“The talk”: The conversation that African-American parents have with their children to confront racism and police abuse in the United States

“I am going to define you as a mother, as a mother who has raised 4 black children: ‘the talk’ is about personal safety, about the things they can do to return home alive”.

That’s how clear the Reverend Najuma Smith-Pollard is.

He knows the subject well, having had to put it into practice in his day with his eldest son, Daniel —who died in 2018, at the age of 24—, and now with three boys aged 12, 17 and 18, and sometimes also with his daughter 7, in a South Los Angeles neighborhood.

It is not a punctual dialogue, a topic that is discussed only once, he clarifies, but something constant that has existed between African-American families for generations.

“Is a continuous conversation between parents and children about (how to guarantee) their public personal safety when navigating interurban life”, this woman, who brings her pastoral and community leader experience to the work she does at the Center for Religion and Culture, explains to BBC Mundo. from the University of Southern California (USC).

“As a mother of black children who live in the city, I have to talk to them about police and criminals, because there are people in our neighborhoods who simply do not have good intentions. I have to teach them how to deal with law enforcement but also how to navigate life in general“, Add.


Known colloquially as “the talk”, it is the common manifestation of what the academy calls the racial-ethnic socializationa broad field of study in the field of social sciences and psychology.

There is an extensive scientific literature on it, in-depth documentaries and with a multitude of outstanding voices such as The Talk: Race in America of the American public TV network PBS, and has been portrayed in fiction, in series as popular as “Grey’s Anatomy” Y black ish.

However, it is real.

And those who have spoken (and have not wanted to) with BBC Mundo for this article have referred to it as something painful, difficult, a “burden” they have to bear the african american families and increasingly Latinas as well.

It is, they agree, a “tremendously personal” conversation that is acquiring new nuances as children grow and it goes adjusting to the context.

Curtis Hawkins, of Buffalo, covers his face with his hands near a memorial to the victims of a mass shooting at Tops Friendly Market at Jefferson Avenue and Riley Street on Thursday, May 19, 2022 in Buffalo, NY.
The Buffalo shooting reminds many African-American families of the need to update “the talk.” (Photo: GETTY IMAGES)

“Now, with racist violence on the rise, we also have to start telling our young people, ‘You can’t trust all the white 18-year-olds who seem to be out of your neighborhood,'” Smith-Pollard says, referring to the shooting that on May 14 left 10 dead in a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, in a predominantly black neighborhood.

On ‘hoodies’ and how to deal with the police

Pollard-Smith remembers that the conversation with her eldest son began when he was 12 years old, about to turn 13. He was in seventh grade and was robbed by gang members on his way to the library with a classmate.

“I had to tell him: ‘When you and your friend are out on the street, you have to pay attention to who is around“.

That message about his safety was repeated as a constant every time he went to the store alone, before getting on the bus, but it took on another aspect when he got his driver’s license.

Marlon Holmes, of Chicago, holds his 8-year-old daughter Victoria Mone on his lap as they wait for the start of a protest against racism and police brutality on August 28, 2020 in Washington.

When he started driving I had to start talking to him about what to do and what not to do if you are stopped by the police,” he says.

The conversation started like this, he recalls: “We live in Los Angeles, in the south of the city. You don’t have to be doing anything wrong to be arrested. It is possible that they will tell you to stop and make up charges that you are suspected of. You have to know that you have your rights.”

He had already told him about his rights when he turned 15, because because of his complexion — tall and strong, since he had played soccer since he was nine — “they always confused him with someone older.”

“You shouldn’t let anyone search you if they don’t have a warrant. You don’t have to answer any questions, you’re a minor. You can call your mother; you can have them call me immediately. Do not be afraid if they want to take you to the police station. Do not fight. Do not run. Your father and I will always get you out of trouble, you will never have to worry about that, ”he says, which was what he listed.

“Tell them your name and show them your ID. That’s all you have to give them and you better give it to them, so they can check and see that you don’t have any history.”

Walter Wallace Jr., a 27-year-old African-American father of seven, was killed by police in Philadelphia in October 2020.
Walter Wallace Jr., a 27-year-old African-American father of seven, was killed by police in Philadelphia in October 2020. (Photo: GETTY IMAGES)

Daniel was able to put the lessons into practice the 4 times his mother said he was wrongly detained as a victim of racial profiling, and he managed to get away with it.

The recommendations continued when he went to live on his own: “You know that there are certain things that you should not do; this is how you protect yourself. You know the fourth amendment (from the United States Constitution, which protects the right to privacy and the right to be free from arbitrary invasion) and now that you have your own apartment, you shouldn’t let anyone in.”

He also warned him about sag —the sagging, panty-showing fashion that was so in vogue in the ’90s — just as today he forbids his youngest and adopted son from wearing hoodies.

“No, they will not carry a hoodie to school or to walk down the street. And it’s not because they’re doing something wrong, it’s because i don’t want anyone to think that by wearing a hoodie they’re up to something. The police and the people have given him a meaning that he does not have. And yes, everyone uses hoodiesbut it is not the same that a white boy wears it as you do”.

“We were always ready. And what I mean is that we were ready with lawyers, bail money and all that, because I don’t really trust the police. We simply teach him (Daniel). We had a black son and he was beautiful. It was no easy job raising him safely in Los Angeles. And believe me, he thought that once he grew up, he would have nothing to worry about, until he shot and killed someone who was just having a really bad day.”


Like many parents of black children, she always feared that if she did not engage in these conversations, hers could go on to swell the statistics on violence in general and police violence in particular. that they end up like george floydwhose death at the hands of then-police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis, Minnesota, marks two years this Wednesday.

There is data to back up those fears.

In Los Angeles County, where she lives with her family, at least 968 people have been killed by law enforcement since 2000, according to medical examiner records compiled by the Los Angeles Times. Almost 80% were black or Latino, almost all of them men.

George Floyd mural in Atlanta, Georgia, United States, on May 15, 2021.
This Wednesday marks two years since the death of George Floyd at the hands of then-policeman Derek Chauvin. (Photo: GETTY IMAGES)

At the national level, the data also shows this demographic imbalance, as an article by the BBC’s Reality Check team collected.

According to the database that The Washington Post has been updating since 2015 of police shootings, in 24% of more than 5,000 fatal incidents, the dead were African-American. This, despite the fact that they do not make up even 13% of the total population of the country.

African-Americans are also more likely to be stopped by police while driving. 20% more, according to the study carried out by Stanford University in 2020 —one of the most recent on the subject— and for which it analyzed more than 100 million traffic stops.

The statistics barely distinguish between states. And there are testimonies of discrimination in all socioeconomic strata.

To illustrate that the origin of “the talk” must be sought decades ago and that it has been maintained generation after generation, Smith-Pollard recalls how his grandfather, while growing up in Mississippi in the 1940s, was advised not to walk down certain streets .

Or she references a time when, as an associate minister, at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, there were groups of volunteers advising young black men on how to dress, walk, act and be aware of how others might perceive them. It was before the 1992 riots.

Stereotypes and fears

“I really hoped that I never had to have ‘the talk’ with my son,” Judy Belk, president and executive director of The California Wellness Foundation (Cal Wellness), one of the largest philanthropic institutions in the state and which for 30 years has focused on promoting violence prevention as a public health issue.

Judy Belk.

But something changed when her son — like Smith-Pollard’s — was about 12 or 13 years old.

“We were living in Oakland then and I was working in San Francisco (across the bay). He begged me to (let him), that he was old enough to ride the subway alone. It worried me a lot, so I told him: ‘Don’t talk to strangers, call me as soon as you get on the train and when you get off…’”.

He followed her instructions, and when they met in San Francisco and she asked him how everything went, she got something in return that left her wondering. shock. This was the conversation, remember:

“Mom, I don’t think you have to worry that someone is going to hurt me. I think the people on the train were nervous about my presence.

– What do you mean?

I think I made some older white women nervous.

“My soul fell to the ground. She had been naive to think that she might have escaped that feeling of feeling ‘the other’“, recognize. She had grown up in the segregated South, in Virginia, and she hoped to save her children from whatever situation she could remember by raising them in California.

When he saw his mother’s devastated face, he tried to comfort her:

– Don’t worry. I grabbed my book and started reading. And it seems that they began to feel more comfortable with me.

“So that night I realized that he was raising a black man and that even though he had a privileged upbringing the world was going to see him as a black man with all his (associated) stereotypes and fears“, remember.

Act in protest of the death at the hands of the police of Casey Goodson on January 30, 2021, when he would have been 24 years old.
Casey Goodson Jr. was killed by police in Columbus, Ohio, in December 2020. (Photo: GETTY IMAGES)

“We’d probably had conversations about race before, but that’s when I realized I had to help him understand how to grow up feeling safe being African-American.”

The first time he was stopped by police while driving, Belk is glad her husband was with him. It was in North Carolina, where her son was going to do his graduate studies.

He asked them where they were going and the father saw it as an opportunity to teach his son how to deal with the situation, just as he had been taught in his day: “Answer the questions and keep your hands on the steering wheel”.

Not long after that, in two separate incidents in Texas, African Americans Botham Jean and Atatiana Jefferson, aged 26 and 28 respectively, were shot dead by police in their own homes.

A woman with the message "Black Lives Matter" hugs a girl in London during a protest on March 20, 2022.

And in early 2019 Belk felt in his own flesh that what being safe at home could be an illusion even in Hollywood, where she lives she lives.

Her husband had gone out to walk the dog and a neighbor, seeing that black man wandering down the street with a flashlight and then entering the Belk house, decided to alert the police about a possible “intruder”.

Two officers responded to the call, but to the wrong building.

The door was opened for them by another neighbor, who warned the police officers — one of them already had a gun in his hand — that the address they were looking for was the one next door, but to keep in mind that the person who lived there was black and a doctor.

Given that, Belk says it had to update “the talk.” “Where are we safe now?” he wondered. A question that arises again in the face of the shootings in Buffalo this month and the one in the New York subway in April.

“My husband was walking the dog across the street from our house, in a very exclusive neighborhood, and someone who didn’t know there were black people in the neighborhood called the police,” she says. “And now my daughter is questioning whether she is safe on the subway in the country’s capital.” She lives in Washington DC and works on Capitol Hill, she explains.

She says that after Buffalo she felt she had to have a talk with her daughter again and emphasize: ‘Of course we have to be alert and we want to feel safe, but we can’t let fear overwhelm us’”.

“It was a very painful conversation. I don’t think white people have those kinds of conversations with their kids. It is really a burden. I believe that no human being should have these types of conversations. And I think it’s an additional weight that we have, the burden of being black in america“.

Protest on the Brooklyn Bridge in New York on May 15, 2021, on the first anniversary of George Floyd's death at the hands of police.

Despite this, he says he is optimistic.

“I don’t wake up every day thinking about racism and I usually go through life believing that new possibilities open up every day. But usually something happens in that walk through life, sometimes involuntary, sometimes funny, or sometimes painful, that reminds me that I am black or part of it, ”she points out.

“Sometimes it happens to me in the store, when they ask me for an extra identification that they have not asked the white person who preceded me. Or when people have a hard time imagining that I’m the president and CEO of this great organization. Sometimes I can’t get a taxi in New York and it makes me a little paranoid,” she elaborates.

“I would say that the ultimate wish of most African Americans, of most people of color, is to go through life without this burden.”

It is her work that gives her hope: “Seeing that there are so many people working, black, white and brown people doing everything they can to push back all this bigotry and racism.”

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