In January, a video of police officers pepper spraying and arresting a 9-year-old Black girl in Rochester, New York, became the latest in a long line of viral videos and tragic cases of Black children being victimized by police violence. Black parents and families have long tried to mitigate their children’s’ risk of violent encounters with the police. One way they’ve done so is “the talk,” a primer discussion where family members explain to Black children what to do and not do when stopped by the police.
In recent years, primetime television and web documentaries have increasingly brought mainstream attention to the concept of the talk, but those conversations have centered on young Black boys. While Black men and boys do account for an overwhelming percentage of police killings, the sole focus on this demographic renders invisible Black girls’ experiences with law enforcement, and obscures how police brutality includes not just lethal violence, but non-fatal physical assault and sexual violence. As the Rochester video makes clear, police pose a risk to Black girls, too. Living within that reality, how do Black girls understand their vulnerability to police violence, and how are parents talking to them about it, if at all?
‘I am a child!’
In body camera footage capturing the young girl in Rochester struggling with officers in the police car, an officer can be heard yelling, “You’re acting like a child!” to which the 9-year-old girl responds, “I am a child!” The officers’ refusal to recognize her as such reflects a widespread bias.
According to a 2017 report released by the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, adults view Black girls as less innocent and more adultlike than their white peers, particularly between 5 and 14 years old. Participants in the study perceived Black girls to be less in need of nurturing, protection, comfort, and support. Stripped of the presumption of innocence and the leniency typically afforded to children, Black girls are also subject to harsher penalties and greater use of force than white children. In fact, Black girls are almost three times more likely to be referred to juvenile justice than their white peers and 0.8 times less likely to have their cases diverted. In recent years, examples of the harsh and violent treatment Black girls face have increasingly been captured on video. Last August, a 6-year-old Black girl in Aurora, Colorado, was arrested at gunpoint along with her mother, her 17-year-old aunt, and her 12 and 14-year-old cousins after the family was wrongfully accused of stealing a car. In February 2020, a video surfaced of 6-year-old Kaia Rolle being arrested at school even as she pleaded with the police officer to give her a “second chance.”
Though video evidence of these incidents is new, Black girls in the U.S. have long been subjected to police violence.
For Monica Simpson, executive director of Sister Song, a national reproductive justice collective, what happened in Rochester echoes her own story from more than two decades ago. Simpson was an 11-year-old growing up in the small rural county of Wingate, North Carolina, when police came to a car wash near her home and began harassing the young Black men who typically hung out there. That harassment was extremely common, says Simpson, but on that day, some of the young men took off running to escape and found their way onto Simpson’s front porch where she was playing with her younger sister and cousin. Police then followed the men onto her yard. What happened next triggers memories for Simpson to this day. “I just remember seeing this cop, this white man, pull this thing out of his pocket and I didn’t know if it was a gun, I didn’t know what it was at the time, but it was pepper spray, and he just sprayed it over all of us,” said Simpson. “I will never forget the smell, I’ll never forget the taste, I’ll never forget the feel of that in my eyes. We were choking. It was horrible. It was absolutely horrible and then my sister also got bit by a police dog.”
Simpson saw the officers’ unwillingness to see her as a child play out again in the story from Rochester.
“That’s the thing that got me about this story, and that’s the thing that got me about my own experience. When we were on that porch, we weren’t even seen as young girls anymore,” said Simpson. “Our girlhood, our youth—none of that could even be seen because we were now a threat.”
The police talk
Despite the prevalence of stories like Simpson’s, the issue of police brutality is still largely framed as an issue that only affects Black boys and men. Even interventions like the #SayHerName campaign to bring awareness to the Black women and girls victimized by police violence have often been co-opted, with the hashtag edited and applied instead to Black men. A particularly jarring example was The New Yorker’s June 2020 cover story titled “Say Their Names,” which featured the stories of a number of Black victims of state or vigilante violence, the overwhelming majority of them being boys and men.
The absence of robust discussion about Black girls and women’s vulnerability against police violence has also shaped how conversations about policing take place within the home, and how Black girls are socialized to understand themselves and their safety around police.
The function of the “police talk” took on new meaning for Shannon Malone Gonzalez, a PhD candidate at the University of Texas-Austin, when she was pregnant with her first daughter.
“I remember feeling really relieved because I remember feeling like I won’t have to have this talk, I won’t have to worry about this conversation,” said Gonzalez in an interview with Prism. “But then, almost immediately after that thought was the memory of my own experiences with police, experiencing sexual harassment by police and other forms of violence and thinking about other people in my family—other Black women in my family—who’ve also had hostile experiences with police. And so I remember thinking, ‘Well, what would I tell my daughter? What are the conversations happening in our community around this police conversation with Black girls?’”
Those questions would come to help shape her current research, which looks at the gendered notion of vulnerability to police violence and how Black mothers engage in the police talk with their daughters. In Gonzalez’ study, she spoke to Black mothers of various class backgrounds about whether and how they discuss police violence with their young girls. Her findings showed that Black girls often did not get the talk directly. Instead, they received implicit messages about policing through conversations that their parents had with the boys in their families. On the occasions when girls did receive the talk for themselves, those conversations took place differently along class lines.
Working-class mothers, Gonzalez found, were more likely to employ what she referred to as “the predatory talk,” which seeks to educate girls about the threat of police sexual violence and give them tools to avoid potential assault at night or when they are alone. The risks are significant. While data on police sexual misconduct is scant due to survivors’ fears of retaliation, existing research shows it’s a pervasive problem. According to a national database compiled by The Buffalo News between 2005 and 2015, a law enforcement official was caught in a case of sexual assault or misconduct at least every five days. A 2010 study from the Cato Institute found police sexual misconduct to be the second most common offense in citizen complaints only after excessive use of force.
While common, police sexual misconduct was featured less prominently when middle-class mothers gave their daughters the talk. Rather, Gonzales found, they were more likely to engage in the “respectability talk.” This iteration focuses more on minimizing the risk of potential violence by teaching girls how to embody certain gendered norms and behaviors.
“At the center of both of these conversations is how to protect Black girls,” said Gonzalez. “The way that works and manifests is different based on their material reality.”
While these approaches are rooted in a shared desire to keep children safe, they can give young girls an unrealistic set of expectations about the degree of control they might have over their own victimization by the police. That assignment of responsibility is where the police talk also diverges from the version given to young Black boys.
“I think what ends up happening is, with Black boys that threat is seen as inevitable and so the blame is placed on the police officer, it’s placed on the state,” said Gonzalez. “With Black girls, there is this conception that if you do these things you should be able to protect yourself, and … what that means about where we assign blame is really interesting. If we say that she should be able to control these things based on how she’s dressed, where she’s going, who she’s interacting with, then what we’re saying is if she doesn’t doesn’t do these things and it happens, then it’s her fault. Those are the implications.”
In addition, Gonzales found that many police talks still solely focused on sons and that even when discussing whether their daughters might be uniquely vulnerable to violence, the conversation often shifted back to the ways Black boys and men are commonly targeted.
“When we tell this one single story about violence—the roadside encounter with the Black man and the white cop and the gun—what are the other stories of police violence that are left out?”
In particular, mothers often emphasized the importance of “making it home” after a police encounter, reminding children that the primary goal is to stay alive and that any other problems could be dealt with later. However, Gonzalez notes, this framework implicitly focuses only on lethal police violence and fails to acknowledge the types of violence that Black girls are often subjected to, such as sexual assault and misconduct.
Beyond that, focusing the talk on getting home obscures that simply being at home doesn’t mean one is safe from police violence.
“Historically I’m thinking about Eleanor Bumpers in the Bronx, and then even contemporarily I think about Atatiana Jefferson or Breonna Taylor. The home is not a safe space against state violence, and so complicating the way we think about the site of state violence I think is super important,” said Gonzalez. In fact, the entire Rochester incident took place at the young girl’s home after her mother, Elba Pope, called the police when her daughters became upset following a dispute between Pope and her husband. While police continue to find their way into Black girls’ homes as first responders for domestic disturbances or mental health episodes, the talk usually doesn’t reflect this, Gonzalez explained.
“When we tell this one single story about violence—the roadside encounter with the black man and the white cop and the gun—what are the other stories of police violence that are left out?” she said.
‘Abolition becomes the logical next step’
Although the police talk cannot ever fully protect Black youth, Gonzalez says that at its best, the talk would help legitimize young girls’ feelings and fears in the face of omnipresent state violence.
“What the talk can do is give Black girls a cultural frame to let them know that what happens to them in the interaction with police is not their fault, and that’s missing. We see all of these videos where people are keeping their hands up, they’re stopping—those don’t protect them,” said Gonzales. A version of the talk that confronted that reality would let Black girls know that “your community and your family sees the problem as police violence, and not your behavior, not the way that you’re dressed, not the way that you’re behaving like a lady or not.”
Ensuring that more girls receive that version of the talk might also broaden public conceptions of what police violence looks like and make Black girls’ experiences more visible.
While a more expansive version of the talk can help legitimize Black girls experiences, ultimately Gonzalez doesn’t see it as a long term solution to the violence that Black women and girls face at the hands of the state.
“I’m thinking about all the stories of police violence that I’ve heard and all the different ways that it occurred and I don’t know what type of reform can fix that,” said Gonzalez. “When I think about centering the well-being of the Black women that I spoke with, then to me, abolition becomes the next step in our reimagining of what it means for them to feel safe in their communities.”