Like most of the country, I watched the events unfold in Charlottesville this weekend with a mixture of disbelief, sadness, frustration, and yes, a certain element of detachment.
“What is wrong with people?” I wondered.
And that was about it.
It all seemed so far away from my protective little bubble. I didn’t talk about it with my kids. I didn’t let them watch TV or see the newspaper.
Does that make me a bad person? I don’t think so.
I think it makes me a White mother of White children who were born with a skin color that has given us certain privileges in a country that has discriminated against people of color.
A country that has an ugly history of enslaving people who are Black, denying people of color certain civil rights and to this day continues to struggle with institutional racism.
Am I a typical White person raising young White children? We can debate that.
But here’s what I do know: this weekend, I realized I have never talked about privilege, race or racism with my kids.
My kids are only 6 and 4.
I reasoned — as I have done before — that they are too young to see the ugliness in the world.
I figured that if I don’t talk about race — and teach them to be nice to everybody — they will be color blind.
It turns out, I’ve been doing it wrong. And so have millions of other parents.
We’re being naive
Numerous studies have indicated that few White parents talk to their children about race, racism or injustice. But Black parents do, and they do so frequently, at a very early age. (Much younger than my first grader and pre-kindergartener.)
Perhaps this is because White parents don’t HAVE to have the conversation. Perhaps it’s because we are afraid or unsure how to initiate it.
Most likely we are simply naive — many believe, as I have done since my kids were born — that by NOT discussing race, and leading by good example (aka “be nice to everyone”) we are subtly instilling in our children the values we want them to have.
Problem is, it doesn’t work that way.
We need to talk to our kids
Think about it.
We talk to our kids about the dangers of smoking, doing drugs, drinking. We teach them — through words and actions — not to hit, not to steal. We tell them over and over again what’s right and what’s wrong, to eat their vegetables, to say please and thank you, to not lie.
But on the subjects of race and racism, many White parents are simply mute. We avoid the specifics of the topic and hope the broader message somehow gets through.
But there are numerous experts who say that if we DO NOT have conversations — direct, honest, open dialogue with our children about bigotry, privilege, injustice and violence – we could be teaching them the very thing we are trying to avoid.
I would say that pretty much everyone I know would be horrified if that was their child marching in Charlottesville.
But before you say, “My kid would NEVER do that,” think about this:
What message might you be sending them by simply being uncomfortable talking about race?
If you don’t know how or where to get started (as I didn’t), check out this website: RaceConscious.org.
Its bloggers advocate the exact opposite of what I’ve been doing.
Rather than be “colormute,” they suggest that parents be very specific in talking to young children about race. The site notes:
“Each post models conversations that are transparent, concrete, and non-judgmental. Many of these conversations are geared specifically toward White people but the strategies discussed may be helpful for all. Additional issues will be addressed that often intersect with race including class, gender, sexuality, disability, religion, etc.”
Below are some of the suggestions I found most helpful, because they can be applied universally.
Talking about race does not reinforce racism.
Many White parents fear that if they talk about or point out racial differences to their children they will be perceived as being racist, or worse yet, they will teach their children to be racist.
But experts say that isn’t true.
In fact, simply acknowledging we haven’t HAD to talk about racial injustices because of our skin color can be a powerful conversation starter. And don’t wait. You can start talking about race with your children when they are toddlers.
Explain what racism means to your kids
Don’t avoid it. The site offers many direct quotes as resources to parents, including: “The N-word is a terrible, horrible name used against Black people. It is a powerful insult meant to treat Black people as less than human.”
Use specific examples to drive home the point
“We don’t make fun of other people—and when we pretend to change the way our eyes look or laugh about other friends’ eyes, we are making fun of friends who are Asian for being different.”
Acknowledge/affirm your child’s questions about race
Children are naturally curious. They learn by asking questions and making observations. If you’re child says something in public like, “There’s only one Black child in my class,” or “Why is so-and-so’s skin darker than mine?” don’t shush them or tell them not to talk about people or ask questions.
Let them know that it’s okay to make observations and that its healthy and good to talk about race.
I am not naive enough to think that there won’t be another Charlottesville, Charleston, or Ferguson.
But I do think (no matter how well-intentioned), that I’ve been wrong by not talking about race and racism with my children.
And that’s one thing I can do to foster greater acceptance and understanding in my little corner of the world.