Different Conversations: How I talk about the police with my white son is different from how I talk to my black step-sons

I have one white son and, for the past seven years, three grown black step-sons.

I married a beautiful black woman from the Caribbean island of Dominica seven years ago. One of my step-sons lives here in the U.S. – Northern California. One lives in Mexico City. And the last one still lives in Dominica. However, he is moving here to Phoenix, Arizona to go to university in a couple of months.

My three step-sons grew up in a country without the issues associated with racism. Why? Because nearly everyone in Dominica is black. So, when they come to America, they see it from a different perspective than African Americans. But one thing my wife and her sons now experience if they spend any time here in America is racism.

As an OWL (old, white, liberal) Guy, I can readily admit that I used to be one of those people who thought claims of racism were overblown. It is easy to have that point of view if you are white. Especially in the pre-“phone video” era. But, now, it is all too clear to me what a problem racism is in America. I see my family experience it all too frequently – it seems like every day there is another video that shows cruel acts of racism toward black men and women. And in the faces of those victims, I always see my family.

Here is what is sad to me. I have a white 16 year old son. Crazy enough, I have to have a different conversation with him than the one I am going to have with my black step-son who is moving to America for school.

With my white son, I have to tell him, “If you are driving and get pulled over by the police, as long as you stay calm, always keep your hands visible, and follow directions, you will be fine. If you don’t know why you are being pulled over, don’t worry, they will tell you soon. Just give them your driver’s license and registration, and just be patient. You will be out of there soon.”

Unfortunately, that is not the conversation I can have with my black step-son. It is probably going to go something like this: “I hate to say this, son, but it is going to be different for you. When the police pull you over, you may have no idea why. They may not tell you why they have pulled you over, at least not at first. They will ask you for your driver’s license and registration. Just give it to them. They may ask you to step out of the car. If they do, they will frisk you. They are going to feel around your penis. Why? Well, they will say they are checking for weapons and drugs. But, as far as I can figure out, they want you to feel violated. They may say they are going to put handcuffs on your for ‘your safety and ours.’ As this is happening, look out for friendly eyes in the people watching. Skip the accusatory ones. When you find those friendly eyes, stay focused on them. Tell them, ‘thank you.’ Friendly eyes will get you through this.

The police are going to try to make you mad, they are going to try to make you scared. They want to provoke you. Don’t let them. If you show that you are mad or scared, they will come up with some stupid reason to arrest you. Your heart is going to be pounding. You might even be shaking. They are going to ask you to relax. They will ask you what’s wrong. They will see your fear and anger as an admission of having done something wrong. Then, they will tell you why they pulled you over. I can almost guarantee the reason is going to make you seethe with anger. It could be ‘a broken tail light.’ It could be you ‘match the description of a suspect.’ But whatever it is, it is going to burn you and you are going to want to burst. And, after they let you go, if they don’t find a stupid reason to arrest you, you may feel tears streaming down your face.

I can’t make it better, but I will be here to hold you when you need to cry. I’ll wish I can make it better, but know that I can’t. I will say I am sorry. I will tell you that you didn’t do anything wrong. I will feel horrible about what happened. I will want to demand justice, but I can’t change a racist mind, only the person with a racist mind can do that.

The United States of America is a racist country. There are many good things about it. The education you will get here will be amazing. But, unfortunately, it is a different place if you are black or brown. You can beat the odds and get an amazing job here – there is no doubt in my mind that you will. But you will still not be white. And outside of your safety net, you will be seen differently by others. It sucks. But that is where America is right now. It must get better. It will get better. It is just happening too slowly.

“I am sorry.”

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