Ericka Alston Buck was sure of one thing. She did not want her 10-year-old son to watch the widely circulating video of George Floyd, the Black man who died after being pinned down by a white police officer in Minneapolis. But when Alston Buck’s son Edward walked into her home office, with a pained look on his face, the Harford County woman realized he had already seen the images.
“I don’t think white people are ever going to treat us fairly because of the color of our skin,” Edward said with his head down.
His mother started to cry. It was time for the talk — but she was at a loss.
For generations, parents of Black children have had to wrestle with when and how to talk to their children about racism. But this moment is a particularly fraught and urgent one.
With technology at their disposal, children can watch hate crimes and police brutality unfold live online, forcing them to face the realities of racial injustice —particularly in interactions with police, the very individuals who are supposed to protect them.
The deaths seem to have come in rapid fire in recent months: Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, who was chased and shot by two white men while jogging in a South Georgia neighborhood, and recently, Rayshard Brooks, who was shot by police after an interaction outside a Wendy’s restaurant in Atlanta.
Even deaths that haven’t been shown on video, such as the killing of Breonna Taylor, a young woman who was shot in her Louisville, Kentucky home by a SWAT team, have sparked a flood of emotional posts on social media. Outraged protesters have spilled out onto streets throughout the nation.
Some parents who might have wanted to hold off on telling their children about harsh realities of racism have had to confront it. Others have had to revisit talks they had with their sons and daughters.
Some say there never is just one talk — instead it is advice they give out as the child is growing up. For white families, the talk may just mean a conversation about sex. For Black families, this rite of passage is about survival and often can’t wait.
The afternoon when her son saw the video, Alston Buck thought to herself: “How much do you expose your children to?”
She decided not to reveal the depth of it all at once, so she held a conversation on a level Edward could relate to.
“This whole relationship between Black America and police is the same as bullying, and people should stand up to it,” she explained to her son.
Then Alston Buck, a community organizer who founded the Kids Safe Zone in West Baltimore and is now a public relations consultant, found herself saying what she knew so many parents have said to their children: “You’re going to be great. You can do anything you want.” While hugging her son, it struck her that those were probably the same words George Floyd’s mom said to him when he was a little boy.
She and other parents live in the shadow of terrifying truths. Black women and men are significantly more likely than white women and men to be killed by police, according to a 2019 study by Northwestern University.
Dr. Kaye Whitehead, an award-winning radio host and African American Studies professor at Loyola University of Maryland, says that Black mothers like herself have to watch as their sons go from being seen as cute to viewed as targets.
“You come to the realization that your son can be killed at any moment,” she said. “It could happen in your home, your car, your backyard, and you’re trying to keep your children safe from a force that’s hard to see.”
When she was growing up, she said her father taught her about racism, but delivered the message with confidence that she could persevere despite it. Now, since the Floyd killing, he’s been calling her, warning her she must be straight with his two grandsons. “He doesn’t want me to sugarcoat reality,” she said.
Experts say that although this conversation is anxiety-inducing, it is unavoidable.
Raven Ellis, a licensed clinical psychotherapist who works with couples and families in Columbia, says during her 19 years in practice, most of the conversations she has with Black families have been on racism and its impact on mental health, education and safety.
She believes parenting is hard enough for these moms and dads, who also have to manage their own anger, sadness, fear and past experiences.
“This one conversation is really life or death, which can be overwhelming,” said Ellis. “They are trying to balance the real effects of racism without causing anxiety and potentially diminishing their joy in the future. You don’t want a child to be so fearful that they can’t be children.”
The truth, bit by bit
Lillian Sparks-Robinson, a Baltimore City mom who has a small business in Washington D.C., said she and her husband, Corey, have the talk bit by bit with their 5-year-old son, Connor, by reading books. The stories include historical figures such as Sojourner Truth and Jackie Robinson.
The kindergartner asked why Robinson couldn’t sit with his teammates on the bus. That helped his parents introduce the realities of discrimination based on skin color.
“He is very aware that he is Black and he is proud to be brown-skinned like his mom and dad,” said Lillian.
Their older son, Jalen, is 21 and stands 6′5″.
When Jalen was 14, his father took him to see “Fruitvale Station,” a film that profiled an unarmed Black man named Oscar Grant who was shot and killed by a transit police officer after a heated interaction.
After the movie, Jalen was unsettled. He asked his father: “What could Oscar Grant have done differently to prevent that situation?”
His father had to tell him there was nothing Grant could have done. He said it was not what the young man did that made the police officer feel threatened, but his appearance.
Dr. Barry Zuckerman, a professor at Boston University School of Medicine, wants to encourage primary care physicians to also have the talk with their young patients.
“Usually pediatricians don’t feel comfortable talking about it,” said Zuckerman, noting they can talk about safe sex and drugs. He said that physicians still care but do not feel trained enough to talk about this sensitive topic.
“If we don’t have these conversations with adolescents, it’s like sleeping at the wheel,” said Zuckerman.
As a Black mother and a leader in the Baltimore Police Department, Lt. Col. Monique Brown is in the middle of all these forces. The 20-year veteran of the force grew up in East Baltimore and had confidence that by joining the department, she could serve as a liaison between her fellow officers and the communities they serve and improve the relationship. But the recent deaths are taking their toll.
“It brings us back to ground zero when we see videos like the death of George Floyd,” she said, noting even her own children are now skeptical of law enforcement. “I have nephews, brothers, a son and a 5-year-old grandson. They can all have a negative encounter with police if we do not make an effort to create change now.”
Maryland’s Deputy Comptroller Sharonne Bonardi, who is Black, and her husband, Jason, who is white, have an 18-year-old son named Jordan. He was taught at an early age that even though his parents are two different races, he would be seen as a Black.
“Your job is to keep your child safe as a mother and as a professional,” said Bonardi, the state’s first African American to hold her position. “You can have a thousand people report to you, but when you go out to the world, you feel as if you can’t do something as basic as keep your child safe.”
Before Jordan got his driver’s license, his father would pretend to be a cop and create a make-believe scenario of a car stop in their driveway in Howard County,
After a few practices, Jordan knew just what to do: turn on his blinker, put his wallet on his lap, spread his fingers out on the wheel, put his license and registration between his two front fingers, and most importantly, not get agitated.
Weeks later, a Black man, Philando Castile — who followed the same exact steps that Jordan was taught — was fatally shot during a traffic stop.
“You can do everything you’re supposed to do,” Jason Bonardi said, “and still get murdered.”
In August, Jordan will leave to attend the University of Virginia in Charlottesville — the city where during a white supremacist rally, a car mowed down more than 30 counter-protesters, killing one.
So even as they are excited for him, they also face an extra layer of emotion: worrying about his safety. Among other things, they’re going to teach him not to be at any protests after sunset. Sharonne Bonardi says it’s all a part of the stress of being Black in America.
They know it’s time for yet another talk.
Tatyana Turner is a 2020-2021 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers African American neighborhoods, life and culture.