To my fellow white parents: how to talk about racism with our kids

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In 2012 when Trayvon Martin was killed, I was sure Zimmerman would be convicted. I realize now how naive that was. His murder was a catalyst for my anti-racist journey, and if you, white friend, are reading this, then you’ve likely experienced a catalyst too. In 2012, my oldest child was only one, and I had no clue what we would eventually discover when he started school.

We’re a white family living in the suburbs with a lot of other white families. When we moved here because of a job, I didn’t know why that was the case. I taught karate at after school middle school programs for a while until I was too pregnant to teach, and didn’t understand why I’d been warned off one school as containing the children who were “difficult.” That school had a much higher percentage of black students for our county than the other two I worked with. I still needed to learn that “good schools” was code for “white schools” and that discrimination in the system becomes clear even amongst the peers of my son as he started kindergarten at the local elementary school. By then I’d learned to see many of the little and not so little things in the system that weight society against a black child from the moment they make their debut in the world.

Different encounters and stories from my five year old made me realize that anti-racist education must start early because the presumption of white innocence and black guilt starts early. Black students even in kindergarten and preschool are more than twice as likely to be suspended as their white or even Hispanic peers. White children are perceived to be more innocent and even seen as younger than their black peers, while black children are often perceived as older and therefore more culpable and are punished more severely. This is seen most drastically in incidents such as the murder of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old child playing with a toy gun, as indeed my boys like to do, who was murdered by the police before the car even came to a complete stop.

The officer who murdered Philando Castile in cold blood for following the law and declaring he had a lawfully owned gun in the car at a traffic stop was acquitted because the jury found his defense that he had been afraid for his life reasonable.

Both of these incidents are just drops in the bucket in what could be a very long list of white people seeing black people as dangerous. Trained officers shooting down a child because his skin made them so afraid, they couldn’t even put the car in park to assess the situation.

And if you are justly horrified by all of this and asking what you can do, I’m saying part of the answer is talking to your white kids about racism.

Perhaps some of your thoughts are like mine were along the lines of, but why should I be the one to destroy my child’s innocence? They shouldn’t have to deal with things like this. I struggled with this as well until my kid encountered racist ideas from his classmates and possibly his teachers and I realized that unless I actively taught my children to be anti-racist from young ages and to break the cycle, our culture in this country will teach them to be racist from the start.

White supremacy is programmed into the very DNA of our nation from the stolen indigenous lands on which we reside to the stolen people from Africa we brought here by force and who built the economy that continues to benefit white people more than black people. Black parents start talking to their kids around the age of five about how they will be seen as different, and if black parents have to talk to their kids about this, white kids shouldn’t be exempt. In fact they can’t be exempt if we want to break the cycles and hopefully build a world where one day, none of us have to have “the talk” with our children on race.

There are so many resources out there on all of this if you haven’t done a deep dive into this yet. I’m writing to you today to share some ideas and resources specifically to help white parents talk to white children about race.

The easiest way is to make sure that they are reading and watching shows that have people of color as protagonists. From Doc McStuffins, to Elena of Avalor, to Molly of Denali, the children’s shows of today are beginning to not only be more diverse in their representations, but also to talk frankly about racism. One of the first episodes of Molly of Denali deals with her grandfather being forcibly sent to one of the boarding schools that the colonists imposed on native children where they cut their hair and punished them for singing and speaking in their native language. The episode is beautifully done and led to an age appropriate discussion about stolen land and boarding schools.

For 8-year-olds or older, “Raising Dion” is not only awesomely written, but deals frankly with racism in schools as experienced by a black child of that age. Shows with representation teach children that all stories are equally important, not just white stories. Shows with representation that also talk about race from the characters perspective are even more invaluable for your child’s anti-racist journey.

One book that I’ve found invaluable to help talk to my now 9-year-old is Not My Idea: A Book about Whiteness. Laid out like a storybook that he could have read by himself, I still sat down and read it with him because we had to stop every few pages and talk through the content. It is a fantastic tool for conversation.

We are the Change is a beautifully illustrated book with quotes from civil rights leaders with short blurbs about who the person was and what they were fighting for. It’s not only inspirational, it can be a great jumping off point for research about the lives and struggles of the people in the book.

Let the Children March by Monica Clark-Robinson is a powerful piece on the Birmingham Children’s Crusade in 1963. It’s told from the perspective of one of the marchers and highlights just how powerful children are in the struggle for social change. Plus if those kids faced hoses and police dogs and spent time in jail while white adults responded by bombing Dr. King’s brother’s home, I think our kids can handle learning about it.

She Came to Slay: The Life and Times of Harriet Tubman by Erica Armstrong Dunbar is written on a fourth grade reading level or so and is a wonderfully concise biography that adults could learn from along with their children.

A Young People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn fills in many of the intentional gaps created by the white-centered history curriculums taught in schools and homeschools across the nation.

For more ideas and books with black leads, just google “books with black leads for kids” and you’ll see lists of them. Some of the lists are entitled as “books all black kids should read” but I would argue they should be read by all kids. The world in which we immerse them during these formative years is very powerful. I hope to give my kids a jumpstart on their anti-racist journeys so they don’t have as much to unlearn as I do. And if a lot of us white parents start doing this, I truly believe it will normalize anti-racist converstation and shift the culture. After all, in systemic racism, we are the system, and it won’t change until we change.

And if you think you haven’t gone far enough on your own journey to teach your kids, let me leave you with this quote from Ijeoma Oluo: “The beauty of anti-racism is that you don’t have to pretend to be free of racism to be an anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself. And it’s the only way forward.”

Anna Elisabeth Howard writes highly caffeinated takes on shalom as a lens for everything from her front porch in Hendersonville, TN where she lives with her husband and two sons. She is a community organizer and movement chaplain with a background in youth and family ministry and is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary. You can find her at @aehowardwrites on Twitter and at aehowardwrites.com

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Anna Elisabeth Howard writes highly caffeinated takes on shalom as a lens for everything from her front porch in Hendersonville, TN.

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