Do not antagonise the police. They have authority, they have power and they are under stress.
– Daddy, August 20th 2016
I wrote this directive down last summer, right after getting off of Skype with my dad. He was asking me about the climate in NY after the slew of police violence against black Americans. He wanted to know – Did I feel safe moving around? How did police presence affect my life? What about the protests? Watching from The Bahamas, he wasn’t sure how to imagine my daily experience.
I told him that I did feel safe on my own, but that seeing the police made me nervous and hyper-aware of my blackness/alienness. I hadn’t physically run into any protests but I did feel connected to them and their cries for justice, empathy and reform. The reports of deaths and serious injuries seemed never-ending, and were an assault to my psyche.
I had actually written about how I was feeling a few weeks before we had this conversation. I intended to also write about what my dad told me, but whenever the time came for another post, I didn’t want to go to the difficult place that it would have taken me. I can’t just let his instructions get lost to memory though, so here I am, finally addressing them.
I had never heard my dad talk that way about the police before, not that he ever had much to say about them. His sentences were clipped, forceful and urgent. There was no room for me to offer an alternative picture or open things up for discussion, which was one of the things that made his statement stand out the way it did. My dad is a pretty easygoing guy. The most controversial subject between us is religion, but even those conversations are comfortable and involve an exchange. Though part of a broader discussion, this statement was closed, unequivocal.
Another striking thing about my dad’s statement is that it was borne out of a race-based discussion. We don’t talk much about race or institutionalised oppression and discrimination, so it was a surprise to hear my dad bring up the violence in the first place. I knew he would have been paying attention, but only because he follows the news. His questions felt rooted in his conceiving of me as a black person in the US, not just any person, or just his daughter. Now is probably a good time to tell you that my dad is white, and I’m black. His questions made me feel like he recognised the extra challenges I face because of my skin colour, or that he’s at least aware of that possibility; that’s not something I’d ever felt from him before.
The final thing that surprised me about my dad’s instruction was that I’m grown! It’s not like he was telling me this as part of the other lessons to be learned as a child. I was 26 when we had this conversation, and I thought I was past the point of my parents giving me this kind of obvious-seeming, (super)protective advice. It was almost like he told me not to drink and drive, or shoot heroin. I felt kind of like, Duh Dad, if I thought antagonising the police was on the table before, watching all these black men and women get murdered for breathing has surely shown me otherwise now. His directive felt both sweet and sad. Sweet because I was 26 but he was concerned enough to tell me, sad because he was concerned enough to tell me. I’d shaken my head at things online about black parents having to teach their children not to bother the police, how this was part of the special training needed in the black community, but I felt removed from that aspect of American culture. Now I didn’t have that separation anymore. I knew what it felt like to have a parent warn me about the police. Not good.
Now that this conversation is months behind me, it feels less dramatic, and I can think of ways to relate it without any reference to mine or my dad’s skin colour, or my dad’s interest in my skin colour. In that moment though, I received it thoroughly as a black woman, because I felt so keenly my status as a black woman. After we hung up the phone I sat in stunned silence for a little bit, and faces of all the friends I could call or email to tell them what happened shuttered through my mind. Did my dad really just tell me what he did? What kind of world am I living in? It made the events of that summer even weightier. It underscored my feelings of sorrow and frustration. One small conversation between a father and daughter that captured so much of the fragility of social relationships in the US at the time, as well as the nature of being an immigrant away from family. It shines a spotlight on love too, when you are in a serious situation and your parents have little but words to give you.