The other evening I asked my husband, “Do you think we should tell Zip about racism now?”
Over the past five years, we’ve talked openly about race and skin color and cultural differences. We’ve presented these as things to celebrate and appreciate. We’ve done a great job (I think) of helping Zip develop a strong sense of self and pride in himself and our family.
We’ve talked a little bit about how black people used to be treated differently and how unfair it was that people were treated differently because of skin color. But we hadn’t told him that it still happens. We hadn’t yet warned him that he may be judged because he is black or he might find himself teased or criticized or questioned about his family. I keep hoping it won’t happen for another few years. Or ever. I find myself wanting to protect him from the harsh reality of modern-day racism for as long as I can.
But is that realistic? So far, so good. But as he goes off to kindergarten his social world will expand to kids from families who don’t know us and to playground interactions that aren’t so closely supervised as preschool socializing. What will he hear? I know that no one is going to drop the n-word on the first day of school and I really hope that in kindergarten race will be a non-issue! But it could come up. Eventually, it will. And it has dawned on me that Zip could experience racism at school or with peers before he ever hears about it at home, in the safety of our presence, where he can ask questions and we can make sure he knows that racism is about others’ lack of understanding, not about his worth as a person.
But how to tell him? When to tell him? What to tell him? I have no road map for this conversation. My husband wasn’t really sure how to handle it either. It seems like a turning-point kind of talk, one to be handled thoughtfully and carefully. I didn’t want to do or say the wrong thing.
Then, in the midst of contemplating if and how to talk to Zip, I came across a post on Rage Against The Minivan about bullying. Kristen wrote:
Talk about fighting prejudice. My kids and I talk frequently about the concept of “prejudice”. We use this as a blanket term for all of the “isms”: racism, sexism, etc. They understand that judging, excluding, or mocking someone because they are different is a big offense. While we may miss discussing all forms of prejudice, I believe that pointing it out and holding them accountable will help them to generalize when they interact with the world.
It dawned on me that 1) a conversation with Zip wasn’t going to be a one-time thing and we didn’t need to cover everything in one conversation and 2) we could talk about racism in the broader context of people treating others in hurtful ways because physical appearance or other differences. I felt comforted by this. It made the idea of telling him about racism feel less threatening. I was worried that Zip would walk away from any discussion feeling like there was something bad about being black, but I hoped that talking about prejudice more broadly would make that less likely.
So we talked. As I write this, I’m feeling rather protective of our conversation and of him. Something feels sacred about it. So I’m not going to share the whole of our talk here – specifically, not his part in the conversation – but here is the gist of how things went.
At bedtime, I pulled out the book “Ron’s Big Mission,” which takes place in the Civil Rights Era and which we’ve read before, with the idea of using it as a springboard for our conversation. I told him a little bit about Martin Luther King, Jr., and how he advocated for people to be treated equally, and how both black and white people came together to fight for that.
We talked about how prejudice is thinking someone isn’t as good because they are different in some way or because of how they look. Together, we came up with examples from books and our real lives, mostly related to gender but also related to physical disabilities. We talked about what to do if a peer is mean to someone or leaves them out because of a difference.
And then I told him someone might say something mean to him someday, about being mixed or about what color Momma and Daddy are, and we talked about how he feels about that and how he could respond. I told him people have said mean things to his Daddy about having brown skin, and that’s something he can ask Daddy more about if he is curious. We thought of all the other kids we know that are mixed just like him – a list of friends from school – and I told him for the millionth time how awesome and wonderful he is, how special and unique and perfect.
We talked for a long time, way past lights out, and I felt really good about it. It felt hopeful and warm and positive. I think we did okay.
Even though we’ve figured it out for now, I would love to hear your thoughts on this issue. Will you try to tell your child about racism before it happens? If so, how did you or will you talk to your child about racism?