There were 24 participants (aged 21 to 45 years, median 32 years), none of whom refused to participate or dropped out of the study. Over half of the participants (n = 14; 58%) indicated pregnancy for the first time. Ten participants (42%) received public assistance benefits as their primary source of income and fourteen participants (58%) were supported by employment-related income generated by themselves, their partner, or families. In response to questions about structural barriers, stress and discrimination, 19 participants (79%) spontaneously mentioned the police without being directly solicited. Participants described interactions between Black people and police on a personal, familial, community, and societal level, and feelings and thoughts that shaped their beliefs regarding whether they and their children would be protected by police or whether they or their children would experience police brutality in the future. From these narratives, we identified four overarching themes: (1) experiences that lead to police distrust – “If this is the way that mommy’s treated [by police]”; (2) anticipating police brutality – “I’m always expecting that phone call”; (3) stress and fear during pregnancy – “It’s a boy, [I feel] absolutely petrified”; and (4) ‘the talk’ about avoiding police brutality – “How do you get prepared?”
Experiences that lead to police distrust – “If this is the way that mommy’s treated [by police]”
Participants, regardless of socioeconomic status, shared how both personal experiences and stories of friends and family shaped their relationship with police. Experiences included stories from their youth, stories about police interactions when living in predominantly white spaces, and stories, often from male family members, of mistreatment, racial profiling, and overt racism by police. Though no interaction singularly formed a narrative, personal experiences were placed within a larger historical and social context of police brutality within Black communities.
Participants reported positive and negative experiences with police that shaped their relationship with law enforcement. A few participants described only friendly and respectful interactions with police. However, many participants discussed having both positive and negative interactions with police. For example, participants discussed interactions with police that made them feel safer because of quick police response or being comforted by the presence of a police station near their house, yet they also described difficult interactions with police which negatively influenced their trust of police. One participant recalled a story from several years ago when police, thinking she fit the description of a suspect they were looking for, harassed her and her friends. She did not think this interaction was due to racism and described her current relationship with police as friendly. But when asked about her comfort level calling police for help, she replied: “Whatever needs, we need help with or something like that, we try to take care of it on our own before calling police, unless it’s an emergency.” (21-year-old, first-time pregnant woman). Although the original incident with police was viewed in hindsight as benign, it influenced her ability to trust police.
Another participant discussed how recent interactions with police had created a lack of trust. Upon moving to an overwhelming white neighborhood, one participant revealed that police had gone through her trash for the first year and a half that she lived there. She reported feeling accepted by police at this point, but then went on to talk about yet another negative interaction with police, which she described as being racist. When she called police to her house to deal with her alcoholic husband, they did not deal with her drunk husband who was white. Instead, they inquired as to whether her name was on the house and then asked her to leave the house with her infant and while pregnant.
Other participants who had experienced positive interactions with police shared stories of mistreatment experienced by predominantly male friends and family at the hands of police. Stories included men who were trailed by police for their mere presence in white neighborhoods, and, “Getting pulled over, being asked, you know, show your I.D.; ‘Why are you here?’ type of questions.” (34-year-old, pregnant mother of one). Another participant shared a story about a friend in New York who had been murdered by police at his home during an exacerbated episode of mental illness. Taken as a whole, personal experiences and shared stories shaped participants’ perception and trust regarding police.
Anticipating police brutality – “I’m always expecting that phone call”
Personal and shared stories of both positive and negative experiences with police, provided a basis from which participants conceptualized interactions with police. This conceptualization contributed to participants anticipating future interactions, both for themselves and notably, for their children. Even for participants who reported positive personal interactions with police, fear of police brutality toward their children was present.
One participant shared she had always been nervous about the potential for her three younger brothers to fall victim to police brutality, saying: “But in the back of my mind it’s like I’m always expecting that phone call.” (31-year-old, first-time pregnant woman). Now pregnant with her first child, she sees this anticipation transferring to her child. She expressed concern about how pervasive and random violence seems to be currently, especially from police, saying: “It seems like you can’t really go anywhere without something happening.” This concern regarding police brutality in the community was vocalized by many participants, even among those who reported little problem with police brutality or safety in their own lives, and those who had previous positive interactions with police.
The participant who shared stories about police looking through her trash and mistreating her during a domestic disturbance call was attune to how this reality would unfold for her children. In anticipation of the potential for police brutality, she was planning to move her and her children, who are biracial, to another neighborhood, saying: “If my son who’s ever in trouble for any reason or just in the wrong place at the wrong time, I don’t feel that he has that protection in our neighborhood.” (36-year-old, pregnant mother of one). For many participants, realities of life as a Black person, and especially considering the future for their Black son, necessitated anticipatory planning during pregnancy.
Stress and fear during pregnancy– “It’s a boy, [I feel] absolutely petrified”
Several participants described the anticipation they felt regarding police brutality against their children as a source of stress during pregnancy. Some participants who knew they were having a son, reported having a heightened sense of fear about raising their son and how their son would be treated by police. Again, both participants who had and had not experienced discrimination or profiling by police shared a common concern about how police might treat their male children and already felt the weight of this anticipatory police brutality during their pregnancies.
One participant described several friendly interactions with police throughout her life. But when asked about her biggest concerns raising a child, she questioned: “What would their experience be with the police?” (28-year-old, first-time pregnant woman). Discrimination and the possibility for brutality from police, were constantly on her mind during pregnancy.
Another participant discussed how she considered the potential for ethnoracial marginalization to impact her son’s life, where his everyday experiences could be typified to signal a racial character to his everyday practices and experiences that categorizes, stratifies, and marginalizes him . “A lot of [Black men] are being killed by policemen. A lot of them are being targeted, you know just because of the color of their skin and you know a lot of them are going to jail because of things they may have not even done you know. So, I don’t know, I just, I guess, I’ll just protect him as much as I can.” (21-year-old, first-time pregnant woman). This participant, like many others, felt the disconnect between her ability to prepare and protect her child at home and the reality of racism and police brutality in the larger world. Limits of parental protection in a racist world were a source of stress, fear, and anxiety during pregnancy. Similarly, another participant said: “How do you protect them or how do you be OK sending them out in the world where they should be safe. And that may or may not be the reality.” (31-year-old, first-time pregnant woman).
For others, it was the seeming randomness of police brutality against Black people that was stressful. One participant was concerned not about her community specifically, but about the fear and stress of raising a biracial son, who is going to have darker skin, in society at large. When reflecting on national news, she said: “That kind of makes you stop and think of, you know, how do you prepare your child to go out in the world at this point in time, when they may not be doing anything wrong? They might just be the wrong place at the wrong time or make a wrong move. And you know there’s a shooting or whatever the case may be. So, things like that I think you know definitely make you a little bit scared.” (34-year-old, pregnant mother of one). Again, the gap between a parent’s protection and the possibility of police brutality was a source of stress during pregnancy.
‘The talk’ about avoiding police brutality – “How do you get prepared?”
Participants had already begun thinking about and planning for having ‘the talk’ about police brutality and racism with their children, even when their children were in utero. The necessity of having this conversation with their children was almost universal. Many struggled with worries about when to have it, how much information to divulge, and who to involve.
One participant, who already had an 8-year-old son, was wrestling with these decisions in a much more urgent manner. Although she did not feel there was an issue with violence in her neighborhood specifically, she expressed a concerned about the community at large and the need to prepare her child: “It’s a discussion that needs to be had. I personally don’t know what I’m gonna say yet, I don’t even know when I should have that conversation because he’s so young or the baby’s so … So, yeah, I don’t know, that’s tough.” (31-year-old, pregnant mother of one).
When asked about what she worries about as a Black mother of a Black child, one participant said her child’s safety was something she was already very worried about. ‘The talk’ was one vehicle to provide some source of protection. As a first-time pregnant participant said: “I think about especially lately in the news with police brutality as well, that’s something that I have to think about when that time comes to have that conversation with him. Yeah, I do think about that, his safety.” (25-year-old, first-time pregnant woman).
Another participant struggled with how to approach the topic. She herself discussed not having received ‘the talk’ growing up because it wasn’t a conversation that needed to be had in her community. To her, it was critical to strike the right note: “I want to have the right balance. Like I don’t know what it is, but I don’t want to freak my child out completely. But it’s like they need to know right.” (31-year-old, first-time pregnant woman). Figuring out how to balance the weight of talking to children about racism and police brutality is an immense burden for anyone, especially during pregnancy.