(The Root) — Moments after the jury acquitted George Zimmerman, a friend of a colleague described how his 10-year-old African-American son looked at him and said, "Daddy, I'm scared." These three words gave him chills, he said, and illustrate a collective fear among young black boys about the value of their lives. It also brings into view an ongoing conversation many parents have with their black sons about how they may be perceived by some people in America and what that means for their safety.
For many, that discussion may need revisiting, and re-tooling, in light of Zimmerman's acquittal. For other parents, it's a subject they have never broached with their child in a substantive way. Almost one week after a nearly all-white jury doled out Zimmerman's not-guilty verdict, parents may find themselves wrestling with one chief question: What do I tell my black son about George Zimmerman's acquittal?
The Root spoke to a few experts who routinely help children and teenagers get through difficult times in their lives. These child psychiatrists and psychologists dished out recommendations for how a parent might initiate this conversation with their black sons, and also, how they might respond to some pretty critical questions and concerns this trial and verdict raised. There are no right answers, but here is some expert advice that might steer parents in a good direction.
A History Lesson on African-Americans
Beyond the things that many black mothers and fathers have already done — expressing reassuring things like "I love you" and "I'll always protect you," experts interviewed said parents must give their children a good old-fashioned history lesson on black men in America. The advice must be age-appropriate, but also can be detailed if parents trust their children are ready.
"The first thing black parents need to do is make their children culturally and contextually aware of their history in the United States of America," said Dr. Kristen Carothers, an African-American New York-based therapist who specializes in child and adolescent psychology. Carothers described how this will help explain to a black male child — depending on his familiarity of the case — about why there was a huge social uprising over a white Hispanic man being acquitted of killing an unarmed black teenager.
Dr. Michael Chavis said parents should not speak about the verdict from a position of anger or hate, but understanding.
If the child asks how the negative perception of black skin, by whites, came to be, Chavis encourages parents to be honest and give the only answer one could: "I don't have a real answer to that." Chavis went on to speak about a theory that says that the white slavers and eventual segregationists possibly possessed some sort of inferiority complex, which they in turn projected onto African Americans.
"If you think of yourself as negative," he explained, "you've got to give that negativity to someone else, because it's hard to own it.
"This notion of dark men being evil is something we learned. If we learned it, they taught it. We didn't come here thinking that about ourselves," he continued. "That's what we start to teach our children first, and then how to counteract that [idea] in their own lives."
Calmness, Resilience and Protection
When something uncomfortable happened to Carothers as a child, she recalled, her mother told her about a traumatic event that happened in her own life.
"My mother told me the story of being a kid and seeing a Jet magazine with a picture of Emmett Till's face on it and throwing the magazine out of the window out of shock," Carothers said. "[That] let me know she had been through something similar that was traumatic and she was able to get past it."
Carothers said children need to learn that scary things happen that will make them feel angry and sad, but if they talk about it, and articulate their feelings, it will help alleviate some of the anxiety. Being present for those conversations is key. Dr. Taliba M. Foster, a child psychiatrist who practices in both Philadelphia and New York, encourages parents to disengage their black son from all forms of traditional and social media if the child is seriously affected by the verdict.
"I try to help the parent control how the traumatic event is affecting their family. You can't get [that calmness] from outside sources.
"Isolate your child from the onslaught of media. Clips of people 'Trayvoning.' Different perspectives that are not helpful and really scary for kids," Foster said. That also means tempering yourself when speaking about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman with your adult friends while your son is nearby.
"A child is going to react based on how they see their parent react. You have to present yourself as calm," Carothers said. Parents should tell their sons that they don't have control over everything, but "we can make some decisions to make sure you're safe if you're ever in a similar situation," she explained. She calls it the "safety conversation" for black males — that holds that black boys need to be extra-vigilant — that has made national news since Trayvon's death 16 months ago.
Chavis said to reassure your black son that he is a good person. "Your child has to know from the very beginning that you will always protect them and keep them safe.
"You have every right to be scared. Do not deny your fear. And yet at the same time, know that there are some things you can do to manage your fear," he advised that parents tell their sons.
The Law Does Not Always Factor in Morality
The judicial system is complex and verdicts do not necessarily reflect the moral consensus on any given issue. One of the jurors in the Zimmerman murder trial — Juror B37 — initially wanted to write a book about her experiences (she's not anymore), and in a dated statement released by her former literary agent, she referenced the dissonance she experienced during the trial as she weighed the evidence, writing that "despite one's personal viewpoints, it is [important] to follow the letter of the law."
Some of her peer jurors released a statement distancing themselves from some of the statements Juror B37 made to the media, which demonstrates the diversity that exists among white people, a diversity of opinion with which young black males should be familiar, experts say.
"Look around you — not all white people are like [Zimmerman]," Chavis said a parent might tell their son.
Because verdicts are decided by ordinary people from different walks of life, and people interpret the law and circumstances differently, Carothers said it is important to let your son know that the verdict is not a mandate on the issue.
"We don't know if the verdict would be different if the jury was more diverse," Carothers said.
Experts say parents should avail themselves to their black sons on a continual basis to pick apart different current events that lend themselves to discussions about race, safety and more importantly, cultivating a healthy perception of one's own self.