I can't teach my black son to respect himself if it puts him in danger

Nov 11, 2015 at 6:30 p.m. ET
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Black parents find themselves in an ongoing dilemma over what we should tell our sons about interacting with the police. It boils down to this: Do we tell them to respect themselves, or do we teach them to survive the situation?

This isn't a philosophical debate. It's life or death. As a black mother, it's like I have two brains in my head: a black brain saying, "Tell Jai to respect himself! Black men are taught to respect everybody BUT themselves!" and a mother brain telling me, "Don't do that! He could die. What difference does self-respect make if he's dead?"

To add to the confusion, there are people who honestly believe that we're just approaching this question from the wrong angle — bless their hearts. I've heard every foolish attempt to "explain" why black men keep finding their names at the ends of hashtags, as if it's simply a consequence of not being the right kind of black person.

Timothy Stansbury taught us that respectability isn't a factor. Trayvon Martin taught us that class doesn't matter. Mike Brown taught us that education and achievement won't save you. Sandra Bland taught us that (gender and) knowing your rights doesn't matter. And Tamir Rice taught us that age and innocence don't matter.

There is no category of black people exempt from the effects of ignorance and bigotry. I can think of too many black men (and women) murdered while unarmed, with their hands in the air, minding their own business, not resisting arrest, reaching out for help, in routine traffic stops. Of course, this isn't the case with every encounter, but what parents are willing to take chances when the stakes are so very high? Not me.

I definitely don't have the answers. My son is young, and I'm still trying to figure things out. While I would never tell him not to respect himself and I definitely would never tell him not to survive, the presence of one implies the possible absence of the other.

I have written two letters to my son: one on respect and one on survival. I still don't know what I will tell him when the time comes.

Image: Terese Condella/SheKnows

Image: Terese Condella/SheKnows

This post is part of #WhatDoITellMySon, a conversation started by Expert James Oliver, Jr. to examine black males and police violence in the U.S. (and to explore what we can do about it). If you want to join the conversation, share using the hashtag or email experts@sheknows.com to talk about writing a post.