When Cole J. was just 11, his father sat him down in their apartment in Manhattan and delivered what Black Americans commonly refer to as “the talk.”
“My father told me when you get pulled over by a policeman, you have to be very careful about what they tell you to do, and you can’t argue,” Cole, who is Black, told Yahoo News. “And you always need to make sure to put your hands up on the surface of the car so they know that you don’t have a gun in your pocket, to be safe.”
Check out these interactive XR and audio scenes of “Black America’s loss of innocence,” below.
Even though Cole admits that he didn’t understand the full context of what his father was explaining to him then, almost two years ago, the murder of George Floyd last May by Minneapolis police brought his father’s teachings full circle.
“It made me realize all the stuff that’s happening in the world,” Cole, now 12, said. “It made me feel sad, and it also made me feel angry too that this is the society we live in. … What else do they want us to do?”
Floyd’s murder one year ago forced a similar inflection point for millions of people worldwide. Corporations made declarations of support for Black lives, politicians shifted their rhetoric and many white Americans seemed to wake up to the reality that racism is alive and well in America. For much of Black America, however, the killing was just the latest example of a reality they had long suffered under.
According to a Harvard study from last year, Black people are three times as likely as white people to be killed by police during an encounter. Those numbers, as well as dozens of other grim statistics attesting to racial inequality, come as no surprise to African American parents, who have taken it upon themselves to educate their children on the do’s and don’ts of interacting with law enforcement and other figures of authority.
Brandon Williams, a 34-year-old advertising executive and music artist from Inglewood, Calif., remembers getting a version of “the talk” at an early age.
“When I was 7, my mother told me to wear Easter-type clothes [almost every day] ... because it was considered to look a certain way,” Williams told Yahoo News. “If not, I was considered to look like a thug.”
Austin Rodriguez, 28, from Arlington, Va., learned in college that the status of higher education could come to his aid when he was dealing with police.
“I remember when I was 17, I got pulled over for the first time,” Rodriguez told Yahoo News. “And one of the cops pulled me over because I did a California roll at a stop sign and was like, ‘Oh, are you a University of Maryland student?’ because of the sticker I had on my car. It kind of put me at ease. ... Still, those conversations I had in my head with my parents, like, ‘Ten and 2 on the wheel,’ ‘Turn the music down,’ ‘Tell the officer every single thing you’re going to do before doing it,’ ‘Address him as sir or ma’am,’ etc.”
When she arrived in America from Barbados at the age of 17, Lola Gayle Patrick-Odeen said she believed she’d be able to make it based on merit.
“I feel like my mother conned me to some degree, but she was conned also,” Patrick-Odeen, who is now 59 and lives in Jersey City, N.J., told Yahoo News. “We believed what we watched on television. And so I thought America was almost like paradise.”
She quickly learned, however, that her skin color was the first thing that people saw. As with many Black people who call the United States home, feeling safe has not always come easily.
“Moving to the United States from an island where people of color are on the money, people of color run the country and the police are Black ... I had no issue thinking that Black people were less than anyone,” Patrick-Odeen said. “It was coming to America that [introduced] me to the idea that Black people in this country are seen as less than.”
Cover thumbnail photo: photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images, Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images, Matthew Horwood/Getty Images
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