When 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot to death by Ferguson, Mo. police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9, it resulted in riots, protests and international debate on the subject of race. Brown’s death also exposed the world to the ongoing issue of what many in the Black community consider excessive force and racial profiling by White officers toward Black civilians.
Brown’s killing as well as the recent death of New York resident Eric Gardner have left many African-American parents unsure how to communicate to their male children the risks they face simply because they are young, Black and male; while at the same time, instilling a sense of confidence and self-assuredness in their youth.
It’s a discussion experts say is necessary.
NaKaisha Tolbert-Banks, clinical social worker at D.U.O. EmpowerMEnt Services recommends parents first ask their children if they have any questions about what is happening.
“Sometimes parents will find children have already been talking about it amongst their friends and sometimes their thoughts can be skewed,” said Tolbert-Banks. “It is always good to ask specifically what they know, what they’ve heard or what some of the conversations at school have been.”
Tolbert-Banks said it’s imperative that parents have an honest conversation with their youth. She feels youth may fear the police or lack respect for them, however parents should focus on relaying the correct message regardless of the current situation.
“Regardless of the event in Ferguson, we still need to understand that police are here to protect and serve. When we communicate with our children, yes we address what has happened but we still set the authority as parents that you still have to obey the law and when you’re asked to do something you act accordingly.”
Respect and proper representation are two things Stacy Arnold and his wife teach their 12-year-old son William Arnold.
“It’s unfortunate that another Black youth has been killed,” said Arnold. “One of the things we teach William is that when he leaves our house he represents not only himself but his parents as well. His behavior, his actions, how he looks and how he dresses is a direct reflection on us.”
Arnold said he doesn’t want to intimidate or scare his son during their frequent talks about race relations, but his first priority is always teaching Bible principles.
“We want him to be aware of his surroundings and to act Christian-like all of the time, especially when out in public.”
He believes that society as a whole has created the notion that police aren’t here to protect but to intimidate and abuse their power.
“I think some Black youth have a negative opinion of the police and that’s something I don’t want William to have. With his godfather being a police officer, we don’t want him to be afraid of the police and we want him to know they are the authority.”
Father of two, Willie Neal said one of the most important aspects of his father-son relationship is serving as a role model to his 13-year-old son.
“I have to become his example so if he follows my example, he has to become a leader,” said Neal. “What has happened in Ferguson could happen anywhere and it has happened here before but we have to be part of the solution and not a part of the problem.”
Neal reflects on a recent instance where he and his son formulated alternative ways to express one’s self. Often Neal challenges his son by crafting scenarios and questions him on what’s the best way to act according to the situation.
“My point was, in Ferguson, after all of the riots and burnings, where are we? Has that changed anything? What are the plans to make constructive changes?” he said.
“At the end of the day I tell my son to avoid the situation if possible. Things can escalate so quickly. I don’t try to fluff things or sugar coat things. I’m teaching my son now there are certain colors you can’t wear in certain neighborhoods and he has to be mindful of that.”
Neal said he is currently struggling to explain racial profiling to his son because of the environment they reside in.
“I live in the suburbs, outside of the inner-city and not all crime happens (in the city). The neighborhood I live in is so diverse,” Neal said. “A lot of the things I’m telling him, he hasn’t seen or experienced yet. Most Black fathers I know tell their kids if they are ever pulled over by the cop, you need to keep your hands (on the steering wheel) at 10 and two. You say yes sir and no sir and there is no debate going back and forth.”
If parents are reluctant to have difficult conversations with their children, social worker Tolbert-Banks believes foregoing the formalities and keeping conversations casual may make the discussions less awkward.
“Any opportunity with our youth is a learning opportunity. If it’s over dinner or while you’re at the grocery store, it is a good opportunity to educate children about now and the future. Because now what’s happening will definitely impact their future as it is impacting ours,” she said.