'It's not an option for us': George Floyd's death generates hard conversations in BIPOC families

Updated: Jun 10, 2020

Laetitia Hellerud and her family

When Laetitia Hellerud’s son Yann was still in high school and planned to go out with friends, Laetitia would stand at the end of their driveway, making him “rehearse” what he would do if they were stopped by police.

Yann would roll his eyes and point out that he was a good kid who didn’t drink, do drugs or get into trouble. But Laetitia knew that, as a young black man, he had to be extra careful. Even reaching over to his glove box for his registration could be perceived as a threatening move.

The recent murder of George Floyd has brought to the public consciousness something that people of color have known forever: We have mountains of systemic racism, implicit bias and white privilege to overcome before all citizens can truly be treated equal.

This creates a challenge for parents of children of color. How do you explain the seemingly inexplicable? How can you let them know they may need to be extra-vigilant, without making them feel unsafe or afraid? How do you give them the resilience, faith and grace to push on, even when their journey feels so long and insurmountable?

Laetitia moved to America from the East African country of Burundi in 1998. Well-educated, smart, articulate and accomplished, she’s an author, human-rights activist and 2020 Bush Fellow who is currently running to be a state senator for North Dakota District 22.

Yet, despite her many achievements, she knows what it’s like to walk around with that nagging fear inside: That, regardless of how much she accomplishes, there will be people who judge her entirely on the color of her skin.

“That kind of thought is always in the back of my mind,” Laetitia says. “Is it because I’m black?”

‘He shouldn’t have been running in the rain’

Kim Adams feels the same nagging anxiety for her sons Yonas and Nati. Kim and husband Dave have five children, including two sons, Yonas, 17, and Nati, 13, who became part of their family through international adoption and are black.

Kim recently posted an update on her Facebook page that perfectly captured the fears of parents with BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) children. “Almost every single day Yonas goes for a run,” Kim’s post begins. Every time, right before he leaves, she asks where he’s going and how long he plans to run. She confesses that she does this because she’s worried.

“The other night he was taking longer than usual; I was so scared. In my head I was going thru many terrifying scenarios. I kept thinking he shouldn’t have been running in the rain because he will be wearing his hood and that adds even more to what makes running while black risky.

“If you’ve never worried about your white son’s death because he was out for a run because it’s just exercise, that’s privilege. If you’ve never considered that adding one’s hood to cover your head and body from rain/wind could increase the risk of suspicion and death while running, privilege again.

“I read again of the horrific death of Ahmaud in February and I see my son. I watched the viral video of the murder yesterday and literally sobbed. Dear white friends, we have got to work harder. And please don’t be afraid to join me in proclaiming and demanding: Black lives matter.” – Kim Adams

The racism talk: For some, it’s not an option

Right now, we’re seeing lots of stories on how to talk to your kids about racism. Some of these debate whether it might traumatize children, especially the very young, to expose them to news about Ahmaud Arbery or George Floyd.

Parents like Kim and Laetitia believe like they don’t have a choice in the matter. They have to bring up this difficult topic to their children so they know to protect themselves.

“This isn’t an optional conversation,” Kim says. “Yonas’s life depends on it. Of course, we are afraid. Afraid for his life.”

All her other kids are affected too. They have “very honest” family discussions and process together what they see in the news. Kim, Dave and Yonas lead the way in watching the coverage and initiating discussion. Everyone attended the protest march last Saturday.

“Here’s the truth: We can’t tell them they are going to be OK. We don’t know that,” Kim says. “The only assurance we can offer is the work and action we commit to doing.”

Then again, this isn’t new to them. Ever since their boys have grown older, they’ve had to prepare them for the reality that even when they hang out with friends in public, they may be the ones singled out for negative attention – simply because they don’t look like Midwestern Norwegians. “It’s not limited to law enforcement,” Kim says. “It’s about how he must behave if he goes to a mall with friends or shops in a store.”

While growing up in a predominately white community can present plenty of challenges to BIPOC children, it also can strengthen and empower them to make change. Yann, now 25, and Nicole, 19, are growing up in Laetitia’s activist footsteps.

"Yes, I did raise dreamers, big-time!" Laetitia says, smiling.

Yann, now living in Florida, has produced the video for the City of Fargo for the past three years to honor Martin Luther King Jr. Day as well as an educational video on the opioid addiction on the Red Lake Chippewa reservation. When living in Fargo, he organized community events around homelessness, food-disparity issues and climate-change.

Nicole, a super-achiever who uses a spreadsheet to keep track of all her activities, spoke in front of a crowd at a local "Me Too" movement event and marched with her friends in the protest in downtown Fargo recently. She also has made it an ongoing mission to educate her white friends on issues surrounding racism. She has recommended books to them and initiated lively discussions.

“It’s important to make sure the conversations don’t stop after the protests,” Laetitia says.

Laetitia has been encouraged to see how her children’s generation seems much more receptive to changing the norm than older generations, but is saddened when she hears how families are divided on it. “We already have so much of that polarization in so many ways,” she says. “You cannot heal those kinds of wounds or undo that kind of damage overnight.”

So what can we do?

Laetitia and Kim share ideas for ways that white parents can deepen their own understanding and empathy for other cultures, while also guiding their children:

  • Teach youth to think before they tweet, Insta or Tik-Tok. Laetitia respects teens or adolescents who use their social media to voice their opinions on this issue, but she encourages them to do it in a way that is helpful and factual vs. incendiary or accusatory. She has been known to privately message some young friends to encourage them to use their voices in a more productive, less polarizing way.

  • If you are white parents raising BIPOC children, find a positive BIPOC mentor for them to spend time with and relate to.

  • Reach out and talk to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) people in your neighborhood. Get to know them as human beings. Read the work of black or Native authors; follow BIPOC leaders on social media; try to learn more about the BIPOC experience by reading books on BIPOC history and racism. Start buying toys, games and books for your kids that show multi-cultural characters. https://www.usatoday.com/story/entertainment/books/2020/06/02/books-to-learn-more-anti-racism-adults-kids/5306873002/

  • Let your children use their voices. Parents: Even if they don’t seem to be listening, please know that your opinions matter to your children more than you can know. Allow your children to form their own opinions on the current news events without directing them on how they should feel about it. Especially in adolescence, kids need to explore their individuality and discover their own value system. So even if their opinions don’t mesh with yours, encourage their commitment to contribute to today's important conversations and give them the freedom to express themselves.

  • Acknowledge that racism does happen here. It may not be as visible and widely publicized as the Breonna Taylor and George Floyd incidents, but it is here. “One thing I wish (people) would understand is we may be sheltered, but that doesn’t disqualify people’s real experiences. It may not be as pervasive, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist,” Laetitia says.

Later today: Read about the first-hand experiences of racism experienced by North Dakota lawmaker/LSS board member Ruth Buffalo and how she transformed them into knowledge about the dangers of overgeneralization and the importance of race.

By Tammy Swift

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