White Parents: have “the talk”

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White parents. This is for you. It’s time you had “the talk”. And not that talk, but the Race Talk.

In light of what has been happening in our country lately (#PhilandoCastile, #AltonSterling), I believe that we, as white parents, have an obligation to explicitly talk to our children about race and racism. This isn’t easy and it usually makes us uncomfortable, which is why we often avoid it. It’s important to note, however, that this simple avoidance is privilege in and of itself. Black families can’t avoid it. Hispanic families can’t either. Minority families HAVE to address this issue because it affects their children everyday in crucial, and sometimes, fatal ways. White families, on the other hand, can sneak around the topic and quietly go about their business raising their child/ren unaffected; unfortunately, this silence robs others of their freedom and perpetuates white privilege.

There’s no finger pointing here either. I will admit that in the beginning of my parenting journey I was one of these “avoiders”; which is odd, seeing how I am an ESL educator and surrounded by refugees and immigrants everyday. I guess I just thought that if I exposed my child to diversity she would “get it”. I also wasn’t sure what to say so I didn’t say anything at all. Then I read the chapter, “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race“, in Bronson & Merryman’s book, Nurture Shock, and it TRANSFORMED MY PARENTING.

Bronson & Merryman talk at length about the “Diverse Environment Theory” — the theory that if you just raise your child with a fair amount of exposure to people of other races and cultures, the environment becomes the message. You don’t have to talk about race–in fact, it’s better NOT to talk about race. Just expose your child to diverse environments and he’ll think it’s entirely normal (p. 55). Bzzzt. Wrong. Doing so only forces them to draw their own conclusions, like the results gathered by a study they conducted:

When white kids were asked, “Do your parents like black people?”, if the white parents had never talked explicitly about race, 14% of these children outright said, “No, my parents don’t like black people”; 38% said, “I don’t know.” In this supposed “race-free” vacuum being created by [white] parents, kids are therefore left to improvise their own conclusions (p. 49).

You can see why this is a problem.

In order to combat it, Bronson & Merryman say that conversations about race have to be explicit, in unmistakable terms that children understand. Great. The problem there, though, is that parents often approach this subject like they do with sex: they put the conversation off, blaming their silence on the fact that their kids are “too young” or “won’t understand”, until eventually those kids are in middle school and still don’t know that the penis has to go IN the vagina in order to make a baby! (If this omission makes you squeamish then check back later for a post on how to have the “that” talk with your children. :)) The same holds true for race. My suggestion to combat this? TALK EARLY AND TALK OFTEN. Whatever your children don’t get the first time around they’ll get eventually; and if you start early, this will give you the chance to perfect your approach and the language you use so when they are older and understand every word you’ll be a well-oiled machine. Also, talking to them young does three things: 1) It grabs their attention when they’re the most open-minded; 2) It shows them that you care enough to discuss the big issues with them; and 3) It opens up the door for future conversations just because you brought it up with them!

Sounds easy enough right? But some of you are probably thinking, But when do I actually HAVE this conversation? There never seems to be a good time. And talking about racism over meatloaf sounds about as appealing as eating meatloaf. To that I would say,  it’s your call. You know your kids best. Just make sure you do it. (My personal opinion is that you can do it anywhere at anytime, but I’m more a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kinda girl.)

As to what you say, well, it could be as simple as watching The Color of Me song from Sesame Street and discussing what words your kids heard; or you could read them the People book (which is FABULOUS by the way); or you could use a time like #PhilandoCastile to address it, which is what I did. Here is what I said to my 5 and 3 year old daughters this morning:

Me: “Girls, I need to tell you something VERY important. Last night, a man was shot by a police officer. Many people think it’s because he had dark skin.”

Them: “Why would someone do that?”

Me: “Because there are people in this country who are afraid of people with dark skin.”

Them: “Why?”

Me: “Because people are often afraid of people who are different.”

Them: “Why?”

Me: “Well, how did you feel the first time you jumped into a pool for the first time?”

Them: “Scared.”

Me: “But you eventually jumped in after we talked about it and mommy held your hands right?”

Them: “Yeah.”

Me: “And did talking help?”

Them: “Yeah.”

Me: “Well, the same is true for people. {Addressing my middle child} You felt afraid the first time you saw that mommy wearing a burqua at the park when she was pushing her son on the swings, right?”

Middle Child: “Yes.”

Me: “But then we talked about why she was wearing it and that she smiles underneath too, just like I do when I’m pushing you on the swings, right?”

Middle Child: “Yeah.”

Me: “So we have to always talk about the things that make us afraid. It’s okay to be afraid, but we need to talk about it ok? God made every one of us different–with different skin color, eye color, height, weight–and that’s awesome! It would be boring if we were all the same, right?! We need to love everyone because God loves us.”

Them: “Can we go play now.”

Me: “Yes you can.”

And that was that. It’s not going to solve the problem, and it’s not going to be the only conversation we have, but at least it’s a start. I urge you to do the same. Don’t let the bigger picture paralyze you. Let’s view it from our kids’ perspective: sure, they notice people’s skin color, but they don’t have the cultural baggage that adults have placed on it yet. They don’t find the topic of racism overwhelming. They find it heartbreaking. They don’t find it unfixable (yet). They see kindness and love as an answer and wholeheartedly believe that it will work. That’s why if we educate early and often we can capture them in a  unique stage of development so that it will hopefully permeate into adulthood. I want this for my children, and I want it for yours. I want it for my dark-skinned friends and light-skinned friends; the ones wearing burquas or yamakas or tattoos or piercings. I want love to win.

Be love(d),

Jonna

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(written in memory of #PhilandoCastile and all the others whose lives have been lost or abused because they are different)

 

 

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