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Originally published March 23, 2012 at 5:07 PM | Page modified March 25, 2012 at 9:39 PM

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Trayvon Martin's killing prompts parents to have 'The Talk' with their sons

Moved by the senseless killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida, Times editorial columnist Lynne Varner sits her son down to have "The Talk."

Seattle Times Editorial

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I'M haunted by the killing of a 17-year-old boy as he walked along a Florida street, armed with nothing more than a cellphone, iced tea and a bag of Skittles.

The U.S. Justice Department, the FBI and a coterie of lawyers on all sides will find out why a self-appointed neighborhood watch volunteer was so afraid of a kid, Trayvon Martin, that he thought deadly force was the only option.

In my household, we decided it was time for The Talk.

In some families that would refer to lessons about the birds and the bees. In African American families, it is an important conversation about racism. My son understands discrimination from an academic standpoint. He studied the Middle Passage and racial segregation in school.

But The Talk shifts the conversation to a place where a lot of racism has gone: underground. We don't overwhelm our son with the many statistics proving African American men and other men of color have a greater chance of being harmed by law enforcement and others licensed to carry a gun. We remind him that most public safety officers are good, caring people, working to keep him safe. But some people carry fears and stereotypes along with their guns.

My son takes it all in. I feel a twinge of sympathy at the gravity of the topic, quickly followed by a parent's refusal to let him be another statistic filed under the informal title: killed while being black.

This is my son's burden to carry as his father, grandfather and ancestors carried it before him.

Some may argue otherwise. The responsibility, their logic follows, belongs to those with the guns and minds so full of fear they kill unarmed young men of color first and ask questions later.

Yes. The responsibility does lie with the man who killed Trayvon. I've belonged to neighborhood watch groups and I know there are a million ways to keep an eye on the neighborhood without using deadly force.

But that's as academic as my son's school lessons. I have to concentrate on keeping alive my man-child who loves wearing hoodies to stave off the Seattle chill and rain — and who thinks he can walk anywhere he pleases. So here's what we tell our son.

• Respond clearly and courteously to all authority figures.

• If someone asks, "What are you doing around here?", tell them.

• Never take a shortcut through anyone's yard or walk on their property.

• Never, ever, run from a police officer.

I don't want to frighten my son; I just don't want him to follow the fate of Trayvon. President Barack Obama alluded to this in remarks Friday about the incident.

"If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon," the president said in the White House Rose Garden. "When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids."

So do I, Mr. President. That's why we sat our son down for The Talk.

— Lynne Varner

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