Damon Young: Why I’m not going to give my kids ‘The Talk’

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB (Very Smart Brothas), a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and the author of “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker” (Ecco/HarperCollins). You can follow his work on The Root. He lives on Pittsburgh’s North Side with his family.

This column is reprinted with permission from The Root.

“So,” the moderator asked, during a public (and socially distant) book talk last week—my first time being indoors anywhere other than my house or a grocery store since early March—“what would you change if you wrote that chapter to your daughter today?”

I’ve been asked a variant of that question dozens of times in the 17 months that I’ve been talking about “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker” in front of people. So much so that I’ve learned how to embed the correction to that question—the chapter isn’t addressed to my daughter; it’s about my anxiety and ambivalence on what to teach her—in the first half of the first sentence of my answer without losing momentum.

“So, in the chapter about my daughter, I’d…”

What comes next is always the same. I’m still learning, still discovering, still determining the best way to raise her and her little brother, and the chapter already reflects that, so there’s not much I’d change. And that’s what I said.

But then she asked a follow-up:

“With the danger law enforcement poses to Black people, when do you plan on giving your children ‘The Talk’—assuming you haven’t already?”

“The Talk,” of course, is the ritualistic conversation Black parents are expected to have with their children about the police that reminds them of their Blackness, informs them that people with guns and the legal power to shoot them will consider them to be threats, and arms them with an ecosystem of behaviors intended to mitigate that risk. It’s a micro-curricula within what they presumably already know about America; a lesson that encompasses diction and clothing choices; eye contact and tone; body language and sentence construction; hand movement and, if driving, music listened to. The goal of it is simple: to exit interactions with the police unkilled by them.

There are dozens of articles and studies about it. Television shows have devoted episodes to it. It even has its own Wikipedia page.

It is such an expected part of the process of parenting while Black that I’ve never been asked if I was planning on giving my children “The Talk,” just when. (My daughter will be 5 in November, which might be an appropriate time for her to hear it. My son, who will be 2 in December, would get two sentences through it before he tried to bite my face.)

And I think I’ll pass.

My children will know about America. They will know America better than most white Americans do. They will know how America sleeps, shits and snores. They will know that my income grants them certain privileges that many other Black children don’t receive—and that their dad was one of those kids—but I will do my best to ensure they don’t act privileged. They will also know that, once they leave the house, the house they happen to live in doesn’t matter to the people who don’t know them—which is most people.

And I believe that’s enough. I believe that as well-intentioned as “The Talk” is, it only provides our kids with a false sense of camouflage—that if they do this and this and this and this and this, the cops won’t (expletive) with them—while injecting fear into them.

The law dictates that the badge makes police officers authority figures, and my children will be aware of that. But while they have the power to end a life, those (expletives) ain’t God. There’s no reason to cower or to offer them a respect and a reverence you wouldn’t even give your own grandparents. And if a cop decides, out of racism or boredom or whim, to (expletive) with one of my kids, I don’t want them believing that it’s somehow their fault. That there’s something they could’ve done differently to prevent it. That just obeying the law and listening and following directions wasn’t enough, and that they should’ve been able to predict that this grown man would be threatened by a sneeze.

Of course, there’s the reality that “The Talk” saves lives, so any semantic or theoretical argument I have against it should pale in comparison to wanting my children to remain unkilled. But I’m not convinced that it does. I’m not convinced that it prevents anything that a nuanced understanding of America and being Black in America doesn’t already. I’m not convinced that it’s not more for the parents’ benefit—so that we feel better about sending our children into the world. So that we feel like we’ve equipped them with everything they need. I am convinced that it centers whiteness; that it encourages our kids to flatten themselves before America does the flattening. And I am convinced that it shifts responsibility from those actually responsible for police brutality to the brutalized.

I shared this with the moderator, who seemed surprised by my answer. I was too—because I’d never said it aloud before. I’d felt this way for a while, but never thought it made much sense. “Sense” is a funny word.