Knowing when is the right time to talk to your kids about racism can be just as hard as knowing what to say to them about it. For some of us, the conversations begin earlier, often out of necessity. If you are a person of color or you hold someone dear who is, racism is less of a concept and more just reality. Therefore, teaching your kids about it is as foundational as teaching letters and numbers. Simply put: It affects everything. It colors everything. It can be a part of every success, every challenge, every failure. It can lie behind the very motivation to get up and try again, and its constant pressure can just as easily be the weight that holds us down, keeps us back, pulls us behind.
Now, I am not expecting everyone to feel that way, and I certainly don’t expect everyone to understand. My point is that, for some of us, we’ve known about what our differences are since we could see, and we’ve understood what our differences can mean since we could speak. That’s already a long time to live with something that some of us will likely continue to process our entire lives.
So, I completely understand why some people are freaking out. I’m hoping I can help.
Yes, racism is one of those things you either believe exists or not, but within that choice lies a spectrum. Some of us see but don’t know. Others think they see but don’t really. Some know the terms and ideas: Prejudice. Privilege. Microaggressions. Stereotypes. Black. Brown. Person of Color. The list goes on. Regardless of where you are (or think you are), we all have one thing in common: We can always find both the necessity and capacity to learn and explore more. We all have a role to play, and often we have more than just one. And we will grow. We should grow.
So where does this leave us with the little (and sometimes not so little anymore!) humans we’re charged with shaping and supporting as they grow? I’ve seen lots of articles, book lists, groups, and other resources coming to the fore that can undoubtedly be useful in the various forms all of our different journeys will take. Still, only you will know what your child is ready to hear and explore. If you’re not sure, that’s okay. For those who haven’t had to have a big sit-down, birds-and-the-bees-type conversation about race yet, everything that’s going on in this world lately doesn’t necessarily mean you have to have that talk. Personally, if you believe your child is mature enough to have an exchange with you about something that can be deeply moving and emotional, then I feel: The earlier, the better. However, if they’re not there yet, for any number of reasons, consider not a grand gesture, but rather a constant stream of support.
We often teach by modeling, and by offering observations and feedback as close to real time as possible. Dealing with racism (and probably any other -ism you can think of) is no different. Facing such a heavy obstacle is undoubtedly daunting. These last few days, I’ve been thinking more about how to help those who are scrambling to quell a surge of anxiety around racism that so many of us have unfortunately already accepted as a fact of life. I know there’s no lack of resources out there at the moment. And I’m glad for that. But when I think about things, it’s usually specifically with a focus on empowering those who most need empowering, and often that’s children. And for white parents, caregivers, and educators looking for an opportunity to work through the chaos and hone in on how to help, I think this brief point of view might make it easier to dial in, discuss, and make a difference – every time the opportunity presents itself, and with kids at every age and every stage.
So here it is. You’ve seen the ABC’s of this and the 123’s of that. These are Voice Finding Vowels. (Too cheesy? I might keep working on that…) May they empower you to find your voice, share it with your kids, and urge them to find their own in service to a greater community.
A is for Aware
Even in the midst of a global pandemic, sometimes life seems busier than ever. What we need then, more than anything, is to be able to observe what’s around us at any given time, in any given place. Not all racism is a huge, blatantly obvious act of aggression or oppression. Take the time to look and listen. That’s truly the first step. Once you do this, you can teach your children to do the same.
E is for Engage
A lot of us explain away what’s uncomfortable. Sometimes we downright ignore it. But if we want to make a difference, if we want to affect change, we simply must not look away. We must engage our hearts and minds when we see something. I’m not saying we have to rush to action; that’s an individual choice for individual circumstances. What I am saying is that recognizing, accepting, and beginning to process wrongs, both big and small, is half of the battle.
I is for Insight
OK, so now you’ve seen something. And you’ve accepted that something. Now what? You engage in some good old fashioned common sense and critical thinking. Take a look at it from different angles. Consider where privilege fits in. Think about your own perspective, what you’ve lived, and what you’ve learned from the world. Try to apply some of your own thoughts and feelings about it. Then, get ready for the next step.
O is for Open
Here’s where we step out, beyond our own perspective, and open ourselves up to other possibilities. Sometimes this comes from new information, from practicing new ways of thinking, or from making new connections who help you grow your world view. If you have a friend, an honest friend who will tell you tough truths, maybe that person can be a resource. And maybe not. This stuff is hard. It can take a lot out of you. Please don’t take it personally if the people of color in your lives don’t have the energy or fortitude to support you the way you feel you need right now, because they need to reserve all they can for themselves, their loved ones, and their community. Maybe you’ll have to be on a journey of self discovery all on your own. Remember, there are books, journals, classes, movies, music, shows – you name it – that can help guide you. Whatever the situation, you can navigate through it as long as you stay open to processing in ways you never thought possible before.
U is for Understanding
So, I think this might be the place a lot of us get hung up. We feel paralyzed by the fact that we might not ever, even after so much researching and soul searching, be able to truly understand what life is like for another person. You know what? That’s always true. There’s only one you. And one everyone else. We’ll all lead different lives with different feelings and experiences and feelings about those experiences. That shouldn’t stop us from trying, though. For me, then, this step is about taking all of that we’ve learned and allowing it to contribute to a larger set of characteristics, attitudes, behaviors, and actions. And passing all of that – the A, E, I, O, and now, U – on to our kids. Teaching them how to do it. In little bits. In times that make sense. In times that count.
We’ve all heard the saying, “See something, say something.” Well, yeah, that pretty much hits the mark, no? See the little thing? Say something. See the big thing? Say something. It doesn’t always have to be show-and-tell with kids, but there are likely thoughts and ideas that pop into your mind when you see something you know just isn’t right. Take a minute to process it and share it with them. The sharing doesn’t have to be the exact specific thing. The sharing can be how you saw that exact specific thing – and when you did, it was because you were aware of it, you engaged with how it made you feel, you put some insight into it, you were open to other factors that may be at play, and now you’re striving to understand it.
What’s the best way to talk to your kids about racism? It’s going to be different for every adult and every kid. The key is to just talk with them. Just start. Share what’s in your heart. Then sit back and listen. Let them ask you questions. Let them share. Give them a chance to blow you away. Because most kids will. Thank goodness they’re our future. Thank goodness we’re brave enough to help them face it.
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