Today, my son got his driver’s license. He is about to turn 18. Some of you might be thinking that is a little late, but we stalled for as long as we could. He is 6′3” and has long locs. He schleps regularly from our house in the city to soccer practice in the suburbs. He’s a boy with a giant heart, never met a stranger, a lover of life. He’s a good driver. He’s a black kid.
I got the idea to stall years ago when commiserating with a college friend, who has a black son the same age. “I’m not letting that fool drive!” my friend said. “That’s dangerous!”
I knew he was not talking about his teen son’s driving skills or about deadly traffic accidents. He was talking about fatal encounters with the police. We lost Prince Jones, another college friend that way in the Maryland suburbs. Somehow, these things always happen on the road.
My friend told me about a ridesharing app that allowed his son to go anywhere for $5. You might be thinking that sounds expensive, but I downloaded Lyft that night.
The peace of mind was more than worth the cost. Keeping my son off the road for two years also allowed me to buy time. It let me avoid giving him The Talk, the discussion black parents give to their sons about how to survive an encounter with the police and racist adults who wrongly see our babies as threats.
My entire soul resists the mere existence of The Talk. Cutting off his beautiful locs in the name of “respectability” will not stop a bullet. Think about the psychological toll that it must take on a child or young man to be told by adults that you trust: Hey, just try to remind the police that you are a human, so that maybe, just maybe, they might treat you like one. In the attempt to inoculate them against racism, you are injecting the disease itself.
I want my kid to stand tall, hold his head up and live free and without fear. I cannot ask him to crouch and beg before the public servants that we pay to keep him safe and ask them for permission to breathe. It diminishes him from the inside out. I won’t have it.
My entire soul resists the mere existence of The Talk. Cutting off his beautiful locs in the name of ‘respectability’ will not stop a bullet
My own parents never gave us The Talk. They were the uppity West Indian immigrants, strivers who preternaturally believed themselves at minimum equal ― and often superior ― to everyone they encountered. They expected the world to treat them well, and in most cases, the world complied. That self-confidence in the face of world history propelled them from boat villages and poor neighborhoods in Guyana to the tennis courts of country clubs in North America.
This however, did not prepare them for that moment in the middle of the night, when they got a call from my brother. He had been away at college, earning fame for the University of Kentucky tennis team, when he was pulled over by Lexington police. He had our dad’s minivan full of white women from the golf team. The police told him he was driving on an expired driver’s license. The officers took their time, driving him along back roads on the way to the station. They booked him, and he spent the night in jail. The next morning, they released him. Their bad! His license was not suspended after all.
Message sent and message received. As soon as he finished college and left the pro tennis tour, my brother moved back to Canada, where we were born. He has lived there happily ever since.
I see some of you have been making your voices heard about Nike’s decision to salute Colin Kaepernick’s quiet protest against police brutality. It is your God-given right to burn all your swooshes, just as it’s my God-given right to raise my son to be happy and free.
I want you to know how grateful I am to Kaepernick for his quiet stand to remind people of his own humanity as a grown man, an American free to speak his mind, just as you have spoken yours. I am grateful that he has amplified the conversation young activists have forced about the value of black life that we are having now. He sacrificed his personal ambitions on the field so that one day, children won’t be forced to grow up with this dark pall hanging over them.
This is not a normal or healthy way to live or grow up and to change it requires a whole different mindset, and not just for the police officers who take precious lives based on their irrational fears. It also requires every day Americans ― American society as a whole ― to stop accepting our terror as the cost of your freedom. That’s why I am not having The Talk with my son, America. I’m having it with you.
Natalie Hopkinson is the author, most recently, of A Mouth is Always Muzzled.