While the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, in addition to thousands of protests, have sparked new conversations across the country, one thing that’s remained for many families is “the talk.”
This is the talk that Black parents give their children, particularly their sons, about how they should deal with the police if they encounter them. It is a hard talk, a sad talk. And the stakes are really high.
Sam Sanders, host of It’s Been A Minute from NPR sits down with Kenya Young, the executive producer of NPR’s Morning Edition, to discuss how she talks with her three sons and what we can all learn from these types of dialogues.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity for reading. You can listen to the powerful conversation here or stream it at the top of this page.
Sam Sanders: Kenya knows this talk all too well. She’s my colleague and the executive producer of NPR’s Morning Edition. (That means she runs the whole show.) She’s also the mother of three Black boys.
Kenya Young: I have a 16 1/2-year-old, a 14-year-old and a 4-year-old.
As the Black mother of three Black boys, you’re having to talk to them about the news in a very specific way. What are you saying to them about George Floyd and his death and the police and these protests?
You know, it’s obviously not the first time. They are 16 and 14. And for some people, this may be the first time they’ve had to have the conversation. It is not the first time for us. We’ve had to have what’s known in Black culture as “the talk” many times.
I’ll never forget there was a time — the kids wanted to go to the park. This was right around the time of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. My third son was just born. And I had many moments where I was holding him or nursing him and crying as I did so. Because, while I loved this little bundle of joy immensely, also just the amount of fear and worry for who I just brought into the world again, another Black son, and the burdens that I have to carry with that again. It was really raw for me around that time.
I remember the kids asking to go to the park and the laundry list of what I had to tell them: “Don’t wear your hood. Don’t put your hands in your pocket. If you get stopped, don’t run. Put your hands up. Don’t make a lot of moves. Tell them your mother works for NPR.” I mean, it just went on and on.
There are stages of the talk as they start to get older. One is you just don’t want them to draw attention to themselves enough for someone to call on them or get stopped. Then, there’s the stage of what you do if you do get caught. And then, more recently, we all watched Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us” together as a family. And it was really, really hard for the kids to go through. The series is about the Central Park Five — they were young kids themselves. That was the first time it changed to a new iteration of the talk. And that talk was, what do you do once you’re inside those walls? ‘Don’t ever sign a confession. Don’t ever let them tell you that your mom told you it’s OK. Don’t ever …’ and I was just like, ‘Oh, my gosh. It doesn’t stop.’
This time around, it’s been more about what’s not fair. You know, ‘This just isn’t fair, you guys. But this is the way the world is. This is the way America is right now. It’s the way it’s been for a long time. And I can’t lie to you, I don’t think it’s going to change in your lifetime. And it’s just not fair for us to have to live like this.’
What’s your emotional state having to give this talk again and again and again?
I have to be honest about it. The more it happens, the harder it is to stay optimistic about it. I mean, we have an example right here within the span of one month, two different incidences that we’ve had to talk to them through. With the Ahmaud Arbery shooting, there was a sorrow, honestly, because we’re in the middle of a pandemic. Most of us were still in a shelter-in-place then! And even in a pandemic, even when someone’s home, even when everything — when America …
When the world should be still.
Still! And yet, we’re still killing unarmed Black men in the streets. That’s the one thing we can still seem to count on for America. And that hit me like a ton of bricks. It hurt my heart that that was the truth of where racism is in this country — even when everything’s stopped, that’s the one thing that continued.
And so that conversation with them, there were a lot of tears. It was a lot of helplessness. ‘I don’t know what to do anymore, you guys. I don’t know how to save you. I don’t know how to keep you safe. I don’t know.’
My husband and I have been sure to provide a very good life for them — more than what we had — and make sure that we lived in places where we felt safe as a family, where they were in the best school districts. I always looked at very diverse neighborhoods as well because that was important to me.
But for the first time, I started to have the thought: I did everything to make sure that we weren’t in crime-ridden areas, that we were in safe neighborhoods and that they did get the best. And still, I fear for them walking down the street. Did I do even more of a disservice by being the only Black family on this street? Do we have to do more work by making sure that everyone knows us, and everyone knows our hearts and who we are and be friends with everyone?
And is that enough? If someone’s mother-in-law visits and doesn’t know us and wonders why my kids are riding their bikes, or if someone wanders over from another street and questions us. It’s one of those places where my talk with my kids at that point is hopeless. I just don’t know what to do anymore. I just don’t.
I feel the same way. For me, as a Black man who’s covered these stories for a long time and also gotten the talk from my mother growing up, I think there were two assumptions I had. From Trayvon forward, I said, ‘Well, eventually, it will get better. There’s the cameras now. There’s the reforms. It ought to get better.’ That actually hasn’t happened. And, two, I thought that I would age out of the fear.
I’m 35 now. And I had convinced myself in my 20s, ‘Well, when you’re older, they care about you less. You’re not the Black kid they’re looking for.’ Not true. How old was George Floyd? How old was Eric Garner? And to hear you talk about how it’s almost inescapable — I feel the same way. I feel like no matter what version of our lives we’re in as Black people, as Black mothers, as Black sons, it’s always a version of the talk — always.
That’s right. The truth of the matter is no matter what we do, what job we get, what college we go to, what education we have, what level we are, how much money, what car — anything that you think may change even a little bit about how people see you, there are still people that are only going to see the skin color.
All of my kids are three different colors — bless Black genes, you just never know how they’re going to show up in your kids. I call them dark chocolate, milk chocolate and white chocolate. I’ve got all three. I’ve got a See’s candy box.
My oldest son is very dark-skinned, getting pretty tall — taller than me now, has a head above me … broad, 16-year-old boy. To some, he is going to look older than 16. To some, this heart-of-gold, goofy as can be kid — he will look menacing. He will look threatening. And that is just because that’s how they perceive dark, big Black skin.
So they’ve gotten several versions of this talk over the last several years. How do your kids react when you say, ‘All right, come on, get on this couch. You know what we’re about to talk about now.’ Are they tired of it? Are they emotional? Are they exasperated?
I think it depends. I make them watch the news. And I make them listen to NPR just to understand what’s really going on, and so we can talk about it. They get it at different levels.
I do still think that they live in a space that you were talking about, ‘OK, I know this happens, but it’s over there.’ But they also say, ‘Oh, that’s not fair. This country is still killing Black men. And why do they do that to us?’ And it’s a very hard thing.
The one thing, Sam, that is difficult: It’s hard to do this and then also not have them hate, right? There’s a space that I know a lot of Black boys live in of just, ‘Well, then you’re just not supposed to like white people. They do this to us.’ That’s what the rage is that we’re seeing right now. People are angry. And they’re tired. And they’re frustrated. And there’s a bit of a desperation where we just don’t even know what to do yet. And I don’t know that I want my kids to ever get to that place. I want them to still feel like they can call for change.
It’s interesting to talk them through it but to also leave them the space to maneuver it themselves, to figure out their identity.
I’m curious to hear you talk about the differences and similarities between the talk you give your Black boys about this and the talk you give your white coworkers in a mostly-white newsroom when you’re telling them how to cover this on the air.
While it may be two different versions, I think the bottom line is that it all has to come from this place of authenticity and this kind of raw space of, ‘How did we get here?’ So with my boys, ‘How did we get here, and what’s our next step?’
But it’s the same question to my white colleagues or my white friends. ‘How did we get here? Are you here with me? You know, are you still a little bit further behind trying to catch up? Or are you finally here with me now? Are we ready to have this conversation? What’s your next step? What’s my next step? And what is our next step together?’
I live in this every day. You may live it in the moment when it happens. But it can slowly fade away for some people because life goes on. And it’s not your life experience. It is my life experience. It is my boys’ life experience. It does not go away. And the sad part is, within the next couple of weeks, we’ll have another one.
And so it becomes more of a talk with my white colleagues about, are we ready to talk about what’s really going on in America? Are we ready to face that this isn’t a one-off or a two-off or a three-off or a 10-off?
It is America.
It is America. It is a 10-off because it is.
These conversations focus a lot on Black men killed by police. But we should note, as we’ve talked about in this conversation, when a Black man dies at the hands of police, a little bit of some Black woman who nurtured him or mothered him or loved him dies, too.
And I cannot help but continue to hear George Floyd as he was being choked to death. He called out for his mother twice.
I just want to say to you, as one Black son to a Black mother — we never forget those talks. We never forget those lessons. We’re always grateful for you and for your protection. And even in the final moments of our lives, however those occur, we will think of you.
Oh, Sam. See, I thought I was going to make it all the way through.
When he called for his momma. Oh, God. That just …
There was something about that, that changed in me because it was just— the level of fear in somebody, you know you’re about to lose your life unnecessarily, unjustly, that that’s your last callout — it’s devastating.
It’s also this reminder. For all of these people that would want to see the worst in a Black man and see an enemy and see violence and see something dangerous, we’re all actually some mother’s son.
Just somebody’s son — that’s exactly right. And I think that’s the hard part. I look at my boys. And they love life. And I see that. And I know that. And I love them for that. And I want the world to see them the exact same way.
You see it all the time. Black moms say it. ‘What if my son’s name was ever a hashtag? What if we’re posting his picture in a remembrance over senseless racism?’ It’s just not fair that that’s a constant thought every day as a mother of these three beautiful brown boys.
Yeah. Well, my hope is that listeners hearing this of all races and ages and walks of life will learn something and have more talks with their families and make things a bit better. But whatever happens with whoever hears this, I want you to hear from me, thank you. Thanks to all the mothers all the time.
Thank you. Thank you so much. That means a lot. That means more than you know.
This conversation originally appeared on ‘It’s Been A Minute,’ which is produced by Jinae West, Anjuli Sastry, Andrea Gutierrez and Hafsa Fathima. Hafsa Fathima is an intern for the podcast, and Jordana Hochman is the editor. Steve Nelson is the director of programming.
The story was adapted for digital by Andee Tagle.