There's an African proverb that goes, "The lion's story will never be known as long as the hunter is the one to tell it."
More than a racial conversation, we need a racial literacy to decode the politics of racial threat in America. Key to this literacy is a forgotten truth, that the more we understand that our cultural differences represent the power to heal the centuries of racial discrimination, dehumanization and illness.
Both of my parents were African-American. My father was born in Southern Delaware, my mother, North Philadelphia, and these two places are as different from each other as east is from west, as New York City is from Montgomery, Alabama. My father's way of dealing with racial conflict was to have my brother Bryan, my sister Christy and I in church what seemed like 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
If anybody bothered us because of the color of our skin, he believed that you should pray for them, knowing that God would get them back in the end.
You could say that his racial-coping approach was spiritual — for later on, one day, like Martin Luther King.
My mother's coping approach was a little different. She was, uh, you could say, more relational — right now, like, in your face, right now. More like Malcolm X.
She was raised from neighborhoods in which there was racial violence and segregation, where she was chased out of neighborhoods, and she exacted violence to chase others out of hers. When she came to Southern Delaware, she thought she had come to a foreign country. She didn't understand anybody, particularly the few black and brown folks who were physically deferential and verbally deferential in the presence of whites. Not my mother. When she wanted to go somewhere, she walked. She didn't care what you thought. And she pissed a lot of people off with her cultural style.
Before we get into the supermarket, she would give us the talk: "Don't ask for nothin', don't touch nothin'. Do you understand what I'm saying to you? I don't care if all the other children are climbing the walls. They're not my children. Do you understand what I'm saying to you?" In three-part harmony: "Yes, Mom." Before we'd get into the supermarket, that talk was all we needed. Now, how many of you ever got that talk? How many of you ever give that talk?
How many of you ever give that talk today? My mother didn't give us the talk because she was worried about money or reputation or us misbehaving. We never misbehaved. We were too scared. We were in church 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
She gave us that talk to remind us that some people in the world would interpret us as misbehaving just by being black. Not every parent has to worry about their children being misjudged because of the color of their skin, just by breathing.
So we get into the supermarket, and people look at us — stare at us as if we just stole something. Every now and then, a salesperson would do something or say something because they were pissed with our cultural style, and it would usually happen at the conveyor belt. And the worst thing they could do was to throw our food into the bag. And when that happened, it was on.
My mother began to tell them who they were, who their family was, where to go, how fast to get there.
If you haven't been cursed out by my mother, you haven't lived.
The person would be on the floor, writhing in utter decay and decomposition, whimpering in a pool of racial shame.
Now, both my parents were Christians. The difference is my father prayed before a racial conflict and my mother prayed after.
There is a time, if you use both of their strategies, if you use them in the right time and the right way. But it's never a time — there's a time for conciliation, there's a time for confrontation, but it's never a time to freeze up like a deer in the headlights, and it's never a time to lash out in heedless, thoughtless anger. The lesson in this is that when it comes to race relations, sometimes, we've got to know how to pray, think through, process, prepare. And other times, we've got to know how to push, how to do something. And I'm afraid that neither of these two skills — preparing, pushing — are prevalent in our society today.
If you look at the neuroscience research which says that when we are racially threatened, our brains go on lockdown, and we dehumanize black and brown people. Our brains imagine that children and adults are older than they really are, larger than they really are and closer than they really are. When we're at our worst, we convince ourselves that they don't deserve affection or protection. At the Racial Empowerment Collaborative, we know that some of the scariest moments are racial encounters, some of the scariest moments that people will ever face. If you look at the police encounters that have led to some wrongful deaths of mostly Native Americans and African-Americans in this country, they've lasted about two minutes. Within 60 seconds, our brains go on lockdown. And when we're unprepared, we overreact. At best, we shut down. At worst, we shoot first and ask no questions. Imagine if we could reduce the intensity of threat within those 60 seconds and keep our brains from going on lockdown. Imagine how many children would get to come home from school or 7-Eleven without getting expelled or shot. Imagine how many mothers and fathers wouldn't have to cry.
Racial socialization can help young people negotiate 60-second encounters, but it's going to take more than a chat. It requires a racial literacy. Now, how do parents have these conversations, and what is a racial literacy? Thank you for asking.
A racial literacy involves the ability to read, recast and resolve a racially stressful encounter. Reading involves recognizing when a racial moment happens and noticing our stress reactions to it. Recasting involves taking mindfulness and reducing my tsunami interpretation of this moment and reducing it to a mountain-climbing experience, one that is — from impossible situation to one that is much more doable and challenging. Resolving a racially stressful encounter involves being able to make a healthy decision that is not an underreaction, where I pretend, "That didn't bother me," or an overreaction, where I exaggerate the moment.
Now, we can teach parents and children how to read, recast and resolve using a mindfulness strategy we call: "Calculate, locate, communicate, breathe and exhale." Stay with me. "Calculate" asks, "What feeling am I having right now, and how intense is it on a scale of one to 10?" "Locate" asks, "Where in my body do I feel it?" And be specific, like the Native American girl at a Chicago fifth-grade school said to me, "I feel angry at a nine because I'm the only Native American. And I can feel it in my stomach, like a bunch of butterflies are fighting with each other, so much so that they fly up into my throat and choke me." The more detailed you can be, the easier it is to reduce that spot. "Communicate" asks, "What self-talk and what images are coming in my mind?" And if you really want help, try breathing in and exhaling slowly.
With the help of my many colleagues at the Racial Empowerment Collaborative, we use in-the-moment stress-reduction in several research and therapy projects. One project is where we use basketball to help youth manage their emotions during 60-second eruptions on the court. Another project, with the help of my colleagues Loretta and John Jemmott, we leverage the cultural style of African-American barbershops, where we train black barbers to be health educators in two areas: one, to safely reduce the sexual risk in their partner relationships; and the other, to stop retaliation violence. The cool part is the barbers use their cultural style to deliver this health education to 18- to 24-year-old men while they're cutting their hair. Another project is where we teach teachers how to read, recast and resolve stressful moments in the classroom. And a final project, in which we teach parents and their children separately to understand their racial traumas before we bring them together to problem-solve daily microaggressions.
Now, racially literate conversations with our children can be healing, but it takes practice. And I know some of you are saying, "Practice? Practice? We're talking about practice?" Yes, we are talking about practice.
I have two sons. My oldest, Bryan, is 26, and my youngest, Julian, is 12. And we do not have time to talk about how that happened.
But, when I think of them, they are still babies to me, and I worry every day that the world will misjudge them.
In August of 2013, Julian, who was eight at the time, and I were folding laundry, which in and of itself is such a rare occurrence, I should have known something strange was going to happen. On the TV were Trayvon Martin's parents, and they were crying because of the acquittal of George Zimmerman. And Julian was glued to the TV. He had a thousand questions, and I was not prepared. He wanted to know why: Why would a grown man stalk and hunt down and kill an unarmed 17-year-old boy? And I did not know what to say. The best thing that could come out of my mouth was, "Julian, sometimes in this world, there are people who look down on black and brown people and do not treat them — and children, too — do not treat them as human." He interpreted the whole situation as sad.
(Voice-over) Julian Stevenson: That's sad. "We don't care. You're not our kind."
JS: It's like, "We're better than you."
JS: "And there's nothing you can do about that. And if you scare me, or something like that, I will shoot you because I'm scared of you."
HS: Exactly. But if somebody's stalking you —
JS: It's not the same for everyone else.
HS: It's not always the same, no. You've got to be careful.
JS: Yeah, because people can disrespect you.
JS: And think that you're, "You don't look — you don't look like you're ..." It's like they're saying that "You don't look right, so I guess I have the right to disrespect you."
HS: Yeah, and that's what we call, we call that racism.
And we call that racism, Julian, and yes, some people — other people — can wear a hoodie, and nothing happens to them. But you and Trayvon might, and that's why Daddy wants you to be safe.
(Voice-over) HS: And that's why —
JS: So you mean like, when you said "other people," you mean, like if Trayvon was a white, um, that he wouldn't be disrespected like that?
HS: Yes, Julian, Daddy meant white people when I said, "other people," all right?
So there was a way in which I was so awkward in the beginning, but once I started getting my rhythm and my groove, I started talking about stereotypes and issues of discrimination, and just when I was getting my groove on, Julian interrupted me.
(Voice-over) HS: ... dangerous, or you're a criminal because you're black, and you're a child or a boy — That is wrong, it doesn't matter who does it.
JS: Dad, I need to stop you there.
JS: Remember when we were ...
HS: So he interrupts me to tell me a story about when he was racially threatened at a swimming pool with a friend by two grown white men, which his mother confirmed. And I felt happy that he was able to talk about it; it felt like he was getting it.
We moved from the sadness of Trayvon's parents and started talking about George Zimmerman's parents, which, I read in a magazine, condoned the stalking of Trayvon. And Julian's reaction to me was priceless. It made me feel like he was getting it.
(Voice-over) JS: What did they say about him?
HS: Well, I think they basically felt that he was justified to follow and stalk —
JS: What the — ?
HS: Yeah, I think that's wrong.
JS: That's — one minute. So they're saying he has the right to follow a black kid, get in a fight with him and shoot him?
HS: As Julian was getting it, I started to lose it. Because in my mind's eye, I was thinking: What if my Julian or Bryan was Trayvon? I calculated my anger at a 10. I found, located, my right leg was shaking uncontrollably like I was running. And in my mind's eye, I could see somebody chasing Julian, and I was chasing them. And the only thing that could come out of my mouth was if anybody tries to bother my child ...
(Voice-over) HS: If anybody tries to bother my child ... mmm, mmm, mmm.
JS: What will happen?
HS: Well, they better run.
JS: Because what? HS: I'm gonna get 'em.
JS: See? (Laughs)
HS: I'm gonna get 'em. JS: Really?
HS: Oh, yeah.
JS: Then they're gonna get you because they might have weapons.
HS: Well, you know what, I'm gonna call police, too, like I should. But I feel like I wanna get 'em. But you can't; you're right, you can't just go chasing people.
JS: They can be armed.
HS: Yeah, you right. Yeah, you right. I feel like I wanna chase 'em.
JS: Plus they could be an army or something.
HS: I know — I feel like I wanna go get 'em, messing with my son. I don't like that.
JS: Um ...
HS: But you right. You gotta be careful. And um, you gotta be careful. You never know what some crazy people will think about you. Just as long as you believe you're beautiful like Daddy believes you're beautiful and handsome, and Mommy believes you're beautiful and handsome and smart. And you deserve to be on this planet, just as happy and beautiful and smart as you want to be. You can do anything you want, baby.
HS: Racial socialization is not just what parents teach their children. It's also how children respond to what their parents teach. Is my child prepared? Can they recognize when a racial elephant shows up in a room? Can they reduce their tsunami interpretation down to a mountain-climbing adventure that they can engage and not run away? Can they make a healthy and just decision in 60 seconds? Can I? Can you?
Yes, we can. We can build healthier relationships around race if we learn to calculate, locate communicate, breathe and exhale in the middle of our most threatening moments, when we come face-to-face with our lesser selves. If you take the centuries of racial rage that boils up in all of our bodies, minds and souls — and anything that affects our bodies, minds and souls affects our health — we could probably use gun control for our hearts. I just want what all parents want for their children when we're not around: affection and protection. When police and teachers see my children, I want them to imagine their own, because I believe if you see our children as your children, you won't shoot them.
With racial literacy, and yes, practice, we can decode the racial trauma from our stories, and our healing will come in the telling. But we must never forget that our cultural differences are full of affection and protection, and remember always that the lion's story will never be known as long as the hunter is the one to tell it.
Thank you very much.