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The Conversation Black Parents Have With Their Kids about Police Violence

Valerie Castile, mother of Philando Castile, looks at a photo button of her son during a press conference on the state Capitol grounds in St. Paul, Minn. Philando Castile was fatally shot by police July 6.
Valerie Castile, mother of Philando Castile, looks at a photo button of her son during a press conference on the state Capitol grounds in St. Paul, Minn. Philando Castile was fatally shot by police July 6.

The combative relationship between police and the minority community has never been more prevalent than today, but black Americans know it’s been around for longer than history books record. That’s why they prepare their children as best as they can.

Days after the deaths of two black men in Louisiana and in Minnesota at the hands of police officers, and the mass shooting and killing of five cops in Texas, I was bombarded with questions from my 8-year-old daughter. She had been playing games on her tablet and accidentally clicked on a news app, narrowly escaping the grisly videos many of us have watched online. Fast forward a few more days, and a police shooting in Baton Rouge left three officers dead. 

"What happened?" my daughter asked.

My partner and I sat her down next to her 9-year-old sister and began to explain. We also told them that as a black family, we may encounter challenges that their white friends may not. The tears quickly followed. 

When I returned to work here at WXXI, I shared that story with my colleague, James Giddeon. He’s an African-American man in his 50s, with four children in their 20s and 30s. Unfortunately, he says, he’s had "the talk" with them about how to conduct themselves when they encounter police many times.

"If you’re a black family, you’ve had this conversation with all your kids, whether it be the boys or the girls," says Giddeon.

The tense police-community relationship is why the National Black Police Association created a brochure titled "What to Do When Stopped by the Police" and posted it online to help minorities handle such situations.

In 2015, young black men were nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by police officers, according to a study by The Guardian. The incidents often began with a traffic stop. Giddeon can’t recall how many times officers have stopped him.

"I'd say it's in the hundreds."

The violence adds to the long list of responsibilities of parents and teachers across the country. How do they help children make sense of it? Why is it happening? And what can be done?

But particularly in communities of color, the conversation quickly becomes, “How do we keep our people safe?”

Banke Awopetu-McCullough is a professor and education consultant. She taught secondary students in the Rochester City School District for more than a decade, and says schools need to be a resource that kids can turn to.

"We know the research shows that students of color are seen to be older than they really are. So they’re having these interactions with law enforcement, they’re watching these same videos, and having the same questions. And to educators – if we don’t see it as a part of our responsibility to have these conversations, then shame on us," says Awopetu-McCullough.

Those pressing questions from children can be difficult to answer. How do you explain why Michael Brown was shot and killed in Florida in 2014? Or how Sandra Bland was found hanging in a jail cell in Texas last year? Or make sense of the recent killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile – all after altercations with police? 

Awopetu-McCullough says parents and educators outside the black community should broach the subject, too, once they understand the issue.

"If I take the time to bottle up my own feelings to meet you where you are and address your curiosity, then you therefore now have the responsibility to act on that information," she says.

April Aycock is a licensed mental health counselor and owner of Awareness Counseling Services. No matter the age of the child, her advice is to listen first; find out what they’ve already heard from their peers or viewed on social media. But it is also important to communicate the message appropriately.

"Your kids may start to associate every officer that is Caucasian or looks different than they do as somebody who may kill them or who may hurt them. You want to be very careful how you frame it, because not all officers are bad officers," says Aycock.

Aycock says parents should match the tone of the conversation to the child’s maturity level, and to try to remove the child’s fear.

"It’s very debilitating for any kid or any human being to be afraid and not be able to do anything about it," says Aycock.

The anger felt by young people whose families and friends have been touched by violence is real and visceral. In Rochester, efforts are being made to figure out a solution. Local police and a youth organization called Teen Empowerment have been working together to try and improve their complex relationship.

Giddeon and other black parents say though they want their kids to know their constitutional rights, they also want them to be careful not to provoke a police officer’s fear.

"I’ve had most officers that stop me come up already with this attitude. They’ve already formed their opinion prior to reaching the window. But once they reach that window, your conduct is what makes them unwind," says Giddeon.

Sasha-Ann Simons joined the team at WXXI News in 2015 as a Multimedia Reporter/Producer. She tells stories about the innovation economy and technology in upstate New York and also does general assignment reporting. Sasha-Ann is the host of Arts InFocus, WXXI-TV's weekly arts and culture program. She is also a fill-in host and regular contributor to Need To Know.