June 8, 2020 -- For generations, “the talk” has been a staple of African American life. Parents try to guide their children through the racism they may encounter as they go about their daily lives, encounters with police that can turn deadly in the blink of an eye.

Marques Jackson and his wife, Sherri, have had the talk with their daughter, Cori, and son, Zyaire. Both kids are 11 -- the same age Jackson was when his father sat him down.

What his father taught him is ingrained in his memory: Be respectful, keep your temper no matter what.

“Doing everything that I can, making sure that my hands are seen at all times, those are the things that cross my mind all the time,” Jackson, 40, of Columbia, MD, says. He said he’s been pulled over by police for minor infractions five to six times in his life.

The first talk was a few years ago after Freddy Grey died in police custody in Baltimore. More recently, the family participated in a run for Ahmaud Arbery, the 25-year old, unarmed African American man who was chased, shot, and killed as he jogged through a south Georgia neighborhood. A white father and son have been charged with his murder.

He had it again after the shocking and brutal death of George Floyd at the hands of four Minneapolis police officers nearly 2 weeks ago was caught on video.

“I explained to them that there are things that we may never understand being African Americans in this world, but I always encourage my children to be who they are but also understand that there are others who may be intimidated by you,” Jackson said. “It is a very difficult conversation to have with them because all they want to do is live, have fun, and talk to their friends. It is difficult for me to let them know that someone of a different color may not view them the same as they get older, someone of a different color may not like them the same ... all because of the color of their skin.”

"You Don't Want to Sugar Coat It"

Helen Neville, PhD, an expert on racial trauma and professor of psychology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said whether children are old enough for “the talk,” black parents need to talk to their children about what’s going on in the country now in developmentally appropriate ways.

Research shows children as young as 2 or 3 are making sense of race. But black parents have to deal with their own feelings, talking through their pain first before talking to their children, she said.

“You don’t want to sugar coat it, you don’t want to hide the truth, but you also don’t want to scare them,” she said. “You also want to instill a sense of pride and love and to let them know that ‘I love you, I believe you are strong.’ Through talking with or reading to your child or during family time, you want to communicate that black folks have contributed so much to our country and to our world.”

Neville said there are signs to look for that may indicate your child might be experiencing race-related trauma.

“Anger outbursts, inability to concentrate or focus, sleep disturbances (for example, sleeping too much or the inability to get to sleep), overeating, withdrawal from family and/or social activities, lacking energy, feeling sad, tearing up frequently.”

She says parents should check in with their children daily. Listen and don’t interrupt or judge them. Validate their feelings and experiences.

And while it is important to let them participate in protests, both in person and online, monitor and discuss the types of sites they’re visiting.

“Parents can view the sites together with their child and discuss how the child is making sense of the material. Parents can also talk to their child about what views or content they are reading about online and how they are responding to those views.”

But if your child is showing extreme signs of distress, get help from a mental health professional, she said.

For non-African American parents, Neville had this advice:

“Children will internalize the messages they have received in their home, on TV, in the media,” she says. "These are erroneous messages of white superiority and black inferiority. And so parents' job is to be explicit in confronting and challenging these explicit or implicit messages; they need to talk to their child about what racism is, and what it means.”

Difficult Conversations

Jamila Perritt, MD, is a native of Washington, DC, and well versed in what racism means.

“There was a heavy police presence in the neighborhood growing up and the kids that we grew up with were often stopped and frisked and harassed by police,” Perritt says. “My mother always insisted on us understanding that this is not OK and it’s not normal. This doesn’t happen in other places; it doesn’t happen to other people.”

“There was not a time,” Perritt says, “where we sat down for ‘the talk’ and she said do this, do that, but there was this constant understanding that the world doesn’t understand who you are and may not respect it and that is not a reflection of your worth."

Now she and her husband are preparing their young son for what awaits him in much the same way.

Perritt recalled vividly a conversation she had with her son after the death of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old Florida teenager shot and killed by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman 8 years ago.

“We were in the practice of watching the news in the morning. It was on in the background mostly. I don’t think we realized that he was watching it too,” she says. “It wasn’t until we were in the car and the police rolled past and he asked me if they were going to kill us.”

Perritt says she had a very “direct” conversation with her son after that.

“It was more about how the world doesn’t know you.They can’t see you.They can’t see us, as in black people,” she told him. “So there are ways that we have to be in the world to try and keep our bodies safe. And I remember him saying, ‘It’s not fair. It’s not fair,’ and me saying ‘No, it’s not. It isn’t.’

She told him when he’s with his white friends he can’t behave like they might. You can’t run around the coffee shop, she told him. He and his black friends can’t run down the street together, she said.

“You, two black boys, can’t run because people will assume you’ve done something wrong,” Perritt told her son.

In a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Rutgers University sociologist and study author Frank Edwards found people of color had a higher risk of being killed by police than whites. That risk is greatest for black men and boys, who have about a 1 in 1,000 chance of being killed by police in their lifetime. That’s about 2.5 times higher than whites. According to the study, it’s one of the leading causes of death for young men of color.

Jamie Howard, PhD, a clinical psychologist and trauma expert at the Child Mind Institute, says black children are experiencing a real threat due to the color of their skin.

“The psychological toll of experiencing cumulative, or complex trauma is significant,” Howard said. “Children’s fight-flight response is constantly activated, and this state of physiological hyperarousal is harmful to physical and emotional development.”

Moving Forward

Erlanger Turner, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Pepperdine University, says people who witness this type of violence are at higher risk of developing trauma-related symptoms and that just watching even 1-2 minutes of these traumatic videos can increase stress and anxiety levels.

“It’s a lot of emotional labor for black parents,” Turner says.

He calls it racial trauma,which is basically the psychological reaction to experiencing or witnessing repeated incidents of racism or discrimination.

While Turner never had “the talk” with his father, he subconsciously recognized what to do when he was stopped.

“A couple of years ago, I was driving at nighttime and I got pulled over for no reason and I had a cell phone with me at the time. I had to remind myself to make sure that nothing was in my hand,” he says. “These are some of the things that you have to unfortunately talk with kids about. Like reminding them to ‘hold your hands up so you’re not seen as a threat and talk softly.’”

Turner has no children and says that may be by design.

“My decision-making around that may have been unconscious,” he says. “That I don’t want to bring a child into this world knowing that they will face some of these things and maybe that’s selfish of me but I think it does put additional weight on black parents to try to prepare their kids to navigate these challenges.”

And white parents, he says, should make sure they’re having conversations about race with their children.

“Making sure you’re focused on raising anti-racist children and that you’re encouraging them to get to know people from other racial and ethnic backgrounds,” he says. “Encouraging those friendships are important because what we know from research is that when children have friends that are from different races, they’re less likely to develop racist behaviors and attitudes.”

But as challenging as things are right now, he’s hopeful.

“As this has escalated, it has sort of provided an opportunity for us to really see who are the good people and the people that actually want to make a difference,” he says. “It’s important that we have people who are outside of the black community to step up and to carry some of the weight to make change as opposed to us as black Americans being at the forefront of trying to institute changes around social injustice.”

Show Sources

Erlanger Turner, PhD, assistant professor of psychology, Pepperdine University.

Helen Neville, PhD, professor of psychology and African American studies, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Jamila Perritt, MD, parent.

Marques Jackson, software test engineer, parent.

Eric Atkins, assistant men’s basketball coach, Howard University.

Jamie Howard, PhD, senior clinical psychologist, anxiety disorders center, Child Mind Institute.

Statista: “Number of people shot to death by the police in the United States from 2017 to 2020, by race.”

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: “Risk of being killed by police use of force in the United States by age, race-ethnicity, and sex.”

News release, American Psychological Association.

News release, Child Mind Institute.

Los Angeles Times: “Getting Killed by police is a leading cause of death for young black men in America.”

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