what it’s like to live in this kind of fear.

Right after the verdict in the Martin case, another trial was beginning. A 76 year old man was on trial for the murder of his 13 year old neighbor. He thought that Darius Simmons, a young black boy, had broken into his home days earlier. He shot him in the chest and killed him.

Recently our national attention was tuned in to the “Loud Music” trial. Michael Dunn faces up to 60 years in prison for firing 10 rounds into a car of young black men, killing 17 year old Jordan Davis.

These are just the cases that make the news. How many cases are there that don’t result in an arrest, that never catch the fleeting attention of the media? Democracy Now reported that in a study of 2012 shootings, that “at least 136 unarmed African Americans were killed by police, security guards and self-appointed vigilantes in 2012.”

Becoming numb to these horrific stories, to these appalling tales, is not an option. You can’t be numb if you look at their faces.

The faces of these children who were murdered.

These sons who were loved and adored as much as you and I love and adore our own children.

These are children. And they are gone forever.

Because they went to buy Skittles.

Because they were taking out the trash.

Because they turned the radio up.

For buying Skittles
Walking home after buying Skittles
He was taking out the trash
Taking out the trash
He turned the music up too loud.
Playing music too loud.

You can’t look at these faces and feel numb.

If you’re like me you feel kicked in the gut. Despair.

I see a little of my son in each of them. I feel pain for the parents of these boys. I feel sorrow for them because I know a little bit about what it’s like to lose someone you love at such a tender age.

And I feel enraged.

I feel pulse racing, heat inducing, hand trembling rage.

And I don’t know what to do with that.

But I will have The Talk with my son.

With my white,suburban dwelling, young son.

Not for the same reason and not the exact same talk. I will explain to my son that because he is growing up  as a young white man in our country that this talk isn’t essential to his survival. But that he needs to know that it is essential for many boys his age.

I will explain that some of his friends are having The Talk with their parents because without it they may inadvertently put themselves, their very lives, at risk.

I will tell him that he needs to know that racism, which baffles a young innocent boy like him, is still present. That he needs to know that what goes on around him, even if it doesn’t affect him directly, is still worth his concern and attention. That even if by the time he has children The Talk isn’t necessary, that he can never forget it.

I will tell him that to forget our ugly sordid past with racism in this country is to ignore and deny a threat to our humanity.

That to forget allows it to fester and grow and continue.

Questlove’s story has stuck with me since I read it many months ago. It was heartbreaking. And it illustrates the magnitude of the problem. A noticeable famous figure, on t.v. five nights a week for the last five years, still encounters fear and racism.

Yes, racism is alive and well. And it’s ludicrous that anyone would need to be informed of that.

It’s not obvious to those of us who don’t feel the brutal brunt of it on a regular basis. Many people will scoff and point to our black president. Some will recite all of the ridiculous defenses and excuses that have been trotted out by lawyers and pundits in a lame attempt to explain how and why these children were killed.

But denying it is extremely dangerous.

Denying it or downplaying it allows it to continue.

Sticking our heads in the sand may seem comforting at first. Ignorance is bliss and all.

But eventually that sand becomes suffocating as will the cold reality of who we are- what kind of people we become if we can see the faces of these children who have been killed because of how they look, because of their race- and don’t at the very least acknowledge it. If we do that then we become no better than him:

Michael Dunn, upon hearing his verdict.
Michael Dunn, who shot Jordan Davis,upon hearing his verdict.

We become the personification of self righteous indignation when we shrug off the realities that black families in our country still face.

Jordan Davis’ mom put it best,

“You can’t pretend anymore. The blinders are off now. If there is this level of racism, it can’t be under the table anymore. It has to be exposed so we can deal with it.”

I say that we can’t deny racism as long as parents are still having The Talk.

The conversation that’s been a necessity -a tool of survival in the African American community for 151 years- when that conversation is no longer needed, then we can declare victory. Then we can say that it was a part of our past, no longer plaguing our society.

When it’s no longer necessary to “hammer it into (the) DNA” of young black boys, then and only then, will we have justice for Trayvon… for Darius… for Jordan.

Update, August 22, 2014: And now for Michael Brown.

Big Mike Jr Brown via Facebook
Big Mike Jr Brown via Facebook

28 Responses

  1. Very well said. Racism does plague our country and it makes me sick, it makes me question my faith in humanity.

    Personally, I don’t understand it. I don’t understand why people (of any race) think they are better than others based on culture, religion, race, height, weight, etc. We all come to be by sperm fertilizing an egg, we all spend nine months in our mama’s belly, and we all enter this world from our mama’s vagina. Why does it make any difference at all what color we are? A lot of racism is learned; whether it is one’s parents or grandparents who spew racist hatred, friends, teachers, neighbors… we must stop teaching this behavior! I would like to think that racism will decrease once the baby boomers die off, but not if they teach it to their children and grandchildren. What really needs to change is laws, and specifically the Stand Your Ground law in Florida, it must be eradicated. Especially after the results of the Zimmerman trial, people think they can just go out and shoot other people for basically no reason, they just have to “claim” self defense (the victim cannot dispute this claim because they are DEAD). Did I mention how all of this makes me sick?

    Sorry for ranting but CNN is beating this topic to death and it’s been driving me nuts. Really wonderful article.

    1. I completely agree. It is appalling that this kind of crime of hatred continues. The Stand Your Ground Law is a travesty, all of it makes me sick to my stomach. As I was writing this and researching these cases further I physically felt sick. And don’t apologize to me for ranting, I always appreciate a good rant. I prefer that to apathy! Thank you so much for reading this!

  2. I’m glad you are bringing further awareness to this pattern. You are probably already familiar with but I’d thought I’d mention his recent PBS show about finance reform in order to change politics in Washington. It contains some ways of proaction for institutional change. (including Judicial system) He has a Take Action website which includes ideas for fighting against racism in 2014. Thanks for what you share!

    1. I occasionally watch his show, but had not seen the one about finance reform. Campaign finance reform, if done correctly, could make such a huge impact on SO MANY issues we face today. The NRA was behind the Stand Your Ground Law and their power over our legislature is criminal. I just took a quick look at the website and I can see that I could get sucked in and lost in there for days reading. Thank you so much for telling me about it. And, thank you for reading this.

      1. Oh… I’m glad you added the word “campaign” to the “finance reform”… I accidentally neglected that term and it’s what Moyers is addressing very specifically!

        Anyhow, thanks again to you and please keep up your good work!

  3. The sensitivity and empathy here is what makes it work. You seem to have a real gift for using the personal stuff to get at a larger point, and also, I must say, you excel at the long-form blogging.

    1. Thank you so much! Your words and thoughts mean a lot! I have to admit, that I have been fighting to make my posts shorter. I worry that longer posts turn people away, but I struggle with brevity! Perhaps I should embrace long form (when needed). I tend to be too wordy and do a LOT of editing and still end up with well over 1000 words!

      1. I am a very wordy writer myself. The first thing I do after I am done with a draft is cut. I aim for 250-600 words, and allow myself to run over. If I get to 800, I’m looking to turn it into 2. But some things just take a lot of words to say. Some of my Tolkien posts and my social media blogging runs to 1200 words or more.

  4. Loved this, Gretchen.

    Gene said it. You’re kind of a bad-ass at long-form blogging.

    It’s funny. Because I agree with every single word you’ve written here.

    But I’m still guilty of taking this subject too lightly for all the reasons you’ve never experienced it personally. For all the reasons you don’t worry about your child running down the street.

    Because I don’t look “scary.” So I’ve never personally dealt with this.

    You’re completely right. One child gets shot because of his skin color? Hell. One person gets mistreated in ANY way simply because of his or her skin color in 2014?

    It’s incomprehensible the ignorance involved in such a thing.

    You made this about my son.

    You made this about other moms and dads who love their children as much as we do.

    You made this about a grown man–a kind and famous one–who is still intimidated by certain social gatherings, and sometimes, just walking down the street.

    Reminding us that underneath all the surface stuff, we’re all exactly the same.

  5. Thank you so much Matt. I think a lot of us probably took it for granted that our sons could walk down the street without attracting hatred and suspicion. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have to live that way. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have to guide a child through that kind of messed up world. And I can’t imagine losing your child in such a hateful, ignorant, senseless way. But I think now that all of these stories are in the news, we can’t take it for granted anymore. I look at my son and I’m grateful that is one worry I don’t have to have, but I feel guilty for that gratitude. And I really do look at these pictures and see my son. Writing this really tore me up and I couldn’t sleep all night. Something really, really needs to change. I was doing a little more research and reading more articles yesterday and saw that in 2012 that at least 26 children or teens died in Stand Your Ground cases. And only a few have made the news. Anyways, I’m getting all worked up again. What I really wanted to say is thank you for always reading and commenting and being so supportive. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it. And to say that I made you think more about this issue is… well…. I’m grateful.

    1. It is sad and pathetic that we live in that kind of world. I just read your post about that and it made me emotional and sad and angry. And I don’t know what to do about it. Writing doesn’t feel like enough…

  6. I agree with this wholeheartedly. I just don’t know what to DO about it. I’ve talked to my children. They have biracial cousins whom they love so I’m not worried about them. But how do you change the minds of people who were raised racist? And that’s where racism comes from. It’s learned, mostly from racist parents. How do you undo that?

    1. This is what I struggle with TD. I talk to my kids. I teach them. But then what? I write about it but then what can be done? I believe in the power of words, but words are by far not enough. I don’t know. I think the process of eradicating racism comes in drips. The Civil Rights Movement changed a lot of people’s perceptions. Woke a lot of people up. But obviously not everyone. It feels like we’re on the cusp of another movement and we probably should be with all of these things that keep happening. What’s happening in Ferguson will hopefully wake a few more people up. But I personally feel sad and frustrated and powerless.

    1. Thank you so much for saying that. It is heartbreaking. I was very emotional when I wrote it, of course I wrote it right after the Zimmerman verdict… It makes me so sad that it is so relevant now. And last month. And the month before…

  7. Take. The. Guns. Away!

    Ohmigosh, I know this is a sideshoot, but honestly – that people – ANY people – can just go and buy a weapon which makes it SO EASY to kill…

    I think one of the worst things I ever saw was a prank gone wrong – it was on Youtube and yeah, okay it came with a warning but only ‘prank gone badly wrong’. Someone had hidden in a post box, and they were throwing the mail out again when people posted it in. People mostly laughed. Except one man who, upon seeing his mail shoved out on the floor, took his handgun, put the barrel into the mailbox and fired several times, then just WALKED AWAY!

    It’s all very well to talk about respecting one another and valuing all human beings for who they are and trying to disregard the colour of their skin, but as long as people – any people – have a perception that another person or persons might have weapons and the inclination to just randomly use them…wherever those perceptions come from…there is going to be fear on all sides.

    And fear on all sides pitches people against one another.

    I *know* we don’t have things perfect in the UK, and I *know* racism exists, but I also know there are a hell of a lot fewer deaths, percentage-wise, than in the US…

    And when there are grieving parents, NO-ONE wins.

    1. Lizzi, I’m all for taking the guns away. So many guns and so many people, it’s a bad combination. In the U.S. they will never take guns away. I truly don’t have an issue with RESPONSIBLE and SANE and SENSIBLE people owning guns. But we don’t even have common sense regulations here. It should not be easier than getting your driver’s license. I personally know some very unstable people who own guns. It is incredibly scary. One in particular, her family has tried to have her committed. She was charged with firing a gun at an empty car. Seven rounds. In a residential neighborhood. And she still has her guns. It’s ridiculous. I recently heard a climate scientist being interviewed and he’s moving with his family to Denmark. His motivation? The drought combined with all the guns out west in the U.S. He predicts that eventually it will become very violent when water becomes very scarce and all these nuts have guns. He seemed a very intelligent and sensible man. Not one prone to hysteria or wild notions. I may be moving to Europe too if things get that crazy here… Hey! Maybe we could be neighbors! That would be a silver lining in such a scenario! (How’s that for a sideshoot…)

      1. Brilliant side-shoot. Come to Europe. Definitely. If not just England 🙂

        I think even with sane and responsible people in ownership, the higher prevalence of them there are, the higher incidence there will be of things going horribly wrong.

        It just makes me terrified because there is SO little regulation, really, and ANYONE can get one…

  8. But we have to be honest about this situation, no matter how uncomfortable the path it takes us. For to say that racism is the problem means that its solution dispenses with it altogether. But can no more put the responsibility on racists that we can on ourselves, no matter how enlightened we feel. Black kids weren’t killed- kids were killed. And where does such a symbolic association between body and value originate? In our own religious order of symbolic sovereignty, in which we kill, not a person, but a symbol of value. And this is the uncomfortable point that we have forever refused to confront, so instead we wave signs that signify our waving of signs. Our solution, in other words, is too a symbolic gesture. And the one responsible for the murder has already denigrated human life.

    1. I’m not sure if I follow everything you’re saying. I think part of what you’re saying is that even those of us who think we’re enlightened and not racist are still perpetuating the problem? I think you might have a point there. And it should not matter whether the child killed was black or white or whatever. But the motive for the killing or the motive for the assumption of a threat is often in many of these cases tied to race.

      The boy that recently got shot in the Walmart toy section holding a toy gun. You just don’t hear of these things happening nearly as often to white boys. In a toy section. And it did not occur to the officers that it was a toy. Even though he said it was a toy. Right before he was shot.

      And then you have the people that have been showing up at fast food restaurants with assault weapons to demonstrate… I don’t know what? Their rights to look threatening and dangerous? But imagine if a group of black men tried to walk around McDonalds with assault weapons strapped to their back, even in states that allow open carry. I think the response in the local police force, the media, everywhere would be a lot different. You can’t deny that long held beliefs about race still affect the way our communities and our society functions.

      I probably haven’t addressed your statement about our religious order of symbolic sovereignty. I am not sure I get the point although it sounds intriguing. One area I know very little of is religion. I know that I’m influenced by it, it’s impossible not to be. But it is not something I’ve ever subscribed to. I’m more into spirituality than religion so I may not be getting the point like I otherwise would.

      1. No, you’re right to see state violence as something that afflicts blacks more than whites. I watched a friend of mine get singled out of a crowd of white people, searched, slammed against the ground, chocked, and locked up for doing what were were also doing. But when I see such violence exercised by the police against whites or blacks, I refuse to see it for anything else than pure nihilistic destruction. “Race” is purely symbolic. It’s origins are in the symbolic ordering of spatial parameters that allow access to some, and bar it from others. A piece of paper that sits in a vault in the Smithsonian is a piece of paper, To say that it’s the Legal foundation of the United States” is meaningless. I’m not advocating anarchy or anything like that, but only return of the human being to her belonging in existence, not in a symbolic identity. And when this killing is done on behalf of a symbolic authority, human life is just the sacrifice for the symbol, which has always been the source of sovereignty.

        Consider 9/11. 3000 people did not symbolically die, they’re families were not symbolically broken. And the outrage it provoked was not on behalf of the dead, because the dead brings us to a respectful silence. The 3000 were just the collateral sacrifice for what was an attack on the “Unites States,” which is the most inessential of metaphysical entities. And we sought vengeance on behalf of that symbol, not the dead. If a Muslim killed my mother, I wouldn’t seek justice by avenging the entirety of Islam, because my mother is not a symbol, and a symbol did not kill her. And by symbolic order of sovereignty I mean all those things that are absent from consciousness but present in the compulsory modality of life. Giving allegiance to a piece of cloth with stars on it is no less idolatrous than venerating a golden calf.

        I like that your response was thoughtful, however. I just started a new blog and I want to take philosophy as a way of thinking through everyday events. So feel free to come by.

  9. This post brought tears to my eyes. I am very aware of “The Talk” as even a fair-skinned black woman who’s grown up in white suburbia has been subjected to blatant racism. I didn’t even think about it as “The Talk”. I never considered that other parents have the same conversation with their sons. I can’t imagine having it with my daughters, in the same vain, yet we will have that talk as well. Sadly, when someone opens up and talks about problems like this, the discussion is minimized by redirecting the conversation or even comparing the loss of another child (not by cops, the people who are supposed to protect us or an adult who attacked a child) has been hurt. As progressive as we are, our society is not ready to have “the talk” because they are on the defensive.

    1. When I was reading some stuff on line after the Trayvon Martin case, I read a few different articles that mentioned “The Talk.” I honestly didn’t know if that’s what it was commonly referred to, but I was floored. It really opened my eyes to just how common and necessary the discussion is.

      People who compare it to losing a child by other means, they don’t get it. Losing any child is a tragedy. But this, what’s happening is a something else. It’s systematic and institutional racism. And the people who redirect the conversation really haven’t listened.

      I think you are absolutely right. We as a society need to have “the talk.” I have had it with my son. As much as it breaks my heart to tell him about evil and ugliness that’s out there, my heart breaks so much more for the mom that has to have that talk with her child to protect him. I read a really good post today on Blogher, it was about white privilege and I really wish it was required reading in schools, at work, in life, everywhere. Here’s the link if you haven’t seen it yet:

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