I talk, write, and think a lot about structural racism in America and the wider world. I know that I’m still just an apprentice in this work, and a privileged one at that. Take as many grains of salt with that as you feel appropriate.
But I am the mother of two sons. We’re white, so that’s an undeserved and unearned shield that lets me sleep more easily than the mothers of black and brown sons. But I want my kids to grow up awake and aware of racism in their world, in age-appropriate ways, the same as I want them to grow up knowing that LGBT people deserve love and respect.
Why expose them to the brutal, hurtful truth about race when they’re as young as eight years old? Because their first friends included black and brown children, and already there were systems labeling and tracking them toward vastly different outcomes. By middle school, my son’s friends are encountering suspicion, discrimination, and exclusion from opportunities. And by high school, they’re nine times more likely to be arrested on school grounds than my white sons.
So here’s how I’ve talked about race with my kids. I hope other white mothers can find helpful thoughts here, too.
- I’ve taught my boys to vocally oppose bullying whenever they encounter it, because we believe that every person is worthy of respect and dignity.
- We try to teach them that we don’t call people by adjectives. No one is stupid or bad, but we all do stupid and bad things sometimes.
- If you have to refer to someone in a crowd, point them out with neutral identifiers, like height, clothing color or pattern, etc.
- If I hear my kid using language that would be hurtful, I pull them aside immediately and ask where they learned that word/phrase. I explain why that might be hurtful to someone, and ask them not to use it anymore.
- Sometimes, that leads to bigger discussions about why anyone would hate someone for the color of their skin, or who their parents are, or who they love. Be clear and honest. I’ve said it’s because some people think there’s only so much goodness in the world, and they’re afraid of losing their share to people who are different from them. I’ve said it’s because, while some of us find new and different things and people exciting and interesting, some people find them scary and hard to understand. But everyone can learn to be welcoming, because that’s how we all start as kids.
- Be honest about white privilege, too, starting when they ask questions about racism (this may come during or after the general existential crisis many 2nd graders experience). I’ve used metaphors like running a hurdles race, except that on both sides of the white runners’ hurdles, there are old, wooden steps built long ago by people we don’t know. Would you use them if they were right there? Would you use them if you saw that your black and brown friends not only don’t have stairs, but might even have big holes dug on both sides of the hurdle instead? How would you help your friends: stop running, move the stairs away, invite them into your lane?
- Let your kids see you doing things in your community with black and brown folks, especially against racist structures. This may mean going way outside your comfort zone, but it’s never not brought me richer, deeper ties to the place I live. Start by attending a rally or march; they ARE safe places for kids. Other invitations and opportunities will certainly follow.
- Make this learning journey intersectional. Talk about freedom and privilege, and the ways those things have been denied to women, Native Americans, immigrants, disabled people, LGBT people, the poor, the homeless, people of other religious and political beliefs, and many other “Othered” groups. They’re not all the same struggle, but they have a lot of common lessons about humanity to teach us.
- Encourage your children to read diverse books, play diverse games, watch diverse movies, and listen to diverse music (I know, I hate the way I’m using the word “diverse” here too, but it comes from the hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks). Watch, play, read, and listen with them, always. Talk about how those things make you feel, and ask your kids how it makes them feel. Look for opportunities to encounter these things in person: in museums, art galleries, concerts, and libraries.
I hope someone finds something helpful here. I’m always on social media to talk, too. Don’t let the pain of these setbacks in our movement toward equity and justice keep you from engaging your children. Let it fuel you and yours to do better, now and in the future.
Update: The Saint Paul Federation of Teachers have posted a page with extensive links to materials for teachers on how to address Ferguson and racism in the classroom. Many of these resources are also filled with info that adults need to know, too. Read and learn together.