‘The Talk’ (no, not that one)

Have you had ‘The Talk’? No, not the one about where babies come from — though it’s high time you got around to that, too. I mean the one about stranger danger. Not just any stranger danger, but the danger faced by brown-skinned (male) children who cross paths with light-skinned (male) adults bearing weapons.

If you’re like me, you probably didn’t give much thought to ‘The Talk’ before the Trayvon Martin case hit the headlines. In case you’ve been in a coma for the last two weeks, seventeen-year-old Trayvon was on his way home from the corner store with Skittles and iced tea when George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain, became convinced that he posed a dire threat and shot him dead. The details are in dispute, but what we do know is that Trayvon was unarmed and, other than the fatal gunshot wound, showed no evidence of a confrontation on autopsy.

As the controversy rages over Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense and the Florida law called ‘stand your ground’ that protects him from criminal prosecution, I’ve heard story after story from mothers of brown-skinned sons describing ‘The Talk’.

As the developmental shift from adorable little boy to preteen takes hold, these moms worry less about pimples and changing voices, and more about whether the lanky legs and mismatched bodies of approaching puberty might appear menacing to those inclined to be suspicious. I read tales of class valedictorians and star athletes of color, warned over and over again by cautious parents to always keep their hands in view when out at night and address every white adult, particularly a police officer, as ‘Sir’ or ‘Ma’am’. The indignity of having to teach children, barely out of elementary school, the ugly facts about racism that remains so deeply rooted in our national consciousness is hard for me to imagine. But then, their lives may depend on it.

By accident of birth, my two boys have fair, pinkish skin tones and tend to look younger than their twenty-something years. No matter how brooding their swagger as young teens, it’s hard to imagine anyone would have felt threatened by their approach; low-slung jeans and hoodies or not. It would never occur to me to have ‘The Talk’.

I did get a call from our local police once. Older Son was seventeen and enjoying the  freedom that comes with a brand spankin’ new driver’s license. He was leaving a movie with a group of friends shortly after our community’s 11 PM curfew (he had cleared the plan with me earlier, since our house deadline was also 11) and was snagged by a patrolman lying in wait. We moms, plus a dad or two, arrived instantly to pick them up from the theater lot, apologizing profusely while our teens listened to a fatherly lecture about following the law and staying out of trouble.

That’s what our kids come to expect from brushes with the law in certain bubble-wrapped, privileged communities. Might that scene have looked different if the teens involved happened to be of color, heading to parked cars after 11 at night? Might a couple of them have ended up with hands cuffed behind their backs, slammed up against the squad car? I’m just saying.

Younger Son has a close buddy from high school who fits the description. Nick is 6’4″, and about 250 lbs. His skin is a medium brown. Both his parents work in the successful hi-tech business they started after moving to this country from India 20 plus years ago.

Nick is smart, hardworking and accomplished. He played defense on the varsity football team and was student body president. He went on to attend an elite Massachusetts college and is now getting started in the film business in L.A. A teddybear of a guy, Nick spent many hours at my kitchen table when he was seventeen and I trust him like my own.

I’ve thought a lot about Nick these past few weeks, and I wonder if his parents felt the need to have ‘The Talk’. No, he’s not African-American like Trayvon, but how would anyone know that in the shadows, after dark, on the street? Nick is very, very brown and his size would make him appear far more menacing than the smaller Florida teen. Does he worry about seeming threatening to white adults? Does he go out of his way to make sure his hands are visible when he’s in unsure places at night?

Maybe we should all be having ‘The Talk’ with our kids, regardless of color. The one about how, sadly, we still live in a country where people might be judged by the color of their skin, rather than the content of their character; where boys like Trayvon may get in the way of grown men like Zimmerman and violence may result. ‘The Talk’ is about what we can do to ensure that Trayvon is the last child who dies as a result of racial fear and how we can seek justice for all the Trayvons who’ve gone before.

My sons have fair skin. It was an accident of birth. We all need to speak up.

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?


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