As my partner, who's White, was turning into the Lincoln Tunnel in midtown Manhattan, a police officer standing at the side of the road stepped into traffic while looking in the opposite direction from oncoming traffic. As he did so, he nearly walked into our car. If my partner had been going at the speed limit, he would have hit a police officer.
The officer, enraged even though he was the one walking into traffic without looking, banged on our car roof as we passed and motioned for us to pull over.
I immediately started instructing my partner in how to behave: Do not question him, do not ask what was he thinking, do not say what he was doing was stupid, do not say there was anything wrong with what he was doing, do not contradict him.
Pretend you are a Black man and don't want to get shot. Because you are driving with me. And I am a Black man who does not want to get shot.
My words were urgent but measured, delivered with the clipped overprecision of a man who had only seconds to deliver information that could be the difference between life and death.
Once the officer arrived at our car, my partner was completely himself. "Why are you walking into traffic?" he said.
I thought, "Oh my God."
I quickly jumped in: "We're so sorry, officer."
Luckily, my partner then checked his White privilege. Maybe it was the obsequiousness in my tone, which he had never heard before. That's because he had never heard me interact with a police officer. My mother had trained me well. She had trained me to survive encounters with the police.
After the officer let us go with a warning, my partner went back to cursing him out. And I explained the difference between a White man yelling at a cop, even for walking into oncoming traffic without looking, and a Black man yelling at a cop. And I told my partner that depending on our children's skin color — we were about to try to get pregnant with the help of an egg donor — we would have to convince them to act like me, or maybe be killed at what would be a routine traffic stop for him or another White person.
He had never thought of it before. In his 35 years of life, he had never had to think about getting stopped by police while Black. That is White privilege.
The hardest reality for millions of African American dads this Father's Day is that we are under no illusion that we can protect our children, especially our boys.
We used to all get The Talk: Because I grew up without my dad, my mom instructed me in how to survive an encounter with law enforcement. The Talk. Keep your hands on the steering wheel. Never move them. Speak deferentially.
Yes, sir, officer. No, sir, officer.
I followed that advice for 50 years. I was expecting to pass it on to our children. Someday, I still might. But my twin boys, age 10, are Gen Z. They do not take kindly to injustice
and they may reject the realities of inequality that The Talk accepts.
I accepted those realities my whole life, like generations — Black and White and other — before me. I thought I had to. But they actually never worked. We just told ourselves they did.
They were a shibboleth to reassure us in our utter vulnerability. Our lives — our Black lives — were still in someone else's hands. African Americans were slain with impunity
throughout all the decades of my life.
Only lately has there been an irrefutable accumulation of video evidence. That helped produce a sea change in the attitudes of White people. It led to the marches and the calls for the end of inequality and systemic racism.
But here's the sad secret: It also turned the tide of Black denial. Black people died
for things that make no sense: driving with a busted taillight, selling DVDs, using a counterfeit bill, sitting in your apartment.