When I was a kid, “the talk” was something grown-ups tortured themselves with for the sake of their children’s sexual health. On TV, canned laughter erupted when Roseanne pulled out a chair and quipped, in her signature sweet snarl, “Here, it’s easier to squirm sitting down.” In reality, my mother handed me "Growing Up: Adolescence, Body Changes, and Sex," and my boyfriend’s pink-faced father tossed a paper bag containing the Kama Sutra onto his bed.
Of course, that was the view from within a bubble of privilege. Not the kind borne of passport stamps and country club memberships, but of thinking that racial violence and religious intolerance are primarily subjects on an AP U.S. History exam. The sort of privilege that meant having only one limitation on my natural teenage brashness: the parameters of “cool” and “uncool.”
For my African-American peers, particularly male ones, “the talk” referred to something far too serious for sitcoms. As Michaela Angela Davis explains, “Black mothers and fathers all over the country for generations have [had] ... ‘the talk’ with their sons about what to do, and perhaps more critically, what not to do when encountering police.”
Interactions with law enforcement spur just one version of this warning. A teacher at my son’s San Francisco preschool says her grown son learned early on to be aware of “the consequences of his clothing choices, hair style, behavior, tone of voice, size, and location in different neighborhoods coupled with his complexion.” One day she pulled him aside as he headed out to the movies with a white female friend. She begged him to stay alert and careful. Like teenagers the world over, he scoffed.
She never knew how hard to push, torn between teaching her son to believe in his equality, and keeping him safe. She wanted him to feel proud of his heritage, but knew standing too tall could easily make him a target.
A family friend of hers could write a book about it. Actually, he did. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ New York Times bestseller and National Book Award winner "Between the World and Me"—written as a letter to the author’s teenage son—is, in some sense, both an exquisitely reasoned, literary version of “the talk” and a forceful rejection of the practice.
Before the attacks in Paris, I read a Facebook post by an acquaintance urging others to carry concealed weapons, because danger lurks everywhere these days, even in “a safe neighborhood, white.” A friend of hers chimed in: “Look around, Whites are targets now.” “It’s a god given right to defend your life,” affirmed another. “Shoot to kill,” a fourth person added, and then, “white lives matter.”
These statements appear almost civilized in comparison to more recent xenophobic rants. “ALL ragheads need to go, shot, or smeared with pig urine,” posted one man. Another, hailing from Newport, Maine, wrote: “I’m going hunting fucking ragheads are no[t] welcome in my town.”
He wouldn’t be the first. Many speculate that is precisely what happened to three Muslim college students in Chapel Hill in February. In October, “Patriots” organized armed anti-Muslim rallies in more than 20 U.S. cities. And since Paris, an attacker threatened to kill an Uber driver in North Carolina, bullets were fired into the garage of a Muslim family in Florida, and a store owner in New York was beaten by a man who declared, “I kill Muslims.” Donald Trump stands by his proposal to bar all Muslims from entering the U.S.
Americans are insulting, denigrating and assaulting other Americans simply for following the religious tradition of their families, and a major presidential candidate adds fuel to the fire. In response, another set of parents has increasingly been giving their own version of “the talk.”
A 14-year-old who attends a tony high school in the Bronx—I’ll use her first initial, B—tells of her mother’s recent about-face. For years the two have argued, B’s mother urging her first-generation American daughter to be more observant, to fast during Ramadan, do Arabic work at home, and attend mosque. She hated seeing B slowly becoming less and less like her Moroccan family, and more like her classmates. “You should be proud to be a Muslim,” she said.
But after Paris, in the car on the way to a meeting with other Islamic families—a social event and evening of prayer and reflection much like those organized by my own Quaker Meeting—B’s mother said, “You need to watch who you tell about your religion. Don’t say where we go and what we do, or they’ll think we’re part of ISIS.”
F, another Muslim American teenager and also a New Yorker, says her father told her “to remain quiet, to stay low.” “He said I can never say the word ‘ISIS.’ I can never argue about Islam with a non-Muslim, ever. He knows I’m an open person and that I will speak up if I see or hear something that’s not right. But he said I have to keep my disagreements to myself and allow other people to be ignorant no matter how much it hurts me.”
“How ridiculous,” F initially thought, but the fear in her father’s eyes gave her pause. B was surprised too, but says, “I guess I understand where my mom is coming from. People on my Facebook feed have been saying all sorts of stuff, like ‘we need to get all the Muslims out of the U.S.,’ and there was this meme with a picture of a Middle Eastern-looking man that just said, ‘go to hell.’” These are words and images circulated by her teenage acquaintances, friends of friends and classmates.
Shortly after F and B received the talk, news broke of a Muslim girl at a nearby school being attacked by three boys who held her in a headlock, punching her while calling her “ISIS” and removing her hijab.
Of course white lives matter. That proposition has never been in question. It's black lives that we have devalued and dehumanized for so long that their worth to us, on college campuses and the streets, must be proven. American Christians’ ability to believe in “God-given” rights is not under assault. It’s our national commitment to religious freedom that we have to recall and renew.
Until we do, some of our kids will live and speak without fear, free to be themselves as they pursue happiness. While others will receive “the talk.”
Gail Cornwall is a former public school teacher and recovering lawyer who now works as a stay-at-home mom of three and writes about parenthood. Born in St. Louis and raised in the Bay Area, she’s a serial monogamist of urban living who resided in Berkeley, New York, D.C., Boston and Seattle before committing to San Francisco. You can find Gail on Facebook and Twitter, or read more at gailcornwall.com.