Let’s say your Black son comes home one night, scared, out of breath from running. He tells you that some guy with a gun chased him and shot at him, and his girlfriend heard the whole thing on the phone. He stammers that all he was doing was going to the store for a bag of Skittles and iced tea.
Now you have to muster the courage to respond. What do you say? How can you protect him? What can you do to make sure that he comes home safe tomorrow night, and the night after that? Give him the “Stalking Talk.”
It’s not easy to have “the stalking talk,” to tell your child how the stereotype of the threatening young black male is so deeply ingrained that some people look at him and imagine they see a monster—what one researcher labels as a fear so deep that it mimics our primitive reactions “to spiders and snakes.”
Our country is racially illiterate. Our research on racial socialization suggests that Americans talk about race all the time but can’t have a conversation without sweating bullets. Trayvon’s situation did not just now illuminate America’s trouble with racial profiling. Basic societal institutions have for centuries used this strategy against children of color. Some days it’s a gun, sometimes it’s an arrest, other times it’s a job rejection, and most of the time it’s a school expulsion. All of this is racial profiling and it starts in pre-school. The “stalking talk” should be required for every household and classroom in America to teach youth to become emotionally literate about racially stressful moments.
We’ve learned that Black boys and girls can learn to read when others may be impulsively afraid of them. They can be taught to respond in healthy ways to men and women who can’t fathom their beauty, potential, creativity, and intelligence, who believe walking home while Black is a crime. Using mindfulness strategies, they can learn to read their own stress levels, bodily reactions and feelings when they are being mistreated, and to change their reactions to stereotypes and the impulsive reactions of others.
They can learn to expect disrespect, appreciate when it fails to appear, and excel despite the haters.
In my program called ViRUS (Villages Raising Us)—for African American boys and girls from an upcoming book, Promoting Racial Literacy in Schools: What A Difference Stress and Assertiveness Make— we teach families and leaders to teach their children racial literacy and stress management skills, or the ability to emotionally read, recast and resolve racially stressful interactions. It boils down to this:
- Know when you are stressed and how it affects your body
- Learn to see racial fear in others threatened by you.
- Resist internalizing their fear. It doesn’t belong to you
- Protect yourself by managing your stress in thoughts, words, actions
- Affirm yourself in the face of it by speaking clearly for your rights
- Stop using stereotypes as a way to understand others or yourself
With racial literacy skills, young people and their families learn to cope without retaliation or avoidance, without suppressing their feelings or losing control. They learn to choose if and when to speak strongly and respectfully. They learn that the racial hostility they experience is not their problem, will not simply disappear and that courage can be found in refusing to play or be played by the role of monster, spider or snake.
So when your son comes home, embrace him (Affection) and tell him that he is your child and you will do whatever it takes to keep him alive, and it begins with how beautiful and wonderful a gift he is. Tell him that you want to hear his story. Talk about how other people are afraid of him (Protection). And tell him that it’s not his fault, and that he doesn’t have to swallow, adopt or internalize that historical ignorance whether he is 8 or 88 years old (Correction).
It seems absurd that in 2013, we have to resort to this kind of parenting. It offends our sensibilities. We are Americans. America is the home of the free and the brave. It is the birthplace of democracy.
But we are also Americans when we get quiet and look away when we see racial injustice. That is our history too. The wanton violence against brown and Black children is in our history too. We want rainbows without the rain, diversity without the difference, and justice without talking about the injustice, what Frederick Douglass called wanting “crops without plowing up the ground.”
Talking like this to youth has its detractors. “Aren’t we teaching the children to hate?” “Doesn’t this make our children, our world racist?”
Nonsense. Few of us will ever experience an airplane crash, and few of those who do will survive it. Yet before every takeoff, flight attendants show us what to do in case of such an emergency. Few of us have experienced an airplane crash (and lived to tell of the enormous importance of the flight attendant’s lesson), but airlines still provide the training.
Are we saying that it makes sense to prepare for an aircraft emergency where the odds of occurrence and survival are small, but no sense to prepare Black boys and girls for the potential detriment and risk of racial profiling which occurs more frequently? Having the talk about racial conflict in the world no more causes racism than putting on the oxygen mask causes a plane crash.
Let’s be clear: There is nothing Trayvon Martin’s parents and family could have done to bring him home that February night in Sanford, FL. Although Trayvon’s father gave him “the talk,” nothing could have prepared his son for what happened. Perhaps there was something George Zimmerman’s parents could have done to help him manage his irrational fears of Black and Brown youth. Either way, the “stalking talk” should not be dependent on “the democracy we should have” but the “democracy we got.”
All parents must do all that we can to bring more of our boys and girls back home by telling them how to cope with the racial and post-racial monsters they might face along the way. Whatever we do, we must not allow protest to get in the way of the face-to-face affection, protection, and correction they’ll need every step of the way back into our open arms.
Howard Stevenson is a Professor of Education and Africana Studies in the Applied Psychology and Human Development Division at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.