I remember my dad giving me the talk as a thirteen-year-old boy. It wasn’t a sit-down. It wasn’t an awkward, choppy speech delivered in an uncomfortable tone, and it wasn’t the last time we had the conversation. We were riding home from school one day when my dad looked over at me and said: “Remember, you still a nigga.”
Over the next few years, those words would be a repeated theme from my dad as he taught us how he believed the world would always see us. My dad didn’t want us to be shocked when we would inevitably have a racist encounter with someone in the world. He knew that we were just as likely to experience racism at school, work, church, or at a routine traffic stop. We were young black men, and we needed to be prepared to enter a world that would remind us of our blackness whether we liked it or not.
I used to hate that my dad would say that. As most teenagers do, I thought my dad was out of touch with a changing world. I didn’t want to grow up limited by the belief that racism would be an obstacle for me. I went to Christian schools my whole life with mostly white students, where the Biblical base of our education held explicit racism at bay. I had a lot of white friends that all treated me just fine. I didn’t notice my teachers ever treating me like I was any different than any other student, but my dad was skeptical. He believed that me and my brothers we singled out at school because we were the only black kids in our classes.
In hindsight, I can’t say he was wrong. I wasn’t much of a trouble maker, but I can remember spending a lot of time writing Bible verses on the chalkboard after school and mopping the floors of the classroom in detention. I remember getting in a fight with one of my teacher’s sons. We both threw hands, and only one of us got in trouble for it. You can probably guess who that was.
I can look back on several other experiences like the time Amy, the white girl I had a crush on in elementary school poured her apple juice on the ground and said “there you go” after I asked her for a drink. Or there was the one time in high-school when a white student looked me in my face and called me a “stupid black person.” I laugh at that one because he was racist enough to call me stupid, but not brave enough to call me a nigger. These are the things my dad wanted me to be prepared for.
My dad was trying to communicate with my brothers and me that the world we were growing up in was one where we would be treated as “other.” He grew up during the Jim Crow era. He was a 31-year-old black preacher when Dr. King was killed, and he knew that even though that era had ended, his sons would still have to endure the trauma of not being white in a society that demonized blackness. All the black families in our town would have the same talk about what our blackness means in society. All us black sons and daughters would get the message. We would have to work twice as hard, be twice as educated, speak twice as articulate to make up for the deficit of being considered half as human.
Black families across America have this in common. We have all had to endure the sting of racism at some point or another, and with each new generation, we hope that we won’t have to have the same talk with our kids that our parents had with us. Perhaps someday black parents won’t have to have “the talk,” but as of today, we still do.
Three days ago, I was with my youngest daughter. She’s thirteen. We were attending her end of the year volleyball party inside a gated community here in the Bay Area. As you can imagine, the houses in this neighborhood are breath-taking.
We drove past one multi-million dollar house after another. She and I would point out any particularly gorgeous homes we saw, and she asked me how much I thought each house was worth. I thought she would have been dreaming of one day living in a neighborhood like this, but when I asked her if she’d want to live there, her answer surprised me.
She told me she would be bored living in a gated community. She said it seemed stuffy. (no offense to any of you who live in gated communities) But, what I think she was really feeling came out in the form of a question she asked me after that. She looked over at me and asked: “Dad, how many black families do you think live here?” I said I’m sure there aren’t that many, but this neighborhood is mostly white. Of course, she wanted to know why, and it was at that moment that I knew I too was about to have “the talk” with my daughter.
To be continued…