Talking With the Children About Racism

“Racism doesn’t require the presence of malice, only the presence of bias and ignorance, willful or otherwise.” ~Charles M. Blow, The Perfect Victim Pitfall

It’s well past time to discuss the issues of race and racism with our children. Especially for those of us who are white and have largely had the privilege of being able to ignore issues like this for a very long time — possibly even our entire lives. There’s solid research available now about how all of us – even babies – have intrinsic biases against people who are a different race than we are. The recent events in Ferguson, MO; Columbia, SC; Staten Island, NY; Phoenix, AZ; and Cleveland, OH; along with the continued failure of there to be any sort of consequences at all for the white police officers involved in any of these cases are scathing indictments of the way our society, particularly white society, has chosen to handle race by largely ignoring it.

I’ve talked openly with my children about skin color for around a year now. At first it was awkward, even painful, and I had no idea how to even go about doing it, but it has gradually gotten easier the more we’ve talked about it. We were almost done reading our Addy Story Collection book when I asked a good friend of mine, who’s from a very colorful family, to help. She suggested that we use foods to describe skin colors to help even my youngest children better understand skin colors and their differences. I love that idea because there’s not a dichotomy, there’s no opposite to “coffee color,” “almond color,” “sugar cookie color,” “molasses cookie color,” or “cream of wheat color” like there is with black and white.

With that idea to help make the concept of different skin colors more accessible, even to my preschooler, we began to talk more in depth about the history of racism and slavery in America. We had started reading Addy together at the beginning of this year and through our many conversations they have learned that there is still a dichotomy and prejudice in a lot of people’s minds and that there has been a great deal of prejudice in our country’s past as well as our present. Along with that they also know that it’s not as simple as “white” and “black.” Really, to my children, people are food-colored, multi-colored, there are SO many more colors than just two or three or four, and everyone’s skin colors don’t make any difference in anyone’s worth or in anything else that’s inherent. Even within our own family, all white, there are varying shades – some darker than others.

Among all of that, I have wanted to make sure that they understand that skin color *does* make a difference in how people experience life. Someone’s skin color makes a difference in how they are treated and how they may have to react to certain situations in order to stay safe. This year, unfortunately, there has been no shortage of examples about how certain people groups are treated differently in our country than we are. 

We talked at some length a few months ago about several of the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown photos on Twitter and about how the media often chooses to portray people as heroes or villains. When I talked to the two oldest about the events in Ferguson back in August, it was as though lightbulbs went off in their heads, “You mean that some people still treat people differently because of their color?” 

To which I had to reply that, yes. Yes they still do. Why? Because it’s apparently inborn in all of us, but that doesn’t make it right or okay or excuse those biases. The knowledge that biases are present  in everyone’s thinking is vital, in my opinion, because only then can we learn to recognize our biases and to not be bound to the concept of “color-blindness,” which is not only impossible to achieve in the light of those studies, but that mindset also serves to ignore the very real experiences that black people in our society experience in their everyday lives – regardless of their socioeconomic status.

*Side note: For more information about the biases and discrimination black people experience, please see the Twitter hashtag #LivingWhileBlack and really try to listen and hear and understand the experiences posted there. You can also contrast those stories with the stories at #CrimingWhileWhite, if you really want to see a clear dichotomy.

But how did we begin these conversations with the children? How do you even talk to children about these kinds of horrifying current events? I was asked on Facebook a few days ago whether these discussions had come up naturally or whether we had needed to be more purposeful about it and honestly, it was a little of both.

My children had begun verbalizing the fact that they were noticing people’s skin color at some point towards the end of last year. So I had been agonizing about how to go about talking about these issues for a while before we began to read Addy out loud in January of this year. I believe that Addy was a great introduction because it brought up extremely serious issues and opened the door to further discussions about them, but the issues were brought up in what I think was an age-appropriate way. Ever since reading Addy, which was a purposeful – albeit an ultimately child-led – decision by simply having it around and presenting it as an option for a read-aloud, race issues have come up naturally as my children have seen things firsthand and as they have brought up questions of their own. We have also continued our discussions with the oldest two, in particular, about current events and the very real discrimination and racism that people who don’t look like we do still face today.

Ultimately, what these current events and recent scientific studies have taught me personally is that everyone has biases – that’s just human nature – the important thing, in my opinion, is that we recognize that fact – stop denying that these biases exist – and try not to act on our biases, especially where they’re irrational and built on centuries of oppression/privilege and/or where they’re constructed by the media to perpetuate the status quo. But in order to begin recognizing these biases and in order for our children to recognize these biases, we have to talk about it. We have to talk to our children and start conversations within our communities about race and racism and our country’s abysmal history with regards to race. This is not a one-time conversation any more than the “sex talk” should be a one-time conversation. Noticing and checking our biases has to be an ongoing and conscious effort lest we find ourselves slipping into those inborn biases and getting comfortable with our unearned privileges yet again.

Links for parents:  You can’t effectively teach what you aren’t familiar with yourself. Are you poor and not sure how you’re privileged? Check this out: Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person Do you prefer comics to articles? White Privilege, Explained in One Simple Comic Worried about what it might mean about you to admit that you’re privileged? My White Privilege Would you like to see a list outlining many of the invisible ways white people are privileged in American society? White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack Do you think that well-to-do black families are immune from the effects of white privilege/black oppression? I taught my black kids that their elite upbringing would protect them from discrimination. I was wrong. Would you like to read about someone else’s journey towards realizing their white privilege? How I Discovered I am White The words we use to describe people and their actions really do matter: Maybe I’m a Racist and I Didn’t Even Know It Do you still think you and others can be “color-blind” successfully? Babies aren’t even “color-blind” according to several studies. Three-month-olds, but not newborns, prefer own-race faces.  Nine-Month Olds Show Racial Bias When Looking at Faces Babies Show a Bias Towards Own Race Do you take exception to the way black people expressed their feelings in the wake of the failure to indict Darren Wilson? On Ferguson Protests, the Destruction of Things, and What Violence Really Is (and Isn’t) For a long, but excellent, read about why we really should consider Reparations to the black community for how they continue to be treated, even today, please check this out: The Case For Reparations

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