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'Change Can Happen': Black Families On Racism, Hope And Parenting

The Jernigan-Noesi family, the Roper Nedd family, and the Ford family talk about the conversations they're having with their kids about racism, social justice, and having hope for the future.
(Left to right) Lynsey Weatherspoon for NPR; Michael A. McCoy for NPR; Michael Starghill for NPR
The Jernigan-Noesi family, the Roper Nedd family, and the Ford family talk about the conversations they're having with their kids about racism, social justice, and having hope for the future.

The Black Lives Matter movement has changed the country and shifted conversations about police, social justice and structural racism.

Nowhere is the impact as great as it is for Black families, especially those with children. NPR spoke with five couples about how their family conversations have changed and how they try to support and inform their children in the face of police violence and racism.

The parents spoke about how painful it is to have these issues rupture the innocence of childhood, and the importance of having these discussion proactively. They say they try to model a measured optimism about the future, teaching their kids "to stand up and speak out", as one mother, Dr. Rhea Roper Nedd puts it.

She says she and her husband's message to their children right now is hopeful, despite their own misgivings about the slow pace of progress. "This is the time for us to move forward," she says. "This is the time to change."

'Exercise your right to say what you think'

When Chris and Eriade Williams decided to take their children to participate in peaceful protests near their home in Silver Spring, Md., their daughter Marley, 9, told them she was scared. Eriade, an attorney and lobbyist, had to explain that violence wouldn't be likely. Chris, who works in pharmaceutical sales, talked to both the kids — their son Hunter is 6 — about managing fear. And he told them: "These are things that we're protesting because they've never been dealt with appropriately in the past."

Marley remained skeptical, telling her parents she was afraid there would be violence or police brutality. Her parents told her, "You still have to exercise your right to say what you think about things and you can't be scared and stay in your house," recalls Eriade.

The protest turned out to be a positive, empowering experience for the children. There was no violence. Marley was interviewed by local TV and even made up a dance to go with a chant. "When they came home they were exuberant," says Eriade.

The Williams say they have a sense of relief that, after George Floyd's brutal killing, the whole nation began discussing police violence and racism. It means, they said, that as parents "we are the ones who can explain all this to our kids and that their friends in school will have a similar baseline of experience now to understand these issues better."

When to have 'the talk'

As Black parents, Derek and Barbara Ford knew they would have to have "the talk" about racism at some point with their sons. Chandler, who is nearly 1-year-old, is too young to understand. And for Alexander who turns 5 this month, the Fords hadn't thought of starting at such an early age. But as the Black Lives Matter protests took off in late May, they realized it was time.

Derek, a human resources manager in the oil and gas industry, says they didn't try to tackle the whole topic at once. "We talk about certain aspects that he can comprehend at this point. And then through the years, that conversation morphs" he says. They have started with storytelling and books that portray individuals with brown skin so the children will "feel comfortable in their own skin" and have a positive image of themselves.

In the future, they'll have to tackle harder issues head-on. "I mean you have to have hope, but you also have the reality that he will become a Black man; right now, he sees police officers and cops as superheroes." Derek says. "It's a shame that this frame of mind will likely change over time to where he no longer sees public servants as superheroes, but he sees them as something else."

They try to strike a balance, Barbara says, between exposing their children to the reality of racism while instilling confidence in them as individuals. "We grew up and understood that everything in life wasn't going to be fair; so we want to raise the children with a sense of reality, but we don't want to poison them and we don't want them to be blindsided by anything either."

Preparing children for the future

When Maryam Jernigan-Noesi and Mariano Noesi were expecting their first child, they recall playing a trivia game at their baby shower. They were asked what they feared most about becoming new parents.

They answered without hesitation. "We were both on the same page and it was 'the world,'" says Mariano, a national accounts manager for an environmental firm. "It was the systems created outside of our homes that were not made for him, although he'd be forced to live in them for now."

Along with the joy of having a child, says Maryam, a licensed psychologist specializing in children and adolescents, "there is an intergenerational fear about your ability to protect Black children and help keep them alive because of the pervasiveness and, frankly, the danger of racism."

The family lives in a suburb of Atlanta. Today, when they talk with their son Carter, now 4, about racism, a major goal, Mariano says, is "reducing the amount of trauma that I pass on to him. Reducing it being key because some trauma is inevitable in the life of a Black person in this country."

Their approach, says Maryam, is to start with an understanding of racial differences."We want him to first notice and appreciate human differences, not avoid or condemn what is different," she says.

Maryam Jernigan-Noesi and her son Carter pick vegetables from their garden.
/ Lynsey Weatherspoon for NPR
Lynsey Weatherspoon for NPR
Maryam Jernigan-Noesi and her son Carter pick vegetables from their garden.

From there, they are gradually introducing the history of racial injustice and the civil rights movement.

"The key is to be consistent and proactive and to not wait until there is a blatant example that we are trying to explain after the fact," says Maryam. She also gives her son room to express his feelings, like when she first explained the history of segregation to him and "he was visibly upset."

She says these early lessons paid off when he saw some footage of protests on TV and wanted to know what was going on. " And I said, well, remember Martin Luther King? You know, we're still fighting for people to be able to be treated equally."

'It's up to the next generation'

After George Floyd's killing, the Roper Nedd family who live in Silver Spring, Md., a suburb of Washington, D.C. went into "protective mode" toward their two sons, Christopher and Noah, says Dr. Rhea Roper Nedd, associate director of the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program at the University of Maryland.

"We didn't want them to see this on TV and to internalize this," she recalls. "But then there came a point in time when we knew ... as much as we tried to protect them ... we had to start talking about it."

Husband Wilton Nedd II, an attorney, says it's imperative "for us to instill in our children that they are equal to their white counterparts in every respect but they may not be viewed that way by everyone they encounter."

They want their children to feel proud of who they are. They watch movies with strong Black characters, they enjoy and "move to hip-hop, soca, afro-beats, gospel music and Chelsey Green's violin."

"Conversations about race within the four walls of our home are intentional messages about the beauty of blackness," says Rhea.

Rhea Roper Nedd says she and her husband teach their sons Christopher (left) and Noah to recognize the importance of changing narratives in society and recognizing that change is possible.
/ Michael A. McCoy for NPR
Michael A. McCoy for NPR
Rhea Roper Nedd says she and her husband teach their sons Christopher (left) and Noah to recognize the importance of changing narratives in society and recognizing that change is possible.

She says they have worked to balance realism and hope in their conversations about racial justice. When they went as a family to one of the recent protests, one of their sons questioned why they were bothering when violence against Black people keeps getting repeated.

"It's hard to hear a young child at the age of ten already aware of the history of this country, of how racism has been institutionalized, and to already know that the change that is happening, it's so slow," Rhea says.

But she said they told their kids, "Things are changing. There is something about the movement and we have to be part of it."

During the protests and candlelight vigils the family attended, Wilton told his sons that as they grow up, they have a role to play "in changing narratives and outcomes in society."

"Our generation has made incremental progress but it is up to the next generation to take it even further," he says.

'We're not walking alone'

Both Albert and Quinetta Latham remember when their own parents had "the talk" with them years ago. And while some of the nuances have changed, Albert, a regional asset protection director for a national retailer says, the conversations they're having with their own children, Albert III, 18, and Maria, 12, are, unfortunately, familiar.

But Quinetta, a certified life coach and transformational speaker, says the Black Lives Matter movement has given the family a sense of hope. "While our 12 year old daughter might not necessarily be able to wrap her entire mind around systematic racism, both she and our son realize and understand the power and the pain that is attached to the three words Black Lives Matter."

The support for the movement is "very visible for our children to see" she says, whether it's on the news, hashtags, t-shirts, or TikTok. Albert says in the movement today he sees more allies of all races.

"We're not walking alone," Albert says. "And while these occurrences and conversations aren't necessarily new for our household I do realize... George Floyd's untimely and unfortunate death was certainly a tipping point for the nation."

But seeing repeated examples of police brutality weighs on their children, the Latham parents say. And even when they went out to protest recently, the family encountered racism and profanity from people passing by. One man in a truck deliberately blew his exhaust into the crowd. "My children looked at me in disbelief," recalls Quinetta. "We're out here trying to stand up for what's right and here's what we're still having to face."

"So you know, it's hard not to see it, it's hard not to experience it, and it's almost impossible not to fear it," she says. "For us as parents, it's important to just create a safe haven, a safe space for our children to feel they're accepted when the world rejects them. A place where they can come and be lifted when the world knocks them down."

The Latham family plays a game of Uno at their home just outside of Nashville.
/ Erica Brechtelsbauer for NPR
Erica Brechtelsbauer for NPR
The Latham family plays a game of Uno at their home just outside of Nashville.

And, when talking to their children, Albert says,"we've got to be very careful to not preach doom and gloom all the time — to not talk about the history of Black folk as starting in slavery or in the Jim Crow south; our history is much, much richer than the misfortunes that we faced."

"And so another way that we try to reduce the stress for us and our children is to make sure that we understand there's still greatness that courses through our veins."

This story was produced by Meredith Rizzo and Ryan Kellman with editing by Carmel Wroth of NPR. Design and development by Alyson Hurt of NPR.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Award-winning journalist Patti Neighmond is NPR's health policy correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.