At a point in our awkward adolescent years many of us found ourselves sitting on a couch or the dining room table across from our parents in order to have a conversation simply known as The Talk. Even if you didn’t experience the talk in that manner I'll bet you're assuming correctly that what I'm referring to is the uncomfortable conversation between parent and child about the birds and the bees, male and female development, how to responsibly handle those strange urges brought upon you by something adults called raging hormones.
This week it's been brought to my attention that within many black families there is an altogether different version of The Talk. Beyond issues of sex, black parents often feel compelled to share with their adolescent young men the hard racial realities that come with being a black man in America. This talk may involve the necessary lessons in appropriate behaviors to assume when aggressively approached by white male authority figures, especially law enforcement. This unimaginably tension-filled conversation is one that a loving black parent painfully recognizes could literally result in life or death.
The Trayvon Martin murder case and the subsequent response by my black male friends, along with prominent public figures such as the Miami Heat basketball team has placed an international emphasis on the ongoing systemic issue of racism within America, an issue that many white males like myself simply have not often been forced to consider.
As a lanky teenager growing up in a Norman Rockwell-esque Indiana farming community it was common for my friends and I to stay up late, sneak out and run around our small town fearlessly playing pranks on classmates or throwing toilet paper in the trees of our teachers. If the police or a grouchy neighbor would have discovered our "criminal" activities the realistic worst that we could expect was our parents being notified and possibly minor privileges being temporarily taken away.
The reality for Trayvon Martin was tragically different as is the ongoing reality for so many young men of color throughout America. According to my friend, Anthony Grimes, police brutality or at least harassment was a paralyzing and daily reality among his low-income east side Denver community in the early 90's. Different from the carefree lazy hazy summer afternoon’s of my youth, Anthony was unable to walk from point A to point B without anxiously looking over his shoulder to ensure he wasn’t being trailed by police or under the suspicious eye of an overly zealous neighborhood watcher.
If you didn't experience a youth filled with this kind of legitimate fear and paranoia like so many black men in this nation have, it's simply difficult to imagine the degree of emotion and the painful memories that have been triggered by a squeeze of George Zimmerman's finger.
Another black friend of mine, a college professor, described the current issue of racism and the Trayvon Martin story like this...
"A nagging pain that you grow numb to until it is touched again... and this case touches it again."
Just another reminder of the latent pain and unforgettable implications of racism in America that I was simply oblivious to prior to developing significant friendships with black and latino men.
Regardless of the court's decision in this case, even regardless of any substantial evidence in favor of Zimmerman, this story must serve as a profound and lasting symbol for the white christian who is blind to the reality of racism that persistently accompanies our non-white neighbors. The fog of extreme sensationalism surrounding this particular case is likely to lift within a few short days or weeks. A year from now we'll probably need a reminder as to why people wore black hoodies in the month of March 2012. But the spotlight that exposes a culturally accepeted sense of white-privilege and power as well as the apparant apathy of the christian community needs to remain if we desire to progress forward as radical followers of the Prince of Peace.
How will this story impact The Talk that I have with my own sons in a few short years?
If we are genuinely a people of compassion, a people who suffer with our neighbors, then we must be a people who deliberately pursue creative conversations regarding the subject of race with emerging generations. These conversations must boldly describe the feelings of powerlessness and confusion experienced by their friends for existing within a minority culture and skin color. Yes, racism remains an embarassing characterisitc of American culture which entails an active responsibility on behalf of the white christian. Are we willing to sit down across a table, listen to stories, humbly ask for forgiveness, and have those necessary reconcilliation talks that lovingly encourage our adolescent nation toward maturity?