What I remember most about the day I asked a black friend how to warn my son about the police was the way he stumbled forward out of his chair and pointed his finger at me, making sure I heard each and every word he had to say.
My wife and I had adopted our son, Nati, from Ethiopia nearly 10 years before, so we weren’t new to the issues facing a mixed-race family. We had encountered very little in the way of overt racism in our liberal Southern California community. Yes, once, in a checkout line, a cashier had looked at my three children — two white, one not — and asked whether they were all mine. When I said they were, he helpfully informed me “one of them is black,” as if that might have escaped my notice.
Still, having spent the first five years of his life in Africa and the next 10 attending a touchy-feely, warm and fuzzy developmental school that holds multicultural awareness days, Nati has, by and large, avoided the systematic racism and harassment that have so rightly occupied our national discussion of late. Until, that is, push came to shove. Literally.
It was a shoving match, the sort that used to happen daily in schools when I was younger but that now can swiftly bring calls from school officials. Nati hadn’t started it, but that shouldn’t and doesn’t matter; he and the other boy, who was white, were disciplined. When Nati came home, he said that it wasn’t fair. The other boy had been in three such incidents, and Nati had never caused any trouble at school. The other boy had started the physical part of the conflict, too, yet they got identical punishments.
There are discussions I have felt ready to have as a parent: the facts of life, colleges, how to write an essay and the correct way to parallel-park a car. But the conversation I had to have with Nati was more difficult than any I’d ever had.
As a father, I try not to lose my temper, but this time, I wanted my son to know how important my words were. I shouted that yes, of course, it wasn’t fair, and that he had to know it often might be that way. He would get blamed more often than his white friends when there was trouble. People would punish him more harshly and often more unreasonably than his brother. He had to know that, unlike his blond sister, he would always be a suspect in the eyes of many people. It wasn’t fair, and yes, he had to know that it was real. I shouted and kept shouting.
There were going to be days when the police in our nice little town — for no clear reason — would pull him over when he was alone in our car, and he needed to know how to respond. Nati treats me with the same amount of respect and deference most teenage boys bestow upon their fathers, which is to say none at all. That’s fine, I told him. But he had to know that when he did get pulled over, he had to call the officer “Sir” or “Ma'am” and be as respectful as he could. When they stop you, I told him, you can’t look angry. You can’t look upset. It’s too dangerous.
A few days later, I was having lunch with my friend. He’s a bit older than me, successful in his work and, yes, black. Hesitantly, I asked him whether I’d done the right thing, since no police officer has ever treated me with anything but kindness and decency. Was I right, is that the sort of thing a black man would tell his son to prepare him for the world?
That’s when my friend stumbled out of his chair. He’s a quiet man, and sometimes when we speak I have to lean in to make sure I hear everything he has to say. Not this time. He pointed at me as he righted himself. He stood straight for a moment, staring, before he spoke, very slowly and clearly: “You have to. He’s got to know what to do when he gets stopped by the police. You have got to make sure he’s ready. Because it’s going to happen.”
I thought of the conversations I’d had with my other children. If they were lost, I’d told them, they could always go to a policeman for help. The police were their friends.
I don’t think I was wrong to say that, and I don’t think I was wrong to tell Nati how careful he had to be when addressing a police officer. I hope there’s never a day when any of my three children need to call the police for help, but if that day comes, I still believe a brave man or woman in uniform would come and do anything they could to assist any one of my kids.
I can’t pretend that I know all the details of any one case nor claim that I understand the pain of people in any community. I know only that I have three children and have had to tell only one of them what to do when he is pulled over without cause. “That’s not fair,” my son told me. “It isn’t,” I agreed. “But it’s how things are.”
Claude Knobler is the author of the forthcoming book “More Love (Less Panic): 7 Lessons I Learned About Life, Love, and Parenting After We Adopted Our Son from Ethiopia.”