The Talk

I haven’t been watching the George Zimmerman trial too closely—meaning that I can’t get too worked up about the result.* I have been watching the conversations about it though. And while I know my blog isn’t about this kind of thing, the most-recent NPR Codeswitch prompt has had me thinking about “The Talk,” growing up non-white, and raising two sons who will be “of color.” While my thoughts aren’t entirely relevant to the Zimmerman discussion, I’ve thinking enough about them that I have to post them somewhere.

*I’m leaning toward the lousy laws produce lousy verdicts school of thought. Which means I completely agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates

I’m hapa.* I was “chinese”** when I was a little kid. I looked latino when I was a teenager. I’m lucky enough to pass as white now. I don’t remember explicitly receiving “The Talk” from my mom*** but I picked up the basics someplace in there. People will jump to conclusions because of how you look. Avoid putting yourself in sticky situations by being aware of how your actions could be negatively perceived. Be polite. Actively seek to deëscalate things.

*Previously touched on when I discussed Kip Fulbeck’s work.

**Read, “oriental.” Back in the days when “chinese” and “asian” were synonyms.

***My dad is white and not qualified to deliver it.

When I was out with my mom, I was always especially aware of all these guidelines. I was even lucky enough to have inside access to sports and theatre growing up yet never felt comfortable enough to really do anything with that access besides observe. I always felt like someone would notice me, I would get in trouble, or that I didn’t belong there.

Yet when I was out with my dad, it was like those restrictions didn’t apply at all. Things I would never feel comfortable doing, with my mom, let alone by myself, my dad would just blithely do. And nothing would ever happen. This confused me so much.

It was only when I was in college that I began to realize how my dad had had white privilege while my mom and I did not.

No doubt helped by the sense of privilege that comes with being able to talk your way in almost anywhere by saying. “I’m a Stanford student working on a project,” I also discovered in college that I had a choice about whether or not I could assume white privilege.

This was huge and mind blowing. It took me a couple years after I graduated to fully wrap my brain around it.

I still have the same person-of-color instincts and observations running through my head. I’ve just added another layer of “don’t behave like a victim” responses on top of it. For every “I can’t do that” or “I don’t belong here” gut-reaction avoidance which occurs to me, I think about what blithely clueless response will get me out of the situation. And I behave with the confidence that I deserve to be there and that no one will question me because I look white.

When I had kids, despite my baby naming rules, the one real rule I had running through my head was to give my kids as much of an opportunity as possible for passing. I know I’ll still have to give them the talk. Actually, their mother will probably do a better job of it since she’s still learning how to pass as white.* My hope though is that it will be only have to be the “all kids and teens are treated as non-whites” version rather than the “you’re going to be treated this way for the rest of your life” version.

*Which she can do. Especially when she’s with me. But she’s only learning how to do so now and I think it’ll be a last-resort option in her survival toolcase. But it’s still a nice tool to have.

I’m also lucky that they’re too young for me to have to explain the Zimmerman thing to them. Sadly, I know there will be another occasion which will prompt this discussion. I hope I’m with it enough to explain beyond a reasonable doubt, garbage in vs garbage out, and Type I versus Type II errors.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at, and the web at

5 thoughts on “The Talk”

  1. All-American City Sunnyvale at dusk, safe suburban neighborhoods
    through which I pedal my made-in-France 10-speed past a trio of attractive sandy-haired rosy-cheeked adolescents. All-American youths (who) vandalize the crepuscular stillness with their jocular outburst of racist mock-chinoiserie taunts. Little do they know that my slanty eyes gaze upon them with Olympian amusement. The carton of half-and-half I’ve just bought to whiten my fresh-ground-mellita’d mug of essential stimulant required for correcting junior high English papers, for wading through piles of piles of/by aborted intellects manifested in massacred language excreted by Sunnyvale’s finest all-American illiterate assholes. Such irony – after hours of agony reading pathetic depressing god-awful “creative” writing, then getting the ching-chong-chinaman razz from streetcorner loiterers whose essays I’m no-doubt covering with red ink. (No explicit “Talk” needed. You “osmosed” it through your mom, who wrote the above in 1986, when you were in elementary school.)

  2. Pingback: Atlee | n j w v

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