fb-pixel Skip to main content
RI VOICES

A Black father wonders: Is ‘The Talk’ enough?

Being both Black and language disabled can make police interactions even more dangerous and frightening

An April protest billed as “Justice for Duante Wright” was held on the Rhode Island State House steps, organized by Black Lives Matter RI PAC and other groups.
An April protest billed as “Justice for Duante Wright” was held on the Rhode Island State House steps, organized by Black Lives Matter RI PAC and other groups.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

In April, police officer Derek Chauvin’s trial for the killing of George Floyd dominated the news. As the trial unfolded, two young Black men were assaulted by police: Army officer Caron Nazario was pulled over in uniform and pepper sprayed in Virginia, and 20-year-old Daunte Wright was “accidentally” killed when a police officer mistook her gun for her taser during a traffic stop near Minneapolis. Wright’s mother was on the phone with him, searching for the car insurance information as he was killed, mistakenly believing that all would be well when she gave the police officer the information over the phone.

Even after Chauvin was found guilty, this weighs on me. I fear for my children, three biracial young adults. They are always aware of how they are presenting themselves to the world. They know the rules, we have had “the talk.” But will that be enough?

Advertisement



I fear for myself, a Black, Ugandan man. Yes, I am Black and these fears are not new. But now they are compounded by another aspect of my identity.

On May 21, 2016, I had a massive ischemic stroke, leaving me with aphasia, a language disorder that impacts my comprehension and my speech. Aphasia impacts the speech of everyone in different ways; in my case I frequently say the wrong word or put words in the wrong order. I need time to plan what I will say. In a stressful situation, it gets worse.

While aphasia affects 2 million Americans, 84 percent of people have never heard of it. The chances are good that a police officer will attribute my stuttered, garbled speech to intoxication or low intellect, and assume I am refusing to comply with orders. Every time I drive, I wonder what will happen when I am pulled over by a police officer.

Advertisement



In December 2019, I mistakenly took the wrong lane as I made a left turn, and saw the policeman gesturing to me. Usually, of course, I have time to practice, practice, practice for an interaction, but now that it had happened, I panicked. I called my wife and left the phone on as the police officer came to my car.

Fortunately, I got off with a warning. But what if I had been pepper sprayed, beaten, or killed? What if I didn’t comply because I didn’t understand? What if I used the wrong words and the police officer misunderstood me?

Now, I will carry a card with my license explaining my aphasia. I will keep it visible so that I do not have to reach for it. I pray I can make myself understood by the police officer.

I believe the world is suspicious and fearful of me as a Black man and the world is confused and dismissive of me as a language disabled man. Nevertheless, I hope that the world will see past these parts of my identity and that I will make it home safely, and my children will make it home safely -- every time.

Michael Obel-Omia is an educator and public speaker in Barrington, R.I.