A Mom's Advice To Her Young, Black Sons

In light of the shooting death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin, Steve Inskeep speaks with writer Donna Britt and her sons Justin and Darrell Britt-Gibson about how she prepared them as young black men for a world that might view them with suspicion.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In 1994, when her son turned 12, the writer Donna Britt realized that it was time to have a talk. It was a talk to prepare her son for the potential prejudice that he would encounter out on the streets - a talk about how to deal with it; a talk that she wrote about for the Washington Post; and a talk that she was reminded of when she saw the story of Trayvon Martin, a black teenager shot dead by a Neighborhood Watch volunteer in Sanford, Florida, three weeks ago.

Donna Britt has recently published a new book called "Brothers and Me," a memoir of her life and relationships with the men in that life - her father, brothers, husbands and sons. She joins us now. Welcome to the program.

DONNA BRITT: Great to be here.

INSKEEP: Her sons are also with us. On the line from Los Angeles, Justin Britt-Gibson - or Mani, as he's known to his mother. Welcome to the program.

JUSTIN BRITT-GIBSON: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Also, Darrell Britt-Gibson, an actor and musician, also in Los Angeles. Welcome to the program to you.

DARRELL BRITT-GIBSON: Thanks a lot, Steve.

INSKEEP: And let's start with your mom, if you don't mind, gentlemen. People have been talking in recent days about what is simply called the talk. What is the talk?

BRITT: The talk is what many black parents have with their sons - and daughters, but more, probably more often, their sons. It's a preparatory explanation and a warning, to let them know what's out there for them. You know, when they shift from the adorableness of childhood into, you know, their early preteen and teen years, where they can perceived as dangerous, as threatening, as things that most of them really aren't.

INSKEEP: Now, in your case, did you have personal reasons to want to give the talk to your sons?

BRITT: My own brother, who had been my favorite growing up, my hero, had been shot and killed by policemen, by white policemen, in my hometown of Gary, Indiana, under circumstances that were inexplicable and that, to this day, don't make sense to me, but that taught me, you know, in a very deep and profound way, the dangers that could take my sons from me. Because Darrell was a great guy. He was funny, and he was sweet, and he was smart and talented. And that people couldn't perceive that was astonishing. And so these kids, who were so vulnerable and who were mine, I had to find some way to prepare them.

INSKEEP: Now, the 12-year-old with whom you first had that talk was your older son, Justin. And let's bring him right on in from Los Angeles. Justin, do you remember that talk?

JUSTIN BRITT-GIBSON: I remember countless instances afterward. I sort of - probably why I don't remember that specific occasion is that it was something that was sort of repeated throughout my teens - being in high school in the '90s and you know, sort of the post-Rodney King era.

INSKEEP: Darrell, did you get the same kind of discussion from your mom?

DARRELL BRITT-GIBSON: The thing that I do remember the most with my mother was when she told me about Uncle Darrell, who I'm named after, who was killed by the police. That just resonated so much with me. It's like that being said to me sort of just flipped the light switch on; that OK, how I deal with cops is going to be different than how my friend who's white, Asian or whoever is going to deal with it.

INSKEEP: You know, I'm thinking of something of people of any race may hear in driver's education class as teenagers. They're told if you're pulled over by the police, keep your hands in plain sight. Don't cause the officer to think you might be reaching for something. People of all races are told that. Are there specific rules that you remember?

DARRELL BRITT-GIBSON: You know, I've been in the car with a friend of mine who's white. And I've seen the way that he speaks to a cop is just something I could never imagine talking to a cop like that. He raised his voice at him and he was very - like, he was very aggressive...

JUSTIN BRITT-GIBSON: ..and terse, you know...

DARRELL BRITT-GIBSON: Yeah.

JUSTIN BRITT-GIBSON: ...very - like, short. 'Cause we've - I've been in a situation like that, too, in Beverly Hills, where a friend of mine was pulled over and I was in the car with him. And it's just sort of like you're sitting there going, don't. Don't push it.

DARRELL BRITT-GIBSON: Yeah, but - and it's almost like, they don't know the reality that we live, you know...

JUSTIN BRITT-GIBSON: Right.

DARRELL BRITT-GIBSON: ...that we can't do that, you know. And I'm sitting there in the passenger's seat and I'm thinking to myself, all right, man. Well, remember, your black friend's sitting right here...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DARRELL BRITT-GIBSON: ... so you might want to calm down just a little bit. 'Cause, you know, it's just - it's a different life, it's a different reality.

JUSTIN BRITT-GIBSON: Because you were taught to be respectful, you want to be respectful. But when you know you're being pulled over for reasons that have nothing to do with any sort of violation other than their perceived, you know, sort of stereotypes, it's like well, that's why we get angry.

INSKEEP: So some of the rules are, be respectful of other people; try not to seem aggressive; be aware that people may perceive you as aggressive; don't run if someone is coming after you.

BRITT: And my 16-year-old is in track, so this is difficult - don't run in your neighborhood. We make up the rules to the talk as we go along.

INSKEEP: When you hear someone who's been arrested, or shot in an encounter with police, even though you know the person, you believe the person to be completely innocent, do you end up having a discussion about how the guy who is, in effect, the victim really should have done something different?

DARRELL BRITT-GIBSON: I mean, it's hard not to be black, you know what I mean? It's like - 'cause sometimes, I mean, in the Trayvon Martin case - again, it wasn't a cop; it was a Neighborhood Watch guy - but he was a black kid. I don't know what he could have done differently.

BRITT: Even if you have, you know, wonderfully prepared your child for what could possibly happen so that he or she knows exactly what to say to the authority figure who may perceive him or her as threatening - well, what they could they have said to him besides - like Darrell said - don't be black?

INSKEEP: You know, let me just ask your thoughts on something. I don't think there's many people who would argue that racial relations have not changed and improved over this country over the last several decades. Why do you think there would still be this kind of tension, this kind of anxiety in encounters between people on the street?

JUSTIN BRITT-GIBSON: Like you said, it's gotten a lot better. But I feel like the more things change, the more they stay the same. And um - you know, having my little brother and having to worry about him, you know, walking down the street wearing a hoodie, is something that - I was talking yesterday about the Trayvon Martin situation. And somebody asked me, like, are you surprised by it? And to answer that question, am I hurt? Absolutely. Does my heart break? Without a doubt. But am I surprised? No. And I think that's part of the bigger problem.

DARRELL BRITT-GIBSON: There is a light at the end of the tunnel of this tragedy, and that is the fact that - I mean, I go on Facebook. Everyone - white, black, Asian, Latino - is talking about this, and everyone is equally as mystified...

BRITT: And outraged.

DARRELL BRITT-GIBSON: ...and outraged. And so I think what's great about now, versus then, is that we're all having the talk.

INSKEEP: Donna Britt, I'll give you the last word.

BRITT: I won't pretend, I'll never pretend that real shifts haven't happened - not just on the surface but in people's psyches. But racism is, I think, a bit like being in the water or the air. And I think of it the same way that I think of sexism. These things, we absorb them. And so it takes time and love and forgiveness, and shining a bright light on situations like what happened to Trayvon, to really make the shifts deep enough and permanent enough that things like this don't happen.

INSKEEP: Well, Donna Britt, thanks for coming by.

BRITT: Glad to have been here.

INSKEEP: And Justin and Darrell Britt-Gibson, thank you for coming to NPR West.

JUSTIN BRITT-GIBSON: Thank you so much, Steve.

DARRELL BRITT-GIBSON: Thanks for having us, Steve.

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