What is “the Talk” and why is it important for interracial families?

The authors of The Interracial Adoption Option explain, sharing their personal experiences as white adoptive parents of two African-American children.

“The Talk”

Marlene G. Fine & Fern L. Johnson

Even casual news watchers in the U.S. over the last several months are aware that one of the most talked about news items is “The Talk.” No, it’s The Interracial Adoption Optionnot a new movie or book. And it’s not to be confused with “The Conversation Project,” which is an organized effort to get Americans to start talking about how they want to die. “The Talk” is the talk that every black parent knows they have to have with their child. It’s that difficult conversation about what it means to be black in the U.S. As one black television commentator said this morning—“I’m more afraid of that conversation than the one about the birds and the bees.”

The current talk about “The Talk” was fueled by Manhattan Federal Judge Shira Scheindlin’s decision earlier this week that New York City’s “stop and frisk” policy, which allows police to stop, question, and frisk anyone who looks suspicious, is unconstitutional because it targets young black and Latino men. Under the “stop and frisk” policy, 85 percent of the suspects stopped by the NYC police were not white. Saying each stop “is a demeaning and humiliating experience” for the men who are targeted, Judge Scheindlin ruled that the NYC stop and frisk policy is a form of racial profiling and is therefore unconstitutional. The recent acquittal of George Zimmerman, a Florida neighborhood watch coordinator charged with the murder of Trayvon Martin also sparked discussion of “The Talk.” Martin was an unarmed black male teenager that Zimmerman followed one evening because, as he told police, he didn’t know the boy and he looked suspicious.

Many people in the U.S. hailed the election and re-election of Barack Obama as the first black President as proof that the U.S. had become a post-racial society, a place where race no longer mattered. But race does matter. And the fact that most white parents had never heard of “The Talk” before Trayvon Martin’s death or Judge Scheindlin’s ruling is but one example of how it matters.

White parents didn’t know because, as a general rule, whites don’t experience being stopped and frisked by the police. Whites don’t know what DWB or SWB means (“Driving While Black” or “Shopping While Black”) because they’ve never experienced either one. Ask a black person in the U.S. what they mean and they’ll answer immediately. Several years ago Marlene asked graduate students in a cultural diversity class if they knew what DWB meant. Two white women and a black man in the class started giggling and Marlene asked them why they thought the question was funny. One of the women responded, saying that she and the other white woman were driving to class the previous week with the black man, who was behind the wheel, when he was stopped by the police for no apparent reason. She said that until that moment, they didn’t have idea what DWB meant, but they were very aware of it now.

Both of our sons experienced DWB soon after they had their driver’s licenses. One was followed on an interstate highway by a state trooper who would alternate moving parallel in the left lane to get a good look at who was driving and then falling back behind the car. The other son, who was with a Latino friend and had parked on a street near our home in the middle of the afternoon, was stopped by a white police officer and asked for his name and where he lived. When our son gave his address two streets away, the police officer instructed him to ‘Be on your way.’ Fortunately, neither young man was asked to get out of the car. Other young black men have not fared so well.

One African American family that we became friends with when our sons were in middle school told us that they didn’t let their older son drive until they were comfortable that he knew how to be “properly deferential” if he were pulled over by the police. Until then it had never occurred to us that we would need to add training in “how to act in the event that you’re stopped by the police” to our list of teenage driving skills. It never occurred to us because as whites we were unaware of the experiences of young blacks. We both had talked with black men in our classes who had been detained or spent the night in jail after being rounded up by police looking for a “young black man in a hoodie.” But we didn’t extrapolate from our students to our children.

Most whites are unaware of how racism works and how race, ethnicity, and culture are linked. This is primarily because of what Peggy McIntosh (1992) calls “white privilege.”  McIntosh says that whites carry ‘an invisible package of unearned assets.’ These assets or privileges include, for example, being in the company of people who are of the same race whenever they choose, turning on the television or going to the movies and seeing members of their race, finding a hairdresser who knows how to cut their hair, buying flesh colored bandages that match their skin, doing well without being called a credit to their race, or, conversely, not doing well and having that lack of success be attributed to their race.  Perhaps the most significant privilege whites (or anyone who is a member of a majority culture that holds power) have is the ability to know nothing about the experiences and cultures of people who are not like them.  White privilege means that being white is the norm against which everyone who is not white is measured.  And even more powerfully, it means that when whites are in the company of other whites, they do not have to think about race at all. That is one reason why whites are often perplexed when they are asked to talk about being white.  “White” is rarely seen by whites as a racial category.

Whites who adopt African American children must be prepared to unpack what McIntosh (1992) calls their ‘knapsack of privileges’ and to open themselves to learning about and understanding the experiences of blacks.  That means that you have to talk to your sons (and daughters, for they also face serious consequences of social and cultural assumptions about girls and women of color) about how to deal with cultural perceptions of black men as violent and threatening.

Here are some things to keep in mind if you are the white parent of a child of color, especially a black boy:

  • You are no longer just a white person.  You are now part of an interracial family.  Your child’s racial identity is an integral part of your family identity, which means that your identity has also changed.
  • Race matters. And because it matters, you need to be open to learning about how and why it does.
  • You must have “The Talk.” You must prepare your child to deal with the cultural perceptions of their racial identity.  White parents of black boys must have “The Talk” with their sons.  Just as you would ensure that your teenage son knows the importance of practicing safe sex and using a condom, you need to ensure that he knows how to behave if he is stopped by the police for a DWB.  Unfortunately, all children of color need to be taught that race still matters.


One thought

  1. Thanks for posting this. We’ve been an African-Canadian family for 8 years and as we approach teen years I wonder what we’ve forgotten to talk about. I know about DWB and SWB, but didn’t know it had a name. Too bad it needed one…

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