What Black parents have to teach their kids that white parents don’t

July 15, 2020

By now, you’ve likely heard about “the talk” Black parents have to give their children. The one where we tell our kids how they must behave if they should have an encounter with police. Well, that’s not the only conversation we must have with our children. Black children are held to a different standard of behavior — because their lives depend on it. 

It’s no wonder that many Black parents are tired of having to talk about what’s so obvious: our kids can’t go out and simply be kids because it’s a risk to their safety. And parenting while Black usually means not allowing your children to do things their white peers can do, for the sole purpose of keeping them safe. Black children just aren’t afforded the freedom to do the same.  

I can still remember the things my parents told me when I was a teen and young adult. My friends and I enjoyed spending time out and about in New York City where I grew up. Of course, we were prone to teenage shenanigans. My father warned me against going into certain high-end stores because he knew that it was likely there’d be a security guard (or two) who would unfairly target us because we were a group of young Black girls. Even if we thought we were making innocent fun for ourselves, not everyone might. 

Not much has changed since my father’s talk with me over 15 years ago either. Just a few years ago, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was playing outside with a toy gun when he was shot and killed by police. My 6-year-old son isn’t allowed to play with a toy gun outside of the house, even if it’s a neon colored water gun. Even though he’s young and never plays without my supervision, not allowing him to play with a toy gun in public is the safest thing to do. 

I talked to a few other Black parents about their experiences parenting while Black, and they had similar feelings and experiences. There is commonality in our experience. There is still such a long way to go before Black children will be safe.

“Rules” Black parents have for their kids that white parents don’t 

Don’t roam around the mall

Jameca Cooper, a Black mom to two teenage sons and a counseling psychologist in Missouri, shares some of the things her sons aren’t allowed to do either. 

“One of the things I’ve been kind of leery about for my children is having them roam around the mall,” she explains. “If I’m in the mall with them, I’m OK with it. But I kind of get a little anxious if they go to the mall and I’m not there. In those cases, I’m concerned. What if someone accuses them of stealing something? If I have to drive there, I can’t address it quickly.”

Know that you’re more likely to get in trouble

Along those same lines, Cooper also advises her teens against going to the mall with their friends who may not be people of color. “I’ve had to warn my son,” she says, “that his friends could be stealing, and he’d be the one to get in trouble.”

The statistics back up Cooper's fear, too. According to the Prison Policy Initiative’s 2019 report, Black children are the most overrepresented in juvenile facilities while white children are underrepresented. While only 14% of youth under 18 years old in the U.S. are Black, they make up 77% of the population in juvenile facilities. 

Another important thing Cooper shared with her older son when he was learning to drive: “I had a conversation with him about who to allow in his car,” she explains. She uses the example of a friend having or leaving drugs in his car. “If you get pulled over and searched, you’re getting in trouble because it’s your car,” she told him.

Be careful around white kids

Leida Aycott, mom to three, now-adult children in Bakersfield, California, recalls the racism her children faced in their predominantly white area. Her son was a popular football player, and she told him this:

“Be careful around the white kids; they may not always have your back.”

Some may perceive her comment as prejudicial against white people, but you have to remember the lived experience of Black people. It’s not to say that all white kids wouldn’t stick up for their Black friends or teammates, but there are a lot of kids who may not speak up if it means keeping themselves out of trouble. Kids who’ve grown up with white privilege may not even know how much speaking up can change a racially charged situation. 

Be careful around white girls

In talking more with Aycott, she recalls the historical events that shaped her parenting. One of her other warnings to her son was to be careful around “white girls.” Again, historical context is key here. Black men were lynched all over the U.S. for perceived flirtations with white women even if there was no evidence to prove it. 

The most famous case of this is the murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy who was murdered by white men in Mississippi back in the 1950s. A white woman accused Till of whistling at her, and several days later, her husband and his half-brother showed up at the home of Till’s great-uncle. The men stole Till out of his bed in the middle of the night. They took him to a barn, and they beat and horrifically mutilated him before shooting him in the head and leaving him in the Tallahatchie River. The men were, of course, acquitted. And it wasn’t until 2008 that the white woman at the center of the story admitted she fabricated Till’s flirtation with her. 

One dad’s list of do-not-dos

Dee Jaye Jackson, a Black father of two in Southern California, says he has a whole list of things his kids can’t do:

  • They can’t walk around at night. 

  • They can’t walk around with a hoodie and its hood covering their head. 

  • They have to keep their music down. 

  • They can’t do pranks and the crazy things that teenagers do. 

Also, he says, they can’t smoke weed. “I know legally they can’t, but you know kids … If they are caught, they will get in trouble.” 

And "trouble" for Black people often means jail time. A 2020 report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) shows that Black people are 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people. Their data shows that per 100k people in possession, there were 200 white arrests in 2018. Black arrests, in contrast, neared 600. 

How white families be allies to Black families

Now that many white parents are beginning to take more of an active role in being anti-racist and raising anti-racist kids, hearing Black parents talk about these struggles may help move them to action. For instance, if you’re encouraging your kids to make sure they have a diverse group of friends, you also need to make sure you’re teaching them about the racial bias those friends face. It’s not enough to say, “Make sure you have Black friends.” Your kids need to know how to be both friends and allies to Black kids. 

There are ways white parents can help to reduce some of the fear that Black parents have for their children’s safety — at least when their children are in the company of their white peers. The most important way is by educating and talking to their kids. 

“You have to have really direct, truthful conversations with your children about the impact of race in this country,” Cooper says, putting on her expert hat. That might mean reading age-appropriate books on the subject, or maybe even showing them a scene from a television show or movie highlighting the talk Black parents have with their kids. Addressing the privilege they have and using specific examples is your best approach.

She advises talking with your kids about what to do if they’re in a situation where their Black friends may be targeted. It could be one with other kids their age, adults or even police. “Say “if this happens with your friend, you can speak up and tell someone what happened.” Obviously if the situation turns violent, no one wants to have their children hurt. But if white kids speak up, it might keep the situation from getting to that point. 

It’s also important, according to Cooper, to teach your children that standing up for and standing with their Black friends is a family value. Letting them know that you expect them to behave accordingly when they’re with their Black friends is a good way to keep them accountable. The more this message is repeated and normalized and the more families practice this behavior in all aspects of their lives, the more they will do so automatically.

The racial disparities in this country aren't going to change overnight. Black parents will still have to worry about our children’s safety while we try to give them some semblance of a “regular” childhood. But there are ways that we can work together to make sure our kids can all have better experiences, and the first step in doing this is in recognizing the inequities that exist and calling them out.

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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