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PERSPECTIVE: The conversation we need

Posted at 3:48 PM, Jun 16, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-16 19:02:34-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — (Editor's Note: The following personal perspective from a KSHB staff member is offered as part of a recent interview with Amanda Davis, director of Intake Services at Saint Luke's Hospital of Kansas City's Crittenton Children's Center, about talking to kids about race. You can read that interview here. The following story contains language some may find troubling.)

Most Black kids get the talk.

No, I’m not referring to the “birds and bees.” The talk about life as a Black human being in America.

My first real talk happened when I was five in kindergarten. I wouldn't share my crayons with a classmate, so he poked me in the eye with a glue stick and called me "nigger."

It stung.

The word ran through me. I cried and told our teacher. I don’t remember how the student was punished but I had a conversation with my parents about being Black that afternoon.

The talk varies for each Black child, depending on gender and the region they live in. I grew up in rural Arkansas in an unincorporated community that’s an hour north of Little Rock. The same community where my great-great grandfather was beaten and lynched from a tree — exactly 100 years before my birth.

William Rice, Conway County,AR
The article in the local paper reporting the murder of William Rice.

Where some Black children may have had conversations about how to conduct themselves with police and life in a more populated and diverse city, my early talks were about being Black in a predominantly White area in the rural south. Where I am from, Dixie pride is high, accompanied with the slim belief the South will rise again.

My mom and dad talked to me about how my blackness will always draw attention and because of that fact, I should try my best to not make the attention negative. My parents also told me that I'd have to work twice as hard to get half as far. I've since learned that my Black friends were also taught these lessons.

In elementary school, I couldn’t go to a friend’s parties because of her racist father and was warned about a classmate’s dog that “ate Black people.”

Because of the talk, I was comfortable in myself, my skin and learned how to navigate a place where hate can be disguised as heritage, the same place I called home.

The talk evolved as I got older: how to shop, how to drive, how to deal with police, what places to avoid after a certain time of day.

Over the years, I've discovered I had conditioned myself to play comforter to White people — to convince the complacent that my dark skin doesn’t equate dark intentions.

I have been told I looked “suspicious” on more than one occasion. Store clerks have followed me up and down aisles and even out onto the street because they suspected me of shoplifting. In my early 20s, a sandwich shop once called the police on me and my friend because we waited in their parking lot to buy cookies that didn't go on sale at the discounted price until 9 p.m., which wasn't for 10 more minutes. I'll never forget the time I was pulled over on my way home from college to attend my high school counselor's funeral. The officer asked about my employment status and to show proof that I was actually an employee of the local TV station.

The talk that occurs within Black households prepared me for these encounters, yet it did not prevent them.

The nation is involved in its own talk right now, a talk that keeps happening with little change. White families are having to grapple with conversations about what minorities deal with in this country. Some of my White friends and colleagues have asked me “What can I do?” and “How can I help?”

Let’s start with education. There are several films, documentaries, podcast and books that address Black history and Black experience — from injustice and inequality to art and culture. Most music streaming services offer speeches from activists such as Martin Luther King Jr., Angela Davis and more. Donating time and resources — this can be frequenting Black-owned businesses and supporting organizations that help elevate Black communities.

Then there’s listening. There have been numerous occasions when I share my experiences with White people only for them to dismiss my reality, excuse my offenders and lessen my complaint because “not all White people.”

Though these things create a shift in awareness, it cannot be a substitute for actual and meaningful change. Gestures of solidarity can be comforting but should not be applauded as real steps forward. Until real change in policy happens, marginalized communities will still suffer.

Choosing not to acknowledge the events of the past and present doesn’t make it go away. The talk, the conversation is a national need.

Megan Strickland is a cross-platform content gatherer at 41 Action News. She lives in Kansas City, Missouri.