"When They See Us"- Why I Let My Teen Watch

My 13 year old son and I wearing our Exonerated 5 tees from Park Madison NYC, an apparel company started by Raymond Santana.

My 13 year old son and I wearing our Exonerated 5 tees from Park Madison NYC, an apparel company started by Raymond Santana.

It's 1:10am and I'm up in pure admiration and pride watching Jharrel Jerome accept his Emmy Award for his extraordinary portrayal of Korey Wise in the Netflix movie When They See Us. To see Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise, and Yusef Salaam, better known as The Exonerated 5, cry tears of joy for what seems like the only moment in time where they were truly seen and their stories validated. When They See Us is a Netflix miniseries created and directed by Ava DuVernay, and tells the story of the Exonerated 5, five Black and Latino teenagers from Harlem were coerced into providing false confessions and then wrongly convicted of raping a white woman who was jogging in New York City’s Central Park in 1989.

When the miniseries first aired, I honestly didn't want to watch it; I was scared. I didn't think my heart and mind could take watching 5 teenage black boys being failed and abused by our criminal justice system, again. After reading all the reviews saying this was a must see, I turned on Netflix and began to watch. Four episodes and a box of tissues later, I was done watching and instantly had crippling thoughts of my black sons, ages 13 and 10 going through the same nightmare as The Exonerated 5, and countless others like Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin. I quickly came to the realization that it was time for me to have yet another conversation with my sons about race and the way they will soon be perceived by others just because they're young black men. However, this time my spirit was moved to have more than a conversation, I wanted my sons to watch When They See Us.


Now, in our household, television and YouTube are highly monitored.  So much so that our TV is programmed to prompt a parental code for any show above the PG rating. You may be asking, why in the world was I moved to let them watch When They See Us? To begin, my 13 year old son is the same age as The Exonerated 5 during the time of the incident. I thought my son could see himself and relate to the characters because of their ages and life experiences. My son is just like the boys in the movie, interested in girls, wanting to hang out with friends, and innocent in his world view.  I also began to reflect on past conversations with my 13 year who has often said "mom, you're always talking about race", or "nobody cares if I'm black", or "racism doesn't exist anymore mom. That was in your time". After I saw When They See us, I truly saw my son in those 5 young men. I saw and could literally feel their pain and their family's pain. I wanted my son to learn SOME lessons below (there’s so many more lessons, but these are where I wanted to start): 

  1. Racism is real. 

  2. Education is power. 

  3. Knowing your constitutional and Miranda Rights may save your life.  

  4. Our decisions affect more than ourselves; they affect our family and communities.

With these things in mind,  I set out to use When They See Us as a learning tool and conversation starter with my teenager. We sat down and began to watch.  To my surprise, my son was captivated. I mean he didn't move, he didn't talk, he just sat on his bean bag gazing at the TV for four straight hours (it was summer time y'all). At the end of the miniseries,  he was filled with questions and I let him lead the discussion. He asked really thoughtful questions like,

why did they have to go to prison if all the evidence supported their innocence?
“Do I have rights if I were to be arrested?”, and “how come Korey and Raymond couldn’t go home.

After explaining and answering his questions, my mood instantly became sobered. I couldn’t believe that I was having a real intimate conversation with my 13 year old son about race, Miranda Rights, prison, abuse of power, and socio-economic issues. While it makes me sad to think that his innocence is coming to an end, I am happy that When They See Us sparked a real discussion with my son. The miniseries allowed me to take a step back from lecturing and be an active listener to my son’s questions and worries about his future. Raising black boys who grow into black men is an overwhelming assignment. I am constantly thinking about how people see them, will people see them, and how they will be treated. These feelings are intensifying as my 13 year old is entering puberty,  growing facial hair, gaining muscle, and longing to assert his independence. I understand that these feelings may never cease, but I realize the importance of having a continued and open dialogue with my sons. They may not fully understand, but one day they will. One thing I know for certain is Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise, and Yusef Salaam, have forever impacted my black teenage son. For that, I am grateful. 

I know these conversations can be difficult, but we must have them. Here are a few tips for engaging your teen in race and social injustice conversations: 

  1. Let your teen lead the conversation. 

  2. Listen more than you talk. 

  3. Ask your teen where they are getting their information from. 

  4. Use current event topics as an opening question to initiate conversation.

  5. Don’t let the fear of protecting your teen hinder you from having discussions on race and social injustice. 

  6. Always encourage and model empathy. 

  7. Get your teen a mentor who holds similar core values and can serve as another listening ear. 

  8. Have on-going, and age appropriate conversations. This should be a continued dialogue like other topics such as sex, sexuality, peer pressure, college, and the like.