‘They are taught to fear us’: Guardian US readers on explaining the police to their Black children

My husband is one of just a handful of Black police officers in our city. Our daughter saw some of the George Floyd coverage and asked a lot of questions. We have had to explain that not all police are the good guys, that some people have racism and bias in their hearts. It has been a very tough spot to be in. We tell her some police are bad, as her daddy stands in a uniform and people say they hate the police. But her daddy is also that Black skin lying on the ground. We ourselves are struggling with it. How do we explain it to a child? We do so by teaching her the truth of the country and its violent past and present. And we believe in our hearts and with my husband’s words and actions in policing that he is that change. We have to. Shanda; Kansas; parent of a biracial eight-year-old daughter

My brother is six years old, and he actually is the one who explained it to us. Yesterday, when exchanging I love yous and good nights, we told the six-year-old how handsome and sweet and perfect he is, then sent him to bed. As he turned off the light, Egli ha detto: “Remember me after I die!” We called him back into the room and asked him to repeat himself. “Remember me after I die,” he said again. “After the police shoot me, I’m going to die.” Of course, we did what any family would. We assured him that he had a long life ahead of him and reminded him that most police officers are there to help. It was hard to hear. I almost cried, because we could not even tell him that it wasn’t a possibility. Anonymous; Virginia; eldest of seven children ages two to 24

For years, my concerns were primarily for my eldest – a 21-year-old male, Babson College student. A year before graduating from an elite independent day school, he came home enraged by an encounter with NYPD officers at the W 4th Street subway station in Manhattan. That afternoon he was asked to show his ID to prove that he was a high school student and entitled to swipe his student MetroCard at the turnstile. He complied as his mostly white and upper-income peers swiped their student cards and boarded the A train.

Over the years, fears of my son falling victim to violence, at the hands of police or criminals, influenced a very rigid approach to parenting during his high school years that I’m not proud of. Throughout his high school years, I drilled my sons with rhetorical questions that were set-ups for my weekly diatribes: do you REALLY know if your friends carry drugs? Because if YOU’RE riding in a car together and get pulled over, only ONE of you has a rich parent to bail you out. In definitiva, my fixation with protecting my son’s body and reputation meant that he missed out on far too many formative high school experiences.

In my opinion, the role of police in American society is informed by the sum of one’s interactions with them. This accounts for a lot of the polarization we see on the issue of policy reform. In the eyes of my four-year-old, police officers are protectors and friends that she’ll readily share her first, middle and last name, along with her favorite color, to any friendly officer who says hello. My middle-schoolers’ experiences are different. They are painfully aware of the epidemic of police violence against unarmed Blacks and are understandably ambivalent about whose interest the police really serve. My eldest, like many Black men in America, has come to understand that when stopped by the police his compliance might mean the difference between living and dying.

I don’t feel compelled to filter these facts or discussions at the dinner table. I often wonder how white officers explain the role of police in American society to their children. I want to imagine a future in which I can give my children the same explanation. Crystal; Brooklyn, New York; parent of four children, ages four to 21

To my younger children, I say the police aren’t here to be your friends. They are here to protect some people and arrest others. They can’t always tell the difference between who they should protect and arrest. If you see them, come get me. To my oldest, I explain the history of how the police force came to be. Then I explain that they don’t have years of training so many of them aren’t great at their jobs and are told over and over that they are the good guys and that people who look like us are the bad guys. They are not all bad, but they are all taught to fear us and to see you and others like you as threats, especially the boys. Mark; Houston, Texas; parent of three children, ages five to 13

I had my son watch videos of Emmett Till, lynchings, court cases, the prison system and how it has impacted our communities and black fatherhood as an institution as a way to explain with empathy the lack of fatherhood in both my sons’ lives. We watched and educated him on the history of the police in the United States and its role during slavery, and how that history’s roots are so deep that the foundation of the police force would need to be completely dismantled and rebuilt to enact true equity in our modern world. Iyana, San Francisco; parent of two children, ages two and 11

My son is black. He grew up with a white police officer stepfather. We both explained to him both sides of what goes on. How officers are not well trained to de-escalate, and that they fear for their lives. We explained to him the deadly perception that young black men are armed and dangerous. While we taught him what to do and what to say. His stepfather told him that no police interaction is good and to avoid these situations (without running). The dynamics are so complex. I fear for him even in a public restroom. He is big and has music-related tattoos, and I fear that he could be a target for a hate crime, not only police brutality. Life is hard in general; it is much harder for black men and women. Anonymous; Nashville, Tennessee; parent to a 21-year-old son

From the time my children were three years old, I discussed the compliant behaviors required when interacting with the police. My two oldest are Black males that stand over 6ft 4in. One of them is autistic with self-stemming mannerisms that draw police attention. As a desperate dad, I must explain his condition, so it does not escalate. My kids were taught to not even walk the dogs without ID in case the police accosted them. It has happened to them and me. We don’t even mow our lawns without keeping ID on us. If pulled over, it is important to move slowly and give a lot of “Yes sirs” to the officers. As my father taught me, “the police need the emotional affirmation that you know they have control of our Black lives, even though we pay taxes. If you don’t give that to them, you will not make it home.” Corey; Connecticut; three children, ages seven to 25

During my boys’ teenage years, I made it a point to let them know that they had to be very careful if they had interactions with the police. I also had to explain to them that while they learned about “justice for all” in school, that it doesn’t work that way in the real world. I had to explain to them that as they got older, the consequences for bad decisions got more dire as white society tends to prosecute young Black males as adults more readily than it does white kids. I also pointed out that our family is not as connected as their friends’ families so again they wouldn’t get the same kind of consideration from authorities that their white friends got. Anonymous; Houston, Texas; parent of four adult children

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