“Mom, why are those people rioting?” my daughter asked…
We were watching another set of racially charged riots erupt in another major U.S. city.
Racism. A sticky subject. One we’ve talked about many times.
I do look for teachable moments to talk to my kids about racism.
But as a black mom, I really struggle with the best way to attack the complexity of the subject.
I want my kids to understand history without being imprisoned by it.
The death of another black man in police custody.
I’m grappling with how best to explain the racial aspect of the conflict. Racism and racial barriers have come down, but they’re no where close to being extinct.
I struggle telling my kids that skin color doesn’t matter… when it does.
I have to warn my own sons about:
- what they wear
- how they carry themselves
- how they speak
- and about looking suspicious in the predominately white suburban area where we live
It’s hard to convince my kids that skin color doesn’t matter when I’m afraid that one of my own sons could run into a series of unfortunate events because of his skin color.
Can I ever convince my son who’s been repeatedly pulled over by police who were “randomly” checking vehicles in predominately white areas that skin color doesn’t matter?
Or how can I say skin color doesn’t matter when a little white boy running errands with my husband ducks down in the front seat of the car because he doesn’t want anyone to think my husband is his dad?
Tough issues. I know I’ve got options. Everyone has options. I can take another view.
I don’t have to conclude “racism” when white people ask if all five of my children biologically belong to my husband and me (as opposed to some of them being mine and some his from previous relationships).
Or, when a white doctor in an emergency room pulls out a medicine dropper and speaks to me in a condescending tone while explicitly pointing to-the-exact-line-that indicates where to fill the dropper to dispense the proper dose of antibiotic to my kid.
And, then instructs me to show him the line as proof that I understand how much medication to dispense. (Use your imagination to picture how that conversation went down.)
I could just chalk that up to plain old ignorance. It happens.
But as a mom, I’ve got to help my kids make sense out of this craziness we live in.
I’ve got to give them insight and tools to meet ignorance with grace (instead of harsh words or a fist to the nose).
If only skin color didn’t matter.
But, it does.
I don’t know if the black man who died in police custody was killed because he was black.
I don’t know if any of the black men killed in recent months were targeted because of their skin color. It’s easy to draw that conclusion.
Because deep down, we all know that race does matter. So we need to talk about it.
Talking about it is the only way we stand a chance of knocking down racial barriers for good.
Here are 10 suggestions for talking to your kids about racism:
1. Examine your own biases.
Don’t pretend you don’t have them; we all do. I’ve been guilty of harboring racial stereotypes of certain ethnic groups and have had to apologize for my ignorance. It’s going to take much more than the election of a black president to kill the deep-seated roots of racism in this country. I’m afraid my sons will have to live their lives ever proving their intelligence, worth, and respectability because of the skin their bodies are housed in. Examine your feelings when you see a group of black youths approaching you on the sidewalk. Does your heart skip a beat or do you fight the urge to cross the street? I’m not judging. Black crime statistics would support a decision to cross the street. Yet, we can’t help our kids until we knock down our own stereotypes.
2. Actively teach your kids about diversity and race.
When left to their own devices, kids will construct rules about society. As parents, we’ve got to teach our kids about race and diversity. When you’re silent, you allow the forces your kids come into contact with to shape their beliefs. Remember the little boy I mentioned earlier? The one who was with my husband and ducked down in the front seat of the car because he didn’t want anyone to think my husband was his dad? I don’t consider his parents racist at all. And, I’m not naive. The truth is by saying nothing, parents leave kids to draw conclusions based on what they see and hear. By saying nothing, you’re leaving a void, and you might not like whose views fill it.
3. Be a role model.
Don’t shy away from making friends from other ethnic groups. Your kids will imitate your behavior of inclusiveness. I’m not suggesting going to the park and searching for a black person to befriend. Place yourself in situations where the opportunity to befriend people from other ethnic groups is available. Avoid preconceived ideas, and don’t judge a book by its cover.
4. Step out of your own comfort zone.
If you only socialize with people who are like you, how can you expect your children to act differently? This will take more effort than occasionally going out for Chinese food. Attend cultural events and allow your kids to witness your interaction with people from different ethnic groups.
5. (If you’re white) Avoid laying “white guilt” on kids.
Racism is not your fault or your kid’s so avoid giving them a healthy dose of “white guilt” in an effort to make them more compassionate. “White guilt” describes the guilt some white people feel because of historic or current harm to people of color caused by other white people. Your kids don’t own slaves; you don’t own slaves, and your parents, without a doubt, didn’t own slaves either. Why should kids feel guilty about something they had no control over and took no part in? Teach compassion and allow them to lament the tragic events of the past. Teach them “white guilt” is absurd as long as they’re fair and judge others based on their merits not their skin color.
6. (If you’re black) Avoid creating a victim mentality.
Reminding my kids that their grandfather grew up in the Jim Crow south, sitting in the back of the bus, drinking out of “colored” only water fountains, and entering business establishments through back doors is a fact, but how can I present that fact in a manner that will serve my kids well instead of encouraging them to harbor anger toward others? We’ve got to teach our kids to take personal responsibility for themselves, their families, and their communities.
7. Don’t ignore differences.
People are different, and we shouldn’t pretend we aren’t. Embrace differences, and encourage your kids to ask questions and learn more about customs they’re not familiar with.
8. Teach kids to be sensitive to others’ feelings.
Teach your kids it’s never okay to use a racial slur or laugh at one. Everyone’s got feelings, and they should try to put themselves in someone else’s shoes.
9. Address racism on their level.
Only address the issue to the level of your child’s understanding. Save complex issues until they’re old enough to understand them.
10. Teach history.
Don’t sugarcoat it, but don’t belabor it either. Be honest about our country’s history of slavery and oppression. That history extends beyond blacks and whites to Native American and Hispanic people, too. People made bad choices, and we’re still dealing with the ramifications today. While life is not perfect, a lot of people throughout history, as well as people today, have recognized those bad choices and have taken steps to better the lives of others.
We’ve all got to confront lingering racist attitudes.
And black folks have got to take personal responsibility for their lives and families.
Not a popular thing to say. I know.
But it needs to be part of the conversation about racism.
We can’t ignore the facts.
Something’s wrong when society lies dormant when blacks regularly murder blacks but erupts like a volcano when a black life is taken by a white person.
Listen, when more than 70 percent of black children are born out of wedlock who’s to blame for the disarray in black communities and the disintegration of the family structure?
And why do black lives matter except when black women abort their babies at alarming rates?
These are the facts, which would seem to make “white” racism appear to be a paradox.
Except. . . it does exist.
We can’t pretend racism doesn’t exist. That’s foolish.
But belaboring our country’s dark history instead of using it to move us forward is foolish, too.
If your white children ask, “Mom, why are those people rioting?” avoid cloaking your answer in political-correctness. Tell them real stories.
Teach them history, engage in an honest conversation, and be prepared to maintain a continued conversation throughout their lives.
If your black, Hispanic, or Asian children ask, “Mom, why are those people rioting?” teach them history and help them understand that people of all races can harbor prejudices.
Talk to your kids; don’t leave them to figure out this complex issue on their own. Tell your kids there’s never an excuse for treating someone poorly because of skin color.
Whether black or white, prepare kids to confront ignorance and give them tools to make a difference in the world. And continue looking for teachable moments to talk about racism in constructive ways.