Shamika Dawson of Roosevelt felt a sense of déjà vu as she sat with her 8-year-old son, Shamir, to talk about racism after George Floyd was killed when a Minneapolis police officer put his knee on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes. Eight years ago she had introduced the same painful conversation to his older brother, Shaheem Crews, when Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by a Florida neighborhood watch coordinator.
The talks have a renewed sense of urgency with Crews, now 16. “He’s a black kid and he’s 6-foot-2,” said Dawson, 33, of Roosevelt.
That means obey the police if you are stopped, avoid confrontation, “put your hands in front, don’t make any sudden movements,” Crews said.
"I feel like we shouldn't have to be concerned about this; we shouldn't have to be scared to be stopped by cops," Crews said. "It just makes me frustrated because the police are the ones who are supposed to protect us, and instead they are killing us."
Conversations about race and privilege are unfolding in households across Long Island as the country and the world have erupted in protest of police brutality and institutional racism. Cedarhurst psychologist Fred Zelinger said it’s the absence of such conversations that perpetuates the problem. “All parents have to talk to their children about this, whether black, white, brown, Asian,” he said.
It hurts to have those talks, parents said.
"We’ve worked so hard to teach our children better, to teach them that everybody’s equal,” said Mecca Baker of Islip, 44, a banking executive and mom of 11-year-old twin daughters. “It’s disappointing when we’ve taught them that all lives matter, including your black life, and then they have to see someone on the television killed in front of their eyes.”
Baker said she and her husband, Cory, 43, who works in telecommunications, had to work through their own tears, anger and disappointment before sitting down at dinner one night to calmy talk to their girls about systemic racism after Floyd's death. "They're looking at me like, 'Now what? What do we do?' I don't want them to take from this that all police officers are bad. You can't put everyone in one bucket." Yet she repeated to them the words of Martin Luther King Jr.: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
In Centerport, retired attorney Charlotte Saliou said her family has “fairly frank” conversations about what’s happening right now. While those conversations might differ with the ones Dawson has to have with her sons, Saliou said she's still left dismayed by the need for any family to have them.
“It’s sickening to realize the depths of people’s hatred for others based on their skin," said Saliou, 52, mom of twins Julienne and Nicolas, 16, and Elodie, 14. "That’s absolutely an ugly truth of our lives.”
The family talks about racism when opportunities come up, Saliou said. For instance, when Nicolas was going out with his hoodie pulled up over his head, Saliou pointed out that if he were a black teenage boy, his family might not allow him to leave the house that way because it could be dangerous. “Something as trivial as the way you wear your sweatshirt can become a major life issue because of your skin color,” she said she told him.
The conversations only became more challenging with the news of Breonna Taylor, fatally shot eight times in Kentucky by police officers; Ahmaud Arbery, fatally shot while jogging in Glynn County, Georgia; and Rayshard Brooks, killed by a police officer in Atlanta.
"Every time something happens, I show him the news and say, 'This is what I'm talking about. Take heed to what I'm saying, it's actually happened,'" Dawson said of her talks with Crews.
The need to repeatedly express outrage is exhausting, families said.
“How many times do we have to keep doing this? How many marches do you have to have to say there’s a systemic problem across the board in a country? When do we treat each other like human beings?” Baker said.
Baker grew up in Port Washington, where she said she didn’t experience police brutality or overt discrimination because of the color of her skin. “Maybe I took all the privilege around me as privilege for me, too. I didn’t experience slights. What if I were someone who struggled academically? Would I have been treated differently?”
In the Saliou, Baker and Dawson households, the younger generation is also bringing to the forefront of the conversation an urgent desire for change. It was Saliou’s kids who alerted their parents to a protest, one of Baker’s daughters who first brought up her desire to “do something,” which led to the family members going to a protest, and Crews, a high school senior, who asked his family to walk in a rally in Mineola.
"I think our generation has had it with racism," said Zoe Krief, a 17-year-old high school senior from Centerport. "We can't be silent anymore. It's not about me being white. It's having all different people of all different colors fight for something people shouldn't have to fight for.
"White privilege to me is me walking down the street and walking past a cop and not fearing for my life and not fearing I'm going to be questioned," she added.
The Saliou family said even though they are not people of color, it is their obligation to educate their children and attend protests so that their children can see the values they are being taught at home are shared by many others. "Otherwise, they will blindly go through their lives without considering what it’s like to walk in somebody else’s shoes.”
Crews said the movement gives him confidence that things will be different for his younger brother as Shamir grows up. "The whole world is into it now,” Crews said. “It's every race. It’s all races against the racists.”