Talking to Children About Race: Facing the Elephant in the Room

Discussions with my boys about race has always been in the abstract. More akin to a current events class than anything else.  They have grown up surrounded by a diverse group of great friends who base friendship on which Star Wars movie is their favorite and not on race, religion, or nationality.  It’s quite beautiful and sweet, but unfortunately, it is not always real life.  It sounds crazy, but deep down I’ve wanted some type of racial confrontation to occur as a real-life teaching moment.  I wanted to be able to talk to my sons about their feelings, their reactions, and what to do in the future.  I didn’t want their first experience facing racism to be like mine. 

I attended majority of white schools all of my life.  In 7th grade, I was in the “cool girls” group for – maybe – one week.  I met the group at a football game where one of the girls said, “We like you.  You’re not like them.”  I literally had no idea what they were talking about, so I asked, “Who?”  The girl responded, “You know, you’re not like a black person, you don’t act black. You don’t talk like them.”  I was crushed. I was confused, and most of all, I was angry.  But, I didn’t know what to say.  I didn’t know how to verbalize that her words were hurtful and perpetuated a stereotype that is divisive and ugly.  The only words that came out were, “I am Black! And you are stupid!” 

Then it happened.  The Real-Life Moment.

One fall day two years ago, the real-life moment happened for my oldest son during his flag football game.  At this particular game he was doing exceptionally well.  He was grabbing flags left and right and flying past his opponents.  It was pretty obvious that a few parents on the opposing team were getting upset that they were unable to stop my son. 

I overheard one dad yell at his son, “Don’t let the BLLAAAAACK kid get by you again!” There is something about the way he said “Black” that hung in the air, like the thick molasses in winter.  In that short period of time I had already prepared a verbal tirade that would have made a sailor blush and probably gotten me banned from the field.

Then I saw his eyes. My sweet boy heard the man’s comments and was looking at me with a mix of confusion and “please Momma, don’t say anything!”  So I paused, and I said four words: “His name is Mason.” The dad obviously did not realize his words were as loud as they were and replied with a stunned, “What?”  I repeated myself.  “The kid. The kid who is burning past your kid. His name is Mason.”  

After the game, my son was not as excited as an 8 year old should have been after having the kind of game he had.  “Mom, why did he say “Black” like that?”  I was glad that he opened the door to the conversation.  We talked about the fact that the term “Black” can be an appropriate term to use.  So, the issue is not what the man said, but how he said it. The tone and inflection in his voice was harsh, abrasive, and invoked a gut-reaction that is difficult to describe.   
 
Sometimes this is a challenging concept for others to grasp.  So, let me explain it in a different way.  Let’s say you cooked meatloaf for dinner.  When your significant other comes home and sees meatloaf in the oven, they may say, “Oh, you made meatloaf for dinner.”  The words seem innocent enough, but the tone in which they are said can mean the difference between a fun, family dinner, and the silent treatment for a week.  We talked about how the man’s statement does not necessarily mean that he is a racist, but it does show that words can hurt you and we must be careful in how we use them. 

We are living in a time where race is the elephant in the room. 

No one wants to discuss it, but we all know it plays a role in society.  Some may say, “I don’t see color”.  On the surface it seems like a safe statement, but what the statement is actually saying is that there is discomfort in seeing color, therefore, it is easier to ignore it.  It can also imply that color and race is something that should not be seen, to be hidden in a secret place.  But, the only way to have an honest conversation about race and to tear down the walls of racism is to see it, face it, discuss it, and learn from it.  But how? And how do you have these conversations with your children? 

Preparation – Check Yourself

It has been said a gazillion times – kids learn from their parents.  So, parents should reflect on their interactions with different races.  What is the make-up of your professional and social circles?  How well do you embrace your child’s friends that are of a different race? Implicit biases can affect a person’s perception of others subconsciously.  No matter how forward thinking and woke you may be, we all have implicit biases.  Check out Harvard’s Implicit Bias Test to see what perceptions may be hindering your discussion on race. 

Exposure to Other Cultures

  • Books! Books! Books!  It is not always possible to experience every culture first hand, but there is always a book for that! Reading books about the struggles and achievements of other cultures can begin the discussions with your child about race.  What better way to combat racism than to show it is utterly ridiculous?  Stereotypes fall like dominoes when real accomplishments are front and center.  But it is more than just reading the book.  Ask questions about your child’s feeling about the book.  “How do you think (the character) felt in the story?”  “How did it make you feel when (troubling event) happened?”  “What would you have done in the situation?” 
  •  Visiting an art museum showcasing a minority artist, attending a Native American Pow-wow,  jamming out at an outdoor music fest are all great ways to expose your children to the best each culture has to offer.  Parents should initiate discussions about the activity to and from the event.  The goal is exposure to and the celebration of a different race or culture, so make it a point and talk about it.
  • My sons are forever on their tablets, so we have turned some of that screen time into developing at home mini projects.  A question from them about peanut butter turns into a Google search on George Washington Carver. Or, a day of outdoor fun with super soaker water guns can end with research on Lonnie Johnson
Real Talk
 
Exposure to racial issues is unavoidable.  It is important as parents that we try to filter situations based on what we believe is age appropriate, but it should never be ignored.  Ignoring and avoiding these discussions can develop fear and perpetuate stereotypes that are difficult to dispel.  This may be answering your 3-year-olds question, “Why is Ashley’s skin darker than mine?” to discussing the history behind the KKK to your 10-year-old. 
 
Is there a script? No. Just like most of parenthood, nothing can completely prepare us to have conversations about race with our children.  Will mistakes be made? Of course.  But, if your discussions come from a place of love for humanity and a foundation that all are created equal; you can’t go wrong.  

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5 Responses to Talking to Children About Race: Facing the Elephant in the Room

  1. Kelly K.
    Kelly K. August 29, 2017 at 7:06 pm #

    Very nicely written and I really like your examples of questions to start a conversation about racial issues.

  2. Molly September 7, 2017 at 10:19 pm #

    Thank you, Alicia!

    This is a must read and read again! ❤️

  3. Melodie September 8, 2017 at 5:51 pm #

    Very poignant, Alicia. Great article. ❤️

  4. Morgon September 9, 2017 at 9:21 am #

    This is so good. Thank you for sharing your heart. I have always looked up to you as a mom. You could write a script..you are so wise 💙💙💙

  5. Delia Bond September 9, 2017 at 11:40 am #

    Excellent. And thanks for the reading references.

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