When our son Perry was young, South African apartheid was regularly in the news. One day in March 1986, the month he turned four, he saw me crying in response to a report of a brutal attack by white police officers on unarmed black school children. When I explained why I was so sad, he responded, "Is it the color of their skin that makes them do that?"
At just four years old, not only was our white son aware of skin color, but he was grappling with questions about racial dominance and injustice. Whether or not he saw himself as "white," it seems he had begun to absorb, and to puzzle over, a sense of white people being on the wrong side of history.
(As children often do, he also voiced so simply a profound question that can be unpacked on so many levels: Is our racial identity our destiny? Are we the unconscious victims of our socialization? Is whiteness like a toxin, instilling a tendency toward inhumane actions?)
All of our children deserve information on how racism works. It's essential knowledge for navigating our 21st-century world, for building relationships with all kinds of people, for becoming culturally competent, and for building a future with more freedom and justice for all. Children need basic guidance in separating the falsehoods of racism - in attitudes and words, actions and policies - from the truth about the common humanity and mutual dependence of all people.
But how do we impart this information without instilling guilt, anger or hopelessness? Crucially, we must not burden children with responsibilities that belong to adults. I never want to imply, "Something terrible is happening in the world, there's nothing I can do to stop it, and whether you like it or not, you'll get caught up in it."
Instead, children need positive messages of passion and power: "We want all people to be treated fairly. Sometimes people are mistreated because of their skin color. I'm working with other grownups to change that." Young people need to see that there are solutions and that adults are engaged in tackling the issue, within themselves and in the wider world.
Children also need affirmation that their actions matter. When we listen to them and support their impulses to act, they gain a sense of their own power to change things for good.
Perry's question was so striking that it's all I remember of the conversation that day. I don't recall how I responded. Today, I imagine I'd say something like: "No, our skin color doesn't make us do things. It's the way we think about skin color. Some people are very confused. They think that people with different skin colors aren't as good as they are. Really, they are scared of people who are different from them. That's why they act that way. But when we remember that people of all skin colors are one family, we can make a different choice. We can treat everybody well. We can stand up for each other."
I do remember what Perry did soon after. He announced that he wanted to write a letter to South African Prime Minister Botha. "Let black children and white children play together," he dictated solemnly. "And hire more black policemen. They will understand." We put the letter in an envelope and mailed it.
There's no evidence that Botha ever received the letter, much less that he was touched by it. But what matters is that this four-year-old acted positively, with passion and power.
Sunday, June 26, 2011
Wednesday, June 15, 2011
This is going to be another series. I've been musing on how to approach this for several weeks. One thing is clear: Talking about racism with children makes talking about race (see last two posts) look easy.
Over the next group of posts, I'll share my ideas about when and how to approach the subject, some stories, guidance from some experts, articles to read, and reviews of some books.
As usual, I'll be reflecting from the perspective of a white American, focusing particularly on white patterns, and particularly addressing the white community. I'm interested in figuring out how to talk about race and whiteness so that the next generations of white children don't continue to absorb unexamined racism and white privilege. As always, I welcome comments, questions and dialogue on this.
To start, here are some of my assumptions on addressing the topic of racism with kids:
1. We should. Next to overt racist behavior, not saying anything is the worst response. In fact, silence is one way to teach our kids racist attitudes.
2. Children's comments, questions and experiences are opportunities to talk and to learn.
3. As with all conversations with children, developmental and emotional readiness should determine what we do and don't say - what's appropriate and what's effective. Our responses should be concerns-based, tailored to the particular child(ren) and particular situation.
4. Racism is not the same as "being mean." Prejudice based on skin color and racial features is a universal human tendency, but racism is not just personal, it is collective and institutional as well. In order to process their own experience and to develop effective skills, young people need age-appropriate information about how U.S. society gives white people racial advantages and people of color disadvantages.
5. Conversations about racism should always include ideas about how children can respond and that adults are available to help.
6. The most essential teaching for children to absorb is a sense of hope and possibility. The content can be hard and heavy, but we can address it lightly. Provoking guilt or fear does not empower young people to tackle the challenge of prejudice.
7. In order to do all this, we adults have to be willing to examine and shift our own attitudes and behaviors, and offering our process of addressing racism in our own lives as a model that children can look to and learn from.