If we want a racially just society, and I sure hope we all do, we need to talk to our children and teens about racism and antiracism in an open and honest way. In the second of my two-part series on this subject, I suggest some specifics of what you can do at home to talk to your children about this complicated topic.
Get educated. There is an abundance of resources being shared right now about racism and antiracism in an age-appropriate way. It is important to know American history and how this country was founded on brutality, injustice, superiority and treating some people as subhuman. It is important to understand the overt, subtle and systematic (meaning part of the system) ways racism is perpetuated. You can find an educational resource list I am compiling on my website or Facebook page.
Ibram X. Kendi, founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, says, “To grow up in America is to grow up with racist ideas being constantly rained on your head, and you don’t have an umbrella, and you don’t even know you’re getting wet.”
He goes on to say that racism and its ideas and practices are prevalent, systematic and insidious. Racism is steeped in denying that one’s ideas and oneself is racist. In order to practice antiracism, we need to be honest, confess and be willing to be vulnerable enough to identify the times in which we are being racist or supporting racist ideas or policies.
Talk about what it means to be an ally. Listen to what people of color are saying. Hear their experiences. Don’t become defensive. Take responsibility.
Be willing to step in and support those with marginalized identities. When you hear jokes, blanket statements, racial slurs, hateful language or assumptions about a person of color, an English language learner, a gay or transgendered person, or someone who is different from you and discriminated against for any reason, find the courage and integrity to use your voice. Teach your children to do the same by modeling for them what this looks like. It starts on the playground, teaching our children to stand up for others who don’t feel powerful enough to stand up for themselves.
Consider the simple act of how you parent. Before encouraging our children to be advocates out in the world, we need to instill in them the courage to advocate for themselves in our homes. This means I need to continue to parent in a democratic way where I listen to and value my children’s opinions and differences even if I don’t always agree with or give into them. In listening to, rather than shutting down their voices, I teach them that all voices are valuable.
As much as possible, be kind. Be kind to your children, your partner, the person who cut you off in traffic, the politician who has a different opinion than you. Show compassion. You don’t have to agree with those who hold different opinions, but it is important to treat all with respect.
The point is that we are our children’s biggest teachers, and whether we are interacting with a person whose skin color is different, has different beliefs or simply expresses distaste for something you adore, how we treat that individual becomes our children’s model. It may seem like an oversimplification of this intricate, complicated and deeply rooted system of racial inequalities and beliefs, but the blueprint for how we relate to others starts in the home.
Intentionally talk about race. Being kind and raising children who are kind isn’t enough. We need to intentionally talk to our children about race, racism and antiracist practices and ideas. Kendi says that people have to be taught to be antiracist just as they are indirectly taught through what they see, hear and experience to be racist. And as Brene Brown says in her podcast with Kendi, raising nice and kind kids does not translate into raising antiracist kids. It only translates into it being “scary and not OK to talk about race.”
Start these conversations early. Children as young as 3 years old are aware of racial differences.
Be open and curious with your kids. We and our children will get it wrong. Kids will use slurs to joke around with each other or to intentionally put someone down. Rather than jumping down their throats for this, something that will only push them away, get curious. Ask why they think that joke was funny, how others might perceive those words or what one gains from putting someone down in that way.
Talk about the elephant in the room. Teton County is one of the wealthiest counties in the nation. We live in an incredibly privileged community. We are also home to a robust Latino population that makes up 15% of the total population and contributes greatly to the functioning of our community and our economy. Our community as a whole needs to think about racism as it applies to this population. What are your implicit biases about the people of color in your community?
Representation and exposure matter. Expose your children to a variety of toys, books, movies and other media that represent a diverse array of cultures, races, religions, genders, sexual orientations, and family composition. Find books that not only tell stories of the oppression of people of color and the history of racism in our nation but also celebrate the heroes and heroines and depict people of color as the center of everyday events. Buy dolls and action figures with different skin colors.
Bringing up these topics, especially if this is something new, may not be easy at first. Being vulnerable and not shying away from difficult subjects teaches your children to do the same with you and the world at large.