Talking About The Talk
I admit, I was taken aback when I first heard about “The Talk”. I mean, I suppose I knew that this phenomenon probably existed in a plurality or maybe even a majority of cases… but it never occurred to me that this was something that, yes, all African-American parents talked about with their kids. I guess that I had never really thought about it before.
So I asked an African-American friend at work if he got The Talk and, after clarifying “which talk are you talking about?”, he answered “Oh Yeah.” I then asked him his opinion on the whole Derbyshire essay flap and he hadn’t heard about it. I told him that Derbyshire had heard about The Talk and decided to write an essay with his own The Talk that he’d give to his kids, at which point my friend (let’s call him “Parker”, for the sake of convenience) gave what he thought The Talk would sound like if a white parent was talking to his white kids… but I get ahead of myself.
I realized that I didn’t know what was in the talk. I mean, I had heard such things as African-Americans being told “you’ve got to work twice as hard” but never in the context of an entire “here’s how the world works” speech. So I asked Parker “can I ask you what was in The Talk?” and he told me I could… so we set some time aside and I was able to ask. “What was in The Talk?”
First off, he told me, it’s not a litany. He wasn’t sat down and given an hour of “how the world works”. It was five minutes here, five minutes there. Looking back, he said, he sees how his parents wanted it to be somewhat smaller than a big thing. My opening question was “How old were you when you got your first The Talk?” and he said “10, maybe 12.” “Really!”, I responded and he asked why I would respond like that. “It seems young.” Parker gave me details from The Talks that stuck with him the most: after he got his driver’s license, his parents told him “now, the cops are going to be following you when you drive somewhere… Don’t Be Stupid. Follow traffic laws and, God Forbid, if you get pulled over, be respectful, and don’t talk back.” Another time it was “Don’t Be Stupid. Don’t call attention to yourself. If the cops ask you to do something, do what they say, no more no less.”
“Was the overarching theme involving interactions with police?”
“No, if there was an overarching theme, it was Don’t Be Stupid.”
We talked a bit more and, yeah, Don’t Be Stupid was the biggest one but the one right behind it was “always be a little bit better”. Dress better, groom better, speak better. “So it’s always something in the forefront of your mind?” “Eh,” he shrugged. “The older you get, the more it sticks with you. It becomes a habit. Don’t Be Stupid.”
Patrick Appel points out Noah Millman’s The American Conservative column and focuses on the paragraph that says: Which brings us to the supposed point of the column. That point, I take it, is to argue that just as African-American parents have to brief their sons on how to keep themselves from ending up like Trayvon Martin, white parents have to brief their sons on how to keep themselves safe from personal violence at the hands of African-Americans. But there’s a profound lack of parallelism between the two conversations. “The Talk” is about how you are perceived by others, and how to comport yourself so as to counteract that perception. Derbyshire’s talk is about how you should perceive others. There’s no analogy. They have nothing to do with each other.
Which brings me back to Parker’s original response to hearing about what a white guy would say in The Talk: “The world isn’t how it used to be. You don’t have as much privilege as you used to. You need to work harder than you used to in order to get the same results you used to get. It’s a different world now.”
His response to The Talk was, immediately, to assume that it was about how the world was going to treat the kids and what the kids would need to do in order to respond to this treatment. When we were talking about The Talk on Tuesday, I reminded him of his response that he gave on Monday and he laughed and said “oh yeah! Put that in there!” and so there it is… and I think that that’s going to be my “here’s what we need to do” conclusion on this whole The Talk topic. The goal that we, as a society, ought to have is that The Talk that we give our children contains both notes of “here’s how the world is likely to perceive you” as well as notes of “here’s how you ought to perceive the world” and, eventually, no notes that will tell a reader of a transcript of The Talk whether the Talker or the person getting The Talk is white, black, or any given shade at all… and then, after that? That The Talk is something that we don’t even think about because we don’t have to.
Post-Script: I gave the above to Parker before I published it because I wanted his full okay for what I published. After he read it, we walked around the building a couple of times to hammer out some other things and I said that there was a paragraph or two I thought I needed to add. The first was that I had forgotten to point out that each “The Talk” was going to be individual. Parker’s brother got a different The Talk than Parker got and I didn’t do a good job of explaining how individualized everyone’s The Talk is. Parker grew up in Colorado, he told me that he was sure that the The Talks given in other parts of the country are a lot different. So I wanted to mention in one of my additional paragraphs that people should talk to their own African-American friends about The Talk to get a feel for what it’s like in their own part of the country. And, of course, if one doesn’t have any African-American friends that one is close enough to in order to ask about these things and Parker interjected “If you don’t have any intelligent Negro friends, you need to step up your game!” and he cackled. I told him that I wasn’t going to put that into my paragraph, then I said, well… can I put that in my paragraph? He told me I could.
The other thing I wanted to mention was how very presumptious this whole thing felt like when I was writing it… A Problem With Racism! This is a job for a White Male! If a White Male can’t solve the problem of Racism, IT CAN’T BE SOLVED!!! and Parker reminded me of a conversation we had shared a couple of weeks before about the whole racism problem and how he said that the best thing he sees going on and the thing he wants more of is “busing”. “Get the kids to sit next to each other, get them to talk to each other. Get them to interact.”
So, I guess if I have a conclusion it’s this: talk to each other. If you don’t have any black friends who are close enough for you to ask them about stuff like The Talk? Step up your game.