'The talk' about surviving encounters with police is a fact of life in America, Black parents say

Chanelle Chandler
·Producer
·5-min read

For the parents of Black kids, it is simply known as “the talk,” the emotionally wrenching conversation they feel they must now have with their children based on the fact that encounters with police can turn deadly on a moment’s notice.

“The most important part of the conversation is, ‘I need you to come home, and I need you to come home safely,’” Michelle Irby of Willingboro, N.J., the mother of sons ages 18 and 21, told Yahoo News. “‘I don’t care what the officer said, I don’t care if you were right and he was wrong, I need you to come home safely to me, that’s it.’”

Irby said she has to give her sons “the talk” every time they leave the house. “I believe it does take away the innocence of the children. Children should not be burdened with those types of things,” she said. “Children should not have to worry about ‘If I’m walking down the street and an officer may stop me, that I may get in trouble for just being a child.’”

Sherita McKeever of Charlotte, N.C., told Yahoo News that she gave her 18-year-old son, Xavier Turner, “the talk” while she was being pulled over by police in 2015. The incident came on the heels of Sandra Bland dying in police custody in Waller County, Texas.

“You can only teach your children and those around you the right things, but you can’t account for the volatile nature of people,” McKeever said. 

Her son said he was glad his mother raised the issue with him. “I have been [living] in these small utopias where people are not enlightened on what ‘the talk’ is or these incidents that could happen. When you live everyday life, everything seems so for sure. We’re going to wake up. We’re going to go to school. We’re going to go to work,” Xavier Turner told Yahoo News. “But we don’t account for those things that we can’t foresee. That’s why I think it’s important that we have ‘the talk’ because people can be temperamental. Things are always changing, so you have to always be aware and vigilant of what’s going on.”

“The talk” even became a topic during a presidential debate in October of last year between then-President Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

“I want to talk about the way Black and brown Americans experience race in this country,” debate moderator Kristen Welker told the candidates. “Part of that experience is something called ‘the talk.’ It happens regardless of class and income. Parents who feel they have no choice but to prepare their children for the chance that they could be targeted, including by the police, for no reason other than the color of their skin.”

The conversation itself often includes advice on how to navigate being pulled over by police while driving, the parents who spoke to Yahoo News said. Life-saving tips include staying calm, rolling your windows down, making sure to have all of the necessary documentation out in plain sight, being respectful, putting your hands on the steering wheel and the keys on the dashboard and complying with an officer’s instructions. While those informal guidelines might seem like common sense, putting them into practice following the high-profile deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police can prove stressful.

Sitting in the driver's seat of his car, the man grips the steering wheel.
A man grips the steering wheel of his car. (Getty Images)

According to data from the research collaborative Mapping Police Violence, 28 percent of those killed in America by police in 2020 were Black, despite the fact that Black people make up only 13 percent of the population. Since George Floyd’s death in May of last year, nearly 200 Black people in the U.S. have been killed by police. Those statistics, parents say, are a big reason for the anxiety many Black Americans feel during encounters with police.

“The way we perceive cops nowadays, compared to when I was younger, I would say, we perceived them like, ‘Oh, I want to be a cop,’” Isaiah Branch, Michelle Irby’s younger son told Yahoo News. “Now that narrative has kind of changed. Like ‘I’m afraid of the cops.’ A lot of people do definitely live in fear of maybe [their life] being taken by a cop.”

On March 18, 2018, 22-year-old Stephon Clark was killed by two Sacramento police officers who fired a total of 20 shots following a pursuit that ended in his grandmother’s yard. The officers stated they believed Clark had aimed an “object” at them, which turned out to be a cellphone. A Sacramento County district attorney concluded after a nearly yearlong investigation that officers Terrence Mercadal and Jared Robinet had not violated the law.

A mourner holds up a photo of police shooting victim Stephon Clark during the funeral services for Clark at Bayside Of South Sacramento Church in Sacramento, Calif., Thursday, March 29, 2018. Clark, who was unarmed, was shot and killed by Sacramento Police Officers, Sunday, March 18, 2018. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, Pool)
A mourner holds up a photo of Stephon Clark at his funeral in Sacramento, Calif., in 2018. (Jeff Chiu, Pool/AP)

Clark’s mother, Sequette Clark, told Yahoo News that “the talk” wasn’t enough to save her son.

“I had one son who would always question me, which was Stephon,” she said. “‘How are you going to tell me to be like this any other way, but with the police, be a punk to the police?’ I told him ‘If that’s how you’re going to make it home, yup! Make it home by any means necessary.’”

Clark’s killing prompted a nationwide wave of protests, his face appearing on signs, becoming synonymous with the loss experienced by Black people whose loved ones never made it home after an encounter with police.

Like Clark’s death, the murder of Floyd sparked outrage. But Sequette Clark said she felt a “sense of peace” when former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty on all three charges he was facing in Floyd’s death: second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

“Now I know for a fact that my son was not slain in vain ... that his blood was [not] for nothing,” Sequette Clark said, her voice breaking from emotion. “That his blood has helped change the course of this nation, and that’s how I look at this trial. We’re in a new civil rights movement, and it’s all of the little victories that add up to the significant change.”

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