“Mommy, what does n*&%$r mean?,” Mateo asked me a few years ago. I immediately gasped in horror and chastised him for using the ugliest word in the English language. Mateo was understandably taken aback. It turns out he was just repeating the name he heard racist baseball fans calling Jackie Robinson in the movie 42. The terrified look on my son’s face and his innocent repetition of something so awful sparked our first of many conversations about race.
In the years since, our family has not only talked about race and racism, we have experienced it firsthand. When I was pregnant with Mateo, my father begged me to call him Matthew instead because, “Mateo is too Mexican and you know how people feel about Mexicans.” I was aghast at this xenophobic statement, but have seen clearly how people feel about Mexicans over the last decade. The election of Donald Trump laid bare the anti-immigrant and xenophobic sentiments of many of our friends and neighbors.
Mateo and Lucia have always been taught to have pride in their Hispanic culture and roots. My family’s European traditions have been wiped away by forces of assimilation and the Betty Crockerized cooking trends of the 1950s. I’m also guessing that WWII played a role in my ancestor’s distancing from their German roots. Growing up, I always wished I had experienced cultural traditions and foods that tied me to the European immigrants who comprised my history, so I’ve encouraged my children to embrace the culture we do know.
This all became much more controversial with Donald Trump’s vitriolic and xenophobic politics. All of a sudden, the language and anger of white supremacy became mainstream politics. Children were chanting “Build the Wall” at their classmates, “White Power” at pool parties, and calling my son a “Mexican Disease.” These anti-Hispanic sentiments are not new, but the unapologetic pronouncement of them in America 2020 is nonetheless jarring.
Add to this the racial unrest and tensions that have been building for decades, and exploded over the past few months of protests. Black Americans experience many of the worst effects of this country’s racial inequities. America’s original sins of slavery and genocide have never been fully confronted and while we have seen progress and an increased move toward diversity and inclusion, many of us have been lulled into a false sense of security and colorblind delusion. As the protests, angst, and unrest over the last few months have shown us, we cannot solve our problems by ignoring them. For parents, this starts with talking to our children.
White parents have the privilege of not having to talk to their children about race. Oh we might make the occasional, “Everyone’s the same” comment, but that’s about the extent of it. Many of us might not deem it necessary or might find it uncomfortable, so we just don’t add that talk as one of the many must-haves with our children.
On the other hand, parents of color cannot avoid these conversations. They are a fact of life, just as inevitable as the birds and the bees. “The Talk” Black parents must have with their very young children is both heartbreaking as it is pragmatic. It is also a talk most white parents have the luxury of ignorance to ignore.
Many families are like mine: racially and/or ethnically blended. White mothers and fathers like myself may not feel equipped with the knowledge and empathy it takes to have discussions about race with our children. I have relied on my husband’s insights and, because my coping mechanism is research, I’ve found it helpful to dive into the literature concerning racism as much as the research I conduct on nutrition, development, and education for my children.
While the composition of our families are unique, one constant remains: We ALL have the responsibility to talk to our children about racism. For too long, white parents have considered racism to not be their problem and have been placing the burden squarely on the shoulders of people of color. If we truly want an equitable world where all of our children thrive, white parents must take it upon themselves to first educate themselves and then add one more difficult series of conversations to their parenting Must Haves.
In order to help parents navigate the treacherous terrain of race and racism, we’ve put together a quick tutorial with important guidelines and helpful resources.
Educate Yourself First
As with any topic, it’s helpful to feel confident in the material before trying to teach or talk about it with someone else. However, don’t let not being an expert on the topic keep you from broaching it with your children. Start by learning some basics and make a pledge to continue learning as you go. Understand that you will make mistakes and be wrong. Know that there are diverse perspectives and constantly changing norms. Just keep learning and growing, no matter how uncomfortable it is!
Know What NOT to Say
When starting the conversation about race with your children, there is one phrase that you should not use, “We don’t see color.” First of all, this is completely inaccurate. Unless you are physically colorblind, you absolutely DO see color. While this phrase is usually well-intentioned, it does far more damage than we can imagine. Colors are beautiful! The coloring of our hair, eyes, and skin make us unique and also connect us with our ancestors. We don’t ignore the color of others’ hair and eyes, so why on earth would we pretend to ignore the color of people’s skin?
“I don’t see color.” Is often a copout. It’s an excuse for white people to ignore the systematic racism in our country. If we deny a person’s racial identity, we also deny the inequities that are imposed upon them because of race.
So instead, we need to have conversations with our children and acknowledge and embrace differences. We also need to teach our children first not to be racist, but more importantly, how to be anti-racist.
When and Where to Start?
Most experts say to start early. In fact, studies show that children start noticing differences as early as three months old! Obviously, our discussions and materials need to be age appropriate, but no matter what age our children are, there are two constants, 1)Teaching both explicitly and implicitly and 2) Continuous conversation and education
When we talk about racism and bias, we can teach both explicitly and implicitly. We can explicitly choose materials that discuss racism, but we can also adjust our children’s implicit biases by diversifying their lives and texts we consume.
Education and Conversation Starters
I’m an educator, so of course I’m going to start with books. Reading is a way that we can connect with our children, but also teach them valuable lessons through both fiction and nonfiction materials. Reading together should never feel like a lecture, but instead like an opportunity to explore ideas and characters. It’s one thing to tell your child that racism is wrong, but a whole other level to help them understand why it is wrong and how it affects other human beings. Below are some links to age-based reading materials you can look into for your children.
While books are important, other media can also help our children to make connections, understand complex topics, and develop empathy and understanding. Below are some movies, videos, and shows that can help.
Do What I Do, Not Just What I Say
Experience is the mother of all teachers. Our children learn through watching us and experiencing the world. We can take opportunities in our lives to teach our children through our actions and words. As John Lewis said, “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up. You have to say something; you have to do something.
We can also use our children’s experiences as a springboard for meaningful and thoughtful conversations. We must lead by example and that means being actively anti-racist and doing our best to immerse our children in meaningful experiences and creating a culturally diverse social network.
When we blend explicit and implicit materials and experiences concerning race, we allow our children to develop a nuanced and meaningful understanding of racism. They have the knowledge and tools to not only oppose racism, but to also take the next step: being anti-racist.
To be continued…
Teaching Your Child to be Anti-Racist