As we watch the Trayvon Martin tragedy unfold, now is the time to have “the discussion” with our young male children, teens and young adults. You may be a mother, father, sister, brother, grandparent or even the friend of a young black male. If so, you should discuss with him the realities of being a black male and being seen as a threat because of the color of his skin.
Our children are growing up in a more diverse and integrated society. They are often too young to remember the civil rights struggle and expect (as they should) to be treated in the same manner as their peers. My own teenage son is perplexed when I insist that he take precautions when walking to the corner to get a burger with his friends. It is not safe for him in our middle-class neighborhood to wait outside of his friend’s home until he or she arrives because some may find him “suspicious.”
We teach our children to be proud of who they are, to stand-up for what they believe and to speak out, especially if they feel they are being treated unfairly. Initially, it may seem to be a contradiction to them to also be told to adjust their behavior so that they can de-escalate a situation and exit from it alive and unharmed. Using language that teenagers will understand, “It’s complicated!”
We need not insist that our children dress differently from their peers. At the end of the day, they cannot slip into and out of dark skin so we must teach them how to live life safely as young black men.
I have included some discussion points that I have found beneficial when having “the discussion” with my teenage son who is currently working towards getting his driver’s license. It should be made clear that these tools can and should be if confronted by anyone with the ability to cause them harm.
The BLUF: Bottom Line Up Front: Stay alive!
If stopped by police:
Be respectful ("Yes officer. No officer.") and follow the directions provided by the police. While we all have rights, we do not have power over the police. It is important to behave in a manner that conveys understanding of the power differential.
If in a car, all in the car need to keep their hands were the police can see them with no suspicious movements. Keep quiet unless asked a question.
Remember that you cannot win a street battle with the police. Period. Do not run from the police. Be humble, feel “punked” or whatever, but get out of the situation without being arrested, hurt or killed.
If you feel that you are being treated unfairly by the police, do not ask for a badge number. Simply notice the number on the cruiser. Once you escape the situation safely, get to an adult for help. Charges can be filed and the battle can be waged in a court room.
If confronted or threatened by others:
Stay calm and try to avoid being in a place where you are alone - get to where there are other children or adults.
If you cannot avoid being alone with someone threatening to harm you and you have a cell phone call 911, hold up the cell phone in plain sight and speak clearly and calmly, “Please send HELP.” State your name, location and a description of the perpetrator(s). Keep your eyes open and do not hang up!
It is impossible to predict every scenario that our young men may face in a racially unjust society. The most important lesson that we can teach them is to be aware of the reality of being a black male. They must think strategically with the ultimate goal of avoiding threatening situations. When these situations cannot be avoided, they must be equipped with the knowledge to help them stay alive.
Shaw Alexander is the married mother of a teenage son and daughter. She is the president of the San Jose Chapter Jack and Jill of America, Inc., a leadership organization for children ages kindergarten to twelfth grade. She lives in San Jose, CA.
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