In the last few weeks, there has been so much discussion about the importance about speaking to our children about racism that I didn’t think there was much to add. WRONG! Within this past week, I have had at least 2 conversations in which educated, interactive parents have said that their child was too young or this is too much to discuss. I will say it again, WRONG!
Like with everything, whether we decide to talk about racism or not, it exists and our children are exposed to it, with most already confronted with it. It is always beneficial to be proactive and address those uncomfortable issues before we are forced to. But when we examine this topic, I feel like all of us on the side of humanity wait for something to happen to address it, while racists waste no time in teaching their children from a young age to be racist. Well, whether racism was on your radar or not, it is at your front door and demands that you answer.
We know that even as young as one, children recognize the differences in race. The difference for Black children is that it plays a part in everything that we do, including breathing. As parents, it is our responsibility to talk about it early to ensure we are providing children with accurate information. In my own experience as a young Black girl growing up in a neighborhood changing in race and color, it would have been helpful for my parents to help me to make sense of the stares, comments, taunts, etc.
I can remember as a kindergartener attending a mixed school and a white boy saying I was darker because people who come from Black countries were dirtier. I must have carried that for at least two more years of my life as fact and now as an adult carry it as anger. I can remember imagining a country of Black people covered in filth, eating garbage, and even engaging in dirty acts. I was left to figure out race and who I was based on lies and my imagination. While I know it is not true today, those images are still very clear in my mind and helped shape my sense-of-self and self-esteem, or lack of.
What a blessing it would have been for responsible adults, my parents, to share their experiences of a colorful, beautiful country and a people with the resilience and strength to free themselves because they knew their worth. Or what if they had shared that the color of my skin was a reflection of God’s perfection in beauty and in science. Beauty as my daughter says, “The sun glows on OUR skin.” In science, that our skin color was a result of how we were all created with what we need, in our case, melanin to protect us from the sun. What a different and positive perspective I would have had about myself and my people. While therapeutic to share that anecdote, the point is that we cannot leave children to their own fantasies about those things that are at core of their identity or humanity.
With any discussion, it is always important to ask children what they know and how they are feeling, without saturating them with our own perspectives, experiences and sometimes pain. To really understand where children are ask. Their responses are often surprising and telling. Once you have really listened to what they know, their experiences, their fears, their questions and sometimes their goals, it is important to support them where they are at.
Some, if not all, of our children need education and clarification. Not the Ruby Bridges, Rosa Parks, MLK education that this country is comfortable with but the fact-based history that tells of great people who were scientists, mathematicians, engineers, etc.; the rich history of Black people before the mass kidnapping. The history of forced slavery, murders, torture and rape. The history of strength and power in the civil rights movement. The history of continued systematic oppression and brutality. And history as we are making it in this moment. This does not require us to be graphic but it does require us to tell the truth about the past and the present.
Some of our children will be sad or confused, questioning their own experiences and friendships. Like many of us adults, they will need encouragement and concrete of examples of how love prevails. Some may even reassurance that they are okay and we are their protectors. Others will need rebuilding of their self-esteems from racism that they have already faced. This is when we can share our own experiences of anger, hurt, sadness, grief and hopefully HOPE and empowerment. Children need to know they can do something to find their sense of pride as well as to champion kindness, compassion, and justice in their world. But they need us to guide them. That cannot happen without honest, vulnerable and sometimes painful conversations.
Note: While this post is very much directed to my fellow Black parents, I am talking to our white and non-Black POC allies, many who are my close friends. You too need to have these conversations. It is not enough to be my friend, support me and tell me that Black Lives Matter. If you want to stand with us, you are telling you children the truth about some of the racist households you grew up in or some of the injustices you saw with your own eyes. You are not talking about white privilege as a platform for performative activism but are modeling how to use your privilege in those situations in which someone is demeaned, abused or oppressed. You are not only demonstrating at the public rallies but you are challenging your white friends who make those N-word jokes at the barbeque or the common subtle acts of racism (microaggressions). In the George Floyd’s call for “Momma”, he was calling all of us to answer accordingly.
Photo: Josh Edelson / AFP/Getty Images)