By Michael Harriot
Disclaimer #1: This is not an article filled with hyperbole about the tribulation of a Black parent explaining to a Black child how to live in a world where his skin is…
No. These are the actual words I said. Well, not “exactly” because I choked back tears and–admittedly–there were a few snot bubbles. Because–as a writer– this is the way I organize my thoughts, I wrote them down exactly how I wanted to say them. This was my actual script. I copied, pasted and added this lede for this article.
Disclaimer #2: All these words are not my own. I stole some of them from when my mother gave me this speech. There will be some parts where I am not paraphrasing, I will be using her exact quotes. That’s how clearly I remember them.
I love you.
Your mother loves you.
Your grandmother loves you.
For almost every moment of your entire life you have been surrounded by people who love you. People who would break their necks to stop you from shedding one tear. You are lucky in that way.
But the world is not like that.
The rest of the world does not love you. They do not hate you either. They mostly just don’t care. 99% of the world is ambivalent towards you. They have no responsibility to make sure you are happy, or that you get what you want. That job is mine. That job is your mother’s. That job is yours. Do not ever leave this house thinking that anyone owes you anything or should be nice to you, or should love you. You will be sorely disappointed.
I know you have white friends who love you, and you love them. I know it sometimes seems like people who care about what race or gender or sexuality someone is, is a thing of the past.
But this is the thing you should know:
There are some people who see you differently than I see you. Than your mother sees you. Than your grandmother sees you.
To them you are Black.
Not a Black kid. Not a smart, or cute or talented… Just Black.
Many of those people can hide their feelings towards you. Don’t worry about them. You’ll drive yourself crazy trying to figure who they are. Sometimes, those people will treat you less than you really are. Sometimes you might feel like they hate you. Sometimes you might feel like they fear you. Sometimes you may feel like they pity you. I cannot tell you which is true. Smarter people than you and me have tried to figure it out and we still are.
When this happens (and it will happen) you need to come talk to me about it. If I am not around, you have to remember three things:
- No matter how those people act… How they treat you… What they say to you… It makes no difference. You will still be you. They cannot change that.
- Like I said earlier, they have no responsibility to love you. They have no responsibility to treat you nicely, or fairly.
- Those kinds of people are weak. They are infected with a sickness. Anyone who looks at you or judges you in any way because you are black–it is because you are smarter than them. It is because you are stronger than them. It is because they know it.
Regardless of how they feel, they cannot break you. You are one of the smartest and most talented human beings I’ve ever met. They can tell, too. You treat everyone you come into contact with your entire life with love and respect. If they don’t reciprocate, it is because of a fault in them, not you. You be better than them. Always.
But this is the most important thing I’ll ever tell you, so listen closely, because your life depends on it.
Some of those people have so much hate in their hearts, or so much fear in their minds, that they will kill you.
I don’t want to say it nicely, because you need to know it is just that blunt and real.
They will kill you.
Some of these people are garbagemen, the people behind the registers at grocery stores, and even the people who might one day give you a job. Again, I want to stress to you that these people owe you nothing, so you shouldn’t expect love or kindness from anyone.
But some of these people who are infected with this fear and hate are policemen. And they have guns.
You should not fear police. You should not dislike police. Like the others, they have no responsibility to love you or hate you. You should be nice and respectful to them all.
Here’s where it gets serious, so listen closely:
You need to know, there is no other way around me telling you this: When it comes to policemen, you cannot act the way your white friends act. You cannot speak with, talk to, or interact with policemen the way your friends do. It is very important that you know why cops are different for you:
One of them may try to kill you.
Even if you treat them nicely.
Even if you treat them with respect.
Here is the part you need to remember, because your life depends on it.
When you talk to them, speak clearly.
No matter how friendly he or she seems–and this is so important–BE STILL.
Before you move, ask for permission to move. Even when they give you permission, announce it again. Tell them you are reaching for your registration. Tell them you are getting your wallet.
Do not disagree. If he says something that is clearly incorrect, do not argue. You can do it later. Say “yes.” Nod your head when you do it. Do EVERYTHING he asks of you.
I want you to remember that you only have one responsibility in this situation–TO GET HOME ALIVE.
Everything else is secondary. Do not assume he is friendly, or will understand your point of view. Get home safe.
Because I am your father, and I don’t want you to believe I would lie to you, there is one more thing I have to tell you:
He may still kill you.
None of this may work. You have seen what happens. But if you encounter a police officer, even if you comply with a police officer the only power you have is to hope he doesn’t kill you. If you run he will kill you. If you resist, he will kill you. If you fight, he will kill you. If you do what I just told you, there is a good possibility you will not be killed.
Your only responsibility is to make it home alive and safe.
I could not bear life if anything happened to you, so you need to remember these things, and I will occasionally go over them again and gain. I will talk with you more about it sometimes You will get tired of me repeating these things, but I am just trying to make sure you understand.
Because your mother loves you.
Because your grandmother loves you.
Because more than anything in the entire universe–even myself…
I love you.