How I'm Teaching My Child About Racism While Educating Myself
Recently, my family relocated from the Northeast to the Southeast, and we joined our neighborhood country club, located on a road ending in “plantation.” My 7-year old son asked what the word meant — he’d never heard of a plantation before. I considered my response carefully; should I tell him it was a type of farm, and leave it at that, saving myself from an uncomfortable conversation? Or should I take this opportunity to teach my child about a malicious aspect of our history many of us like to pretend didn’t exist?
I chose the latter, knowing it would lead to a much more complex discussion. I also knew, finally, that avoiding these difficult conversations only contributed to the perpetuation of racial bias, and I had a responsibility to speak up.
I took a deep breath and began, “Well, a plantation was a type of farm that grew different kinds of crops, like cotton and tobacco. The owners used slaves to work the land, and they were treated very badly, like property instead of like humans. If they didn’t meet the expectations of their owners, they’d often be whipped, or worse. If they tried to run away, they were badly beaten or even killed.”
There. I hadn’t sugar-coated or watered my answer down.
“People can’t own people,” my son replied.
George Floyd and Systemic Racism
Most of us viewed at least part of the final 9 minutes of Floyd’s life; we were struck by anger and disbelief as we watched him plead for his life. His cries of “I can’t breathe” were coldly and consistently ignored by Officer Derek Chauvin, who instead of showing an ounce of mercy, kept his knee pinned down on the man’s neck, even after Floyd became unconscious. No matter who he was, no matter what he had done, Floyd did not deserve this fate. No human deserves this fate.
The death of George Floyd was appalling, heartbreaking, and heinous, and ultimately, the straw that broke the camel’s back. Our nation, weary under the immense burden of systemic racism, had reached its boiling point; too many Black men had been killed, victims of police brutality, and the officers were rarely held accountable. The wound of oppression was angry and raw, propelling our nation into action.
Across America, a piercing call for justice was sounded. Millions joined together to take part in thousands of protests that erupted across the nation, and a distinct line was drawn; on one side were the proponents of hate, bias and racism, and on the other were the justice seekers who demanded an end to racially driven violence. While many of the protests were peaceful, some catapulted into destruction and looting, triggered by heightened anger over a longstanding injustice. In the words of an old African proverb: “The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth.” I recognized these racially charged events and the building momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement to be an important teaching opportunity. I promised myself I would begin, carefully, to approach the topic of racism with my first grader.
Ignoring Racial Bias Won’t Make It Go Away
Until recently, I was of the mindset “I don’t see color, everyone is equal in my eyes.” When it came to racism, I didn’t think talking to my son about it was necessary; I believed discussing racism would only serve to give it more life. My family lived in a town with a great deal of diversity, where people were progressive and liberal, and I believed, not racists. Our White neighbors’ lawns boasted Black Lives Matter signs, and overwhelmingly, we believed in equality, or so we told ourselves. My child’s group of friends was diverse, as was my own, and I thought that by not acknowledging our differences, I was fighting back against racial bias. I was certainly not part of the problem.
Then I came across an interesting book, whose title intrigued me: “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism” by Robin DiAngelo. I decided to read it, and by doing so, I realized the extent of my naïveté. This book was a gift that forced me to take a good look at myself in the mirror, to challenge my belief system, and when I did, I could see I had it all wrong.
Being “colorblind” was not a solution to racism, as I had once believed. In “White Fragility,” DiAngelo writes that many of us, as white people who consider ourselves progressive and anti-racist, are operating under the belief system that just seeing color makes us racist. But there’s a big problem with this mentality, namely that if we don’t see color, how can we see racism? Color blindness does not end racism, and when a white person says “I don’t see you as Black,” we are denying the reality of POC and projecting our own reality onto them. Ultimately, this contradicts the reality of racism and holds it in place.
“We deny our own racism, even to ourselves. We can’t challenge our racial filters if we can’t acknowledge the biases we hold and how we might be expressing them,” DiAngelo says, stressing that society sends constant messages that to be white is to be better than being a person of color, and we are far from being post-racial. I felt as if a perpetual blindfold had been yanked away from my eyes.
Talking to My Child About Racism
I realized that it wasn’t enough to be silently antiracist — I had to speak out about and against racism, and that started in my own home, with my own son. But how? I was clueless about where to start. After all, I still had work to do myself, and it would be an outright lie to say I was anything but uneasy about broaching this subject. My son, at 7, is a very sensitive soul; he’s intuitive and perceptive, and cares deeply about people in general. Up until this moment I’d tried my utmost to protect his delicate heart from the injustices of the world, but I could now see continuing to do so would be doing him a disservice.
While I wanted to start a discussion about racism with honesty, I didn’t want to bombard my child with facts that would shake him to the core and leave him questioning everything he believed about the world. Another concern was that up until now, he’d respected the police; I wanted to make sure he knew that just because some policemen were bad, not all were.
While showing video footage of George Floyd’s death to my son was definitely not appropriate, I decided to talk to him openly about what happened, about the policeman who killed Floyd without provocation, and how, sadly, this was not the first time such a thing had happened. I talked about how POC have been judged, inhibited and discriminated against throughout history, and while many people act like racism is no longer a problem, it still very much is.
I emphasized to my son that there is nothing different between White people and people of color, just the pigmentation of our skin. We are the same, but people of color are not treated the same, they don’t have the same opportunities we do just because we are White. People of color are not treated fairly, and this is not, and never has been, OK.
“We can be a part of the change,” I told him. “Will you help me?” Acknowledging that racial biases exist and that we, as White people, benefit from them, is the first step in challenging the system. When it comes to our kids, that means modeling kindness and acceptance towards all racial and cultural groups, but also actively fighting racial inequality. I’m still learning, and I have a lot of work to do, but I’m willing and ready to grow. I will be an advocate for change rather than a passive observer. Prejudice is not innate, it is learned, and it is my duty as a parent to teach my son to speak up in defense of others for a more just world. This is not a political issue, it’s a human issue, and it starts right here, with us.
Getty image by Halfpoint.