Clint Smith: How Should You Raise A Black Son In America? How do you raise a child in a world taught to fear the color of their skin? Poet and writer Clint Smith explains the difficulty of black parenting, and the implications of being black in America.
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Clint Smith: How Should You Raise A Black Son In America?

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Clint Smith: How Should You Raise A Black Son In America?

Clint Smith: How Should You Raise A Black Son In America?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CLINT SMITH: I grew up in a home where my parents made pretty clear since for as far back as I can remember that I was black.

RAZ: This is writer Clint Smith.

SMITH: I can't remember a moment where I didn't realize that or where I wasn't cognizant of that. I do remember what it meant to begin to understand that blackness had a different set of social implications. So, for example, I played soccer. And so, you know, I remember being 12 years old, and there were certain things that my white soccer teammates would do. You know, we - people would go and we'd leave Waffle House after playing two games. And then people would be at the hotel, and, you know, you'd run around the pool or you'd run around the parking lot. And you played tag, you played it or you'd, like, run around the hotel playing video games in, like, one room and then another.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: And I remember very distinctly my dad coming out, grabbing me in the middle of this game, pulling me back to our room and sitting me down, in a way that I wasn't prepared for I think at that moment as a 12-year-old boy, to say you are not like the rest of your friends. You are a black boy in a racist country. And the things that your friends can get away with, whether it be running around shooting water or were throwing things at one another in the dark, hiding behind or climbing atop people's cars, running through hotel rooms or hotel hallways screaming and yelling, the sort of thing that again many 12-year-old boys do, he said the implications for the decisions that you make might be very different for you than they are for your other friends.

RAZ: He was saying to you you can't do those things that - when people say, oh, boys will be boys, it doesn't apply to you because you are going to be judged differently and you're going to be treated differently.

SMITH: Right. And I think that he tried to convey that without sort of overwhelming me, right? He also didn't want to scare me. And I think that that's part of the difficult balancing act of black parenthood is you really want to convey to your child, and my dad to convey to me, that, like, I needed to take this seriously. I could tell that this was different, right? I could tell that there was something different in his tone, that there was something different in the way that he looked at me. There was almost a begging, like a yearning for me to understand how serious this moment was. And, you know, I think that my dad, you know, was born in 1959 and so was obviously growing up and he was coming of age as a black child in a moment throughout the '60s...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You are ordered to disperse.

SMITH: ...Which was sort of wrought with a very sort of explicit racial tension...

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Go home or go to your church. This march will not continue.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) We shall overcome.

SMITH: ...And that he wanted me to understand that although this was not the '60s, although this was not the era that we often see on television of the black-and-white images of people being beaten by police or being hung from trees or being spit on when they attempt to go to school, this was not that, but this did not mean that different types of manifestations of racism did not exist.

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UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) We shall overcome some day.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Racism is a word that triggers a lot of strong feelings and reactions. And just hearing me say it might trigger something in you. And most of us, at least implicitly, understand that racism and bias exist, but not everyone agrees on how damaging they can be. So on the show today, we're going to talk about consequences, about The Consequences of Racism, about being judged even before you walk through the door. And a growing body of research and data is showing how those consequences can affect everything in your life, from where you live to the opportunities you'll have, your health and safety, your education and even how you raise a son.

SMITH: How do you convey to a young person the very real, material urgency of what you're trying to explain to them in terms of, like, how you doing some things literally represents an existential threat to your safety while also trying to convey to that young person that it is not their fault?

RAZ: Clint Smith spoke about this based on a poem he wrote. It was about the conversation many black parents have to have with their sons who live in a world that's been taught to fear them. Here's Clint Smith on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SMITH: These are the sorts of messages I've been inundated with my entire life. Always keep your hands where they can see them. Don't move too quickly. Take off your hood when the sun goes down. My parents raised me and my siblings in an armor of advice, an ocean of alarm bells so someone wouldn't steal the breath from our lungs, so that they wouldn't make a memory of this skin, so that we could be kids, not casket or concrete. And it's not because they thought it would make us better than anyone else. It's simply because they wanted to keep us alive.

All of my black friends were raised with the same message, the talk given to us when we became old enough to be mistaken for a nail ready to be hammered to the ground, when people made our melanin synonymous with something to be feared. But what does it do to a child to grow up knowing that you cannot simply be a child, that the whims of adolescence are too dangerous for your breath, that you cannot simply be curious, that you are not afforded the luxury of making a mistake, that someone's implicit bias might be the reason you don't wake up in the morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: I mean, in some ways, what you're describing - I mean, in some ways, this, like, nuanced racism, it's more complicated because it's not a black-and-white image of dogs and police and fire hoses. It's something that is much more subtle but is just as present.

SMITH: Yeah. And I think that, you know, also as a 12-year-old boy, I didn't really understand the nature of structural racism. I think as many, not even just young people, but many people, I thought of racism as somebody calling you the N word, somebody being, like, very interpersonally unkind, using, you know, racial slurs. But I remember there was another time - and I think my childhood is full of these moments - where my dad was trying to convey to me the different types of institutional racism that exist, right? So I grew up in New Orleans. There were a lot of housing projects, right? And I remember I didn't understand why people were living in a place that, like, every day on the news, I saw images of body bags coming out of these places. I saw people who were not defined by at all but who were certainly living in conditions of, like, egregious poverty, and that they were all black.

And I remember my dad, we were passing, like, the Magnolia projects one day, and he sort of pulled the car over, and he was like, you have to understand that the people who live in these projects do not live here because that they have done something to deserve it. You're going to hear a lot of people throughout your life say that these folks are lazy, that these folks have a predisposition to violence, who are going to look at you and say that you are an exception to a rule. There is this sort of rhetoric of, but you're different, but, you're - like when people talk about the black community and say, well, but I don't mean you, Clint. You're something else.

And I think my dad wanted to be clear. He was like, just because you're in certain classes, just because you are often seemingly put in positions to represent this community, you should not fall into the trap that people will tell you - mostly white people will tell you - about any sort of idea of exceptionalism. Because you're not, right? But for the arbitrary nature of birth and circumstance, we would be in these projects instead of living in a different neighborhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SMITH: I've been thinking a lot about this lately, this idea of humanity and specifically who in this world is afforded the privilege of being perceived as fully human. Over the course of the past several months, the world has watched as unarmed black men and women have had their lives taken at the hands of police and vigilantes. These events, and all that has transpired after them, have brought me back to my own childhood and the decisions that my parents made about raising a black boy in America, that growing up I didn't always understand in the way that I do now. I think of how hard it must've been, how profoundly unfair it must've felt for them to feel like they had to strip away parts of my childhood just so that I could come home at night.

RAZ: You have a child. You're a dad.

SMITH: I am.

RAZ: A son?

SMITH: A son. Little boy.

RAZ: So you are a new dad.

SMITH: I am. He's 8 months old.

RAZ: Eight months old. Are you going to have the same conversations with him that your dad had with you?

SMITH: Yeah. I've been thinking about that a lot. I've been thinking about the sort of intergenerational nature of this conversation, right? That I'm going to have a talk that is at once different and not so different at all from the conversation that my grandfather had with my father, that my father had with me and that I'm going to have with my son. And, you know, I think about the same things that I imagine my dad was thinking about - what does it mean to have the conversation, to tell my son that this is what many people in the world will think of you but it is not your fault, but you also have to understand that it is real, but because it is real in the eyes of others doesn't mean it has to be real in your conception of yourself?

RAZ: Do you think, Clint, as we become a browner country - 'cause your son, he's born in a country where, when he's your age, most of America's - more than half of America's going to be brown. Right? Do you think that as the United States becomes a browner country, there's a possibility that black fathers one day may not have to have that conversation with their sons?

SMITH: So yes and no. I think part of what I see myself doing every day I wake up is to work to build the sort of world in which I don't have to have that sort of conversation with my son. And I operate under no pretense that that will happen in my lifetime or that my son, if he has a son, will have that conversation with him. You know, I don't know when or how it will happen, but that doesn't mean that I shouldn't continue to work toward that, right? Because part of it is that you do this work not necessarily so that you can see the fruits of its labor but because somebody at some point will. And that's something that, you know, I think that my father conveyed to me in a way that helped to rid me of the lot of frustration and disillusionment that I carried, that, like, I am a part of a tradition of people who have fought back against a racist, anti-black country, even when it meant that they were never going to see the benefits of the things they were fighting against.

RAZ: Clint Smith - he's a Ph.D. student at Harvard studying incarceration, education and inequality. He's also the author of the poetry book "Counting Descent." You can see all of his talks at ted.com. On the show today, the Consequences of Bias and Racism. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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