As my partner, who's White, was turning into the Lincoln Tunnel in midtown Manhattan, a police officer standing at the side of the road stepped into traffic while looking in the opposite direction from oncoming traffic. As he did so, he nearly walked into our car. If my partner had been going at the speed limit, he would have hit a police officer.
The officer, enraged even though he was the one walking into traffic without looking, banged on our car roof as we passed and motioned for us to pull over.
I immediately started instructing my partner in how to behave: Do not question him, do not ask what was he thinking, do not say what he was doing was stupid, do not say there was anything wrong with what he was doing, do not contradict him.
Pretend you are a Black man and don't want to get shot. Because you are driving with me. And I am a Black man who does not want to get shot.
My words were urgent but measured, delivered with the clipped overprecision of a man who had only seconds to deliver information that could be the difference between life and death.
Once the officer arrived at our car, my partner was completely himself. "Why are you walking into traffic?" he said.
I thought, "Oh my God."
I quickly jumped in: "We're so sorry, officer."
Luckily, my partner then checked his White privilege. Maybe it was the obsequiousness in my tone, which he had never heard before. That's because he had never heard me interact with a police officer. My mother had trained me well. She had trained me to survive encounters with the police.
After the officer let us go with a warning, my partner went back to cursing him out. And I explained the difference between a White man yelling at a cop, even for walking into oncoming traffic without looking, and a Black man yelling at a cop. And I told my partner that depending on our children's skin color — we were about to try to get pregnant with the help of an egg donor — we would have to convince them to act like me, or maybe be killed at what would be a routine traffic stop for him or another White person.
He had never thought of it before. In his 35 years of life, he had never had to think about getting stopped by police while Black. That is White privilege.
The hardest reality for millions of African American dads this Father's Day is that we are under no illusion that we can protect our children, especially our boys.
We used to all get The Talk: Because I grew up without my dad, my mom instructed me in how to survive an encounter with law enforcement. The Talk. Keep your hands on the steering wheel. Never move them. Speak deferentially.
Yes, sir, officer. No, sir, officer.
I followed that advice for 50 years. I was expecting to pass it on to our children. Someday, I still might. But my twin boys, age 10, are Gen Z. They do not take kindly to injustice
and they may reject the realities of inequality that The Talk accepts.
I accepted those realities my whole life, like generations — Black and White and other — before me. I thought I had to. But they actually never worked. We just told ourselves they did.
They were a shibboleth to reassure us in our utter vulnerability. Our lives — our Black lives — were still in someone else's hands. African Americans were slain with impunity
throughout all the decades of my life.
Only lately has there been an irrefutable accumulation of video evidence. That helped produce a sea change in the attitudes of White people. It led to the marches and the calls for the end of inequality and systemic racism.
But here's the sad secret: It also turned the tide of Black denial. Black people died
for things that make no sense: driving with a busted taillight, selling DVDs, using a counterfeit bill, sitting in your apartment.
Now we know there is no Talk that will inoculate us against this
potentially fatal bias. No matter how respectful we are to a person behind a badge, no matter how compliant, how docile or small we try to make ourselves, we can still end up dead from an encounter with an officer.
That's why I wasn't surprised when a video went viral
last week. A father caught his 10-year-old son on camera pausing while shooting baskets in a driveway to hide as a police cruiser drove by. When the father asked why he was hiding, his son told him because "they killed George Floyd."
Still, the week before, a letter from a Black mom to her unborn child went viral. In it, the mom gave her or him or them The Talk
In Ava Duvernay's 2016 documentary re-airing on Netflix, "13th," prison reform activists, historians and writers trace the roots of White supremacy and Black oppression from the 13th Amendment's exception for criminals to today's mass incarceration and police killings of African Americans.
In the film, Malkia A. Devich Cyril
, lead founder and senior fellow of MediaJustice, said, "Having people truly understand that when Black lives matter, every body's life matters. ... It's about changing the way this country understands human dignity."
So, this Father's Day, I invite all dads who don't happen to be Black to try a little thought experiment: Imagine you are black. And you have a Black son. And you have to worry every day about what might happen when he leaves the comfort of your home and goes out into the world. And maybe even about what might happen to him right inside your own home, if law enforcement has bad intelligence or a wrong address and bursts in one night, bullets flying, while he is in bed asleep.
Do you feel the swirl in the pit of your stomach? That is empathy.
I am happy you don't have to have that particular set of anxieties about your children, especially your boys. But you would do well to sit with that feeling, with that imagining, to understand what many Black fathers feel this day and every day.
There are a lot of dads in our house. Two fathers. No moms. So every day feels like Father's Day. We have twin boys who are also best friends. And until a few years ago, a male dog. That's a lot of testosterone and a lot of male love.
Because our family is interracial, we have always talked a lot about race. With a Black father and a White father, our boys are mixed — Black and White.
When I was an editor at The New York Times, I suggested we do a series on mixed-race Americans
. The US Census said they were the fastest-growing racial group in the country, and my kids' nursery school was full of kids like them: not just a veritable United Nations as a class, but most of the kids were individual UNs.
While I was in the process of editing that series, a Stanford University professor told me that I had to make sure that my children knew their racial roots from the moment they could understand them. To do otherwise, to let them grow up ignorant of race, would leave them unarmed to deal with it in America, a nation where someone's perception of your race could be the deciding factor in whether you live or die.
So, from the beginning, our boys have known they have DNA from a Black person and a White person. (At about age 6, they long ago told us race didn't exist scientifically.) We let them decide how they wanted to racially identify themselves, if at all.
They usually say they're "mixed," but sometimes they say they are just themselves. But they are deftly aware what it means to be Black and to be White in America. They understand privilege, both as it attaches to race, and as it attaches to less immediately obvious attributes, like education. And they are always on the lookout for behavior, even in books or cartoons, that is racist — or sexist or heterosexist.
We have talked a lot about the protests sweeping the country. About George Floyd and how he died. One of my sons suggested that his school give money to nonprofit groups that fight racial injustice. His fifth grade class raised $1,534! We have watched the marches from across the globe, to places our boys have visited, like Africa, France and Spain, and lived, like London.
They don't know their own privilege. They think everyone travels overseas. But they worry that police will kill me one day.
"You'll be OK, though, Papa, right?" one asked, as we discussed the news.
"Absolutely. No question," I lied.