Why I Changed The Way I Talk To My Kids About Race

Parts of this post include excerpts from an article I wrote for TulsaKids magazine.

My hometown – like many – has had a complicated and often disappointing relationship with race.

Exhibit one of many: In the early 20th century, Tulsa was home to America’s “Black Wall Street,” a vibrant area downtown with a huge concentration of thriving businesses that were owned by African-Americans. Then, in 1921, hundreds of black residents were killed by a white mob. The riot destroyed the thriving Greenwood District and had a wide-ranging and devastating effect on race relations in the community.

 

Tulsa’s Reconciliation Park; Historian Dr. John Hope Franklin wrote From Slavery to Freedom and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Cut to present day: It’s been nearly a year since Terence Crutcher’s death made national headlines after he was killed by a Tulsa Police Officer. While it’s definitely important not to generalize because each case is absolutely unique, it’s accurate to say that Crutcher’s death was one in a tragically long line of unarmed black men shot by white police officers across America. When it happened, I had a first grader with a whole lot of questions that I didn’t feel fully equipped to answer.

See, like many white parents, I grew up with some version of the egg metaphor for understanding race: The color of the eggshell doesn’t matter, and we are all the same inside. But over the years, my perspective here has evolved. For sure, focusing on commonalities is a good thing, but the result of this sameness-only approach was that I didn’t have the verbal toolkit to discuss the disparities in how people of different colors experience the world.

I had shied away from talking about race and, in particular, racial discrimination with my kids. I think that was mostly because 1) I was afraid of making a misstep or saying the wrong thing and 2) if my kids hadn’t “noticed” racism, I didn’t want to be the one to introduce them to such an insidious concept. My thinking went something like, “I’ll know when the time is right. If I hear anything inappropriate or inconsiderate, I’ll strongly correct it. Until then, it’s my job to protect them from the evils of the world.”

You with me?

After Crutcher’s death, I was asked to write an article for TulsaKids, our (wonderful) local parenting magazine, about how to talk to kids about race. You can read the full article here. I had the opportunity to interview several anti-racist experts in my community and sit in on an insightful panel discussion held by a local church appropriately called, “What Are White People To Do?”. I started reading and asking questions. If cartoon light bulb moments were a real thing, the space above my head would have been positively glowing.

Light bulb moment 1: Racism is a white people problem, and white people need to fix it. Maybe this is obvious to everyone else, but hearing it stated so plainly brought it into laser focus for me. One black panelist mentioned that he had been approached more than once by a well-meaning white person asking him “how he (or she) could help”. While of course, helping one another is a great thing to do, asking someone how you can help them with a problem begins with an underlying assumption that they have a problem that needs to be solved in the first place. We can’t expect the black community to teach us how to “solve” the problem of racism. A healthy dose of self-reflection and advocacy within our own families and communities would go a long way.

Light bulb moment 2: The fact that I hadn’t been proactively talking about race with my white kids was, in itself, a form of white privilege. The simple fact is many white parents view discussions about race as optional; many parents of color do not.

Light bulb moment 3: Color “blindness” isn’t necessarily the right goal. Chad Johnson, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma-Schusterman Center and an anti-racist advocate. He told me that when it comes to valuing each other, color blindness is a good approach, but when it comes to raising a socially aware human, we can’t continue to shy away from the important discussions surrounding race. To ignore the fact that people of color are exposed to explicit discrimination and implicit bias perpetuates inaccurate ideas that racism is no longer a part of our society.

It can be uncomfortable, but there are ways to approach the conversation using terms that even young children will easily understand.

“Parents of young children can emphasize how we are the same while explaining that there are also differences,” says Johnson. “And some of those differences – while they should be celebrated – are often used to hurt people. Kids can empathize with feelings of exclusion. Parents can begin by talking about how excluding others is not kind, and we don’t want anyone to feel that way.”

I had great people in my life who modeled inclusivity as I was growing up, and I try to do the same. But my realization was that I had still been missing a very important part of the anti-racist conversation with my own children by not acknowledging the reality of racism.

Ultimately, all parents should get comfortable with the discomfort of discussing race, says Johnson. “It’s OK to not have all the answers. It’s OK to say, it is hard, it is painful, and I’m not sure why this is happening. But don’t think that if you don’t talk about race with your child our culture will teach them better. It won’t.”

BOOKS FOR TEENS AND ADULTS

Everyday Acts Against Racism: Raising Children in a Multiracial World by Maureen Reddy
The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism by Debra Van Ausdale and Joe Feagin
Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria: And Other Conversations About Race by Beverly Daniel Tatum
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son by Tim Wise
Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent by Eduardo Galeano
An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (ReVisioning American History) by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

BOOKS FOR YOUNGER CHILDREN

Daddy, There’s A Noise Outside by Kenneth Braswell by Kenneth Braswell
The Colors of Us by Karen Katz
The Crayon Box that Talked by Shane Derolf and Michael Letzig
The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson
A is for Activist by Innosanto Nagara
It’s Okay To Be Different by Todd Parr
Chocolate Me! by Taye Diggs

 

I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.

– Martin Luther King, Jr.

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