In the days following the Charleston tragedy, I came across stories on blogs and Facebook of white parents who had told their children about the shooting (like this one and this one). And generally these stories were being held up as examples among white parents. See, they said, there are white people having tough conversations with their kids. We’re talking about race. We aren’t turning away.
I recognize the good intentions here. I do. I know that these conversations were coming from a place of wanting to help, wanting to be part of the solution, not wanting to stand by and do nothing.
Still, each time I saw one of these posts shared or praised, I felt a current of frustration run through me, because I just don’t think a conversation about Charleston is “the” conversation that white parents need to be having with their children, especially young children. And my fear, perhaps unfounded and unfair, is that we’ll delude ourselves into thinking that by telling our kids how horrible Dylan Roof’s actions were, we’ve done our part. I fear we’ll stop short of the next, more critical steps. The harder steps.
Telling children about some of the awful things that people of color experience in this country – over time and in an age-appropriate way that feels right for your family – is just one piece of a much larger puzzle.
And I didn’t tell my children about Charleston. I didn’t even consider it. Why? Because they are 5 and 8. Because I haven’t told them about 9/11 or the terror attacks in Europe last week. Because I didn’t tell them when two murderers escaped a New York prison. Because we don’t watch the 5 o’clock news in our house and I was pretty sure my boys wouldn’t hear about Charleston from their peers. (If they did, of course we would talk about it, just like I talked with my oldest about Ferguson last summer.)
We shelter them from this kind of information because we want them to feel safe and not see the world as a scary, dangerous place, even if it is sometimes. And when it comes to the numerous awful race-related tragedies that have occurred over the past year, I haven’t told them because I don’t want my children fearing for themselves or their daddy. Not yet. Maybe if my boys were white I would feel differently; I really don’t know.
But does that mean we don’t talk about race in our home? Of course not.
If white parents really want to make a difference, if white parents really want to be part of the solution to the deep racial divide in this country, we need to think about how to incorporate that into our parenting every single day. We need to think about how we can raise our children to be comfortable with diversity and to see people of color as individuals and equals. We need to think about we can help our children to recognize racism as not just individual prejudice and acts of injustice, but also a complex and entrenched system that prevents black people, as a group, from having the same opportunities and freedoms that white people enjoy simply by virtue of being white. We need to give them tools to stand up to racism in its multitude of forms.
Those are hard things to do. They require that we (as the adults) take the time to educate ourselves, that we take a hard look at our own subconscious beliefs and biases, that we speak up when injustice occurs and model the ideals we want to impart to our children.
Most of us are not raising children who will turn on a gun on a church prayer group. But we are raising children who are bombarded with messages about the relative worth and value of people of color in our society. They get this message through the lack of diversity in children’s books and on television, then the stereotyped portrayals of racial and ethnic groups in media as they get older. They get this message if they watch the news and its reflection of our skewed criminal justice system. (Fun fact: Did you know that white people are more likely to use drugs, but black people are three times more likely to get arrested for drug possession?) Our kids get this message when they see black peers disproportionately disciplined at school. When they hear racist rhymes on the playground. When a state government refuses to take down a flag that offends a large segment of the U.S. population. When they overhear an adult make a racist joke. When…
You get the picture. Systemic racism and subtle prejudices are all around them. Acts of racial violence are committed by a select few, but they are a wake up call to examine the broader system in which we all participate – and that we need to work on.
If we want to raise a generation of resisters – of people who are willing to push back and make a difference – we, as parents, need to be resisters too. True resisters.
The message so many parents are wanting to give their children is an incredibly important one: Black lives matter. People of color deserve dignity and respect. We should be equals.
But that is a message that can’t be taught in a day. We’ve only just begun.
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