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Let’s begin by acknowledging that we are at a tipping point. And in the words of the late John Lewis: “We may not have chosen the time, but the time has chosen us.” Not since the Civil Rights Movement have we born witness to such sustained and visible violence and whiteness weaponized against Black people. The resulting rage and anger in support of and against the current movement for Black lives, have ignited the fuse hovering for centuries above the flames of racism and white supremacy.
Almost five decades ago, James Baldwin gave a prescient speech entitled A Talk To Teachers, in which he remarked, “We are in a revolutionary situation,” adding, “Children, not yet aware that it is dangerous to look too deeply at anything, look at everything, look at each other, and draw their own conclusions.” As a mother and an educator, the truth of these words resonates loudly. Young children have yet to be restricted by society's boundaries of feigned politeness. They learn through play, revealing the power of curiosity and joy of discovery. It’s a marvelous state children remain in until they begin to internalize the biased attitudes, behaviors and mindset of the adults around them. Those confined at home as the result of COVID lockdowns may be spending more meaningful time with and around children. When talking with and observing them, we might begin to understand that curiosity, sincerity, openness, risk-taking, and mistake-making are exactly what we need more of in the "revolutionary" pursuit of social justice and racial equity.
As a teacher and diversity practitioner, I have learned it’s important to embrace multiple perspectives when educating young people and adults about the myriad ways disparities and systems of oppression plague our society and institutions. In my work, I often reference a quote from Anais Nin: “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” Drawing from my years as a kindergarten teacher, when it comes to talking about disparities and inequalities, I find simplicity and practice are essential to the learning process and the ability to empathize, no matter what our differences or how we see the world.
As a Black woman, married to a Black man, and the mother of a Black child, I am on the frontlines of a personal and pervasive pandemic, compelled to protect my family while also building community and contributing to the fight for racial justice. I feel an urgency to give my son what I didn't have as a child, including knowledge of self, society and untold history, language and perspective to help navigate all of the oppressive “isms,” and practical tools that will empower him. I will also have a lamentably premature talk with him to equip him with an understanding of how to move in the world without provocation.
Regardless of the specific factors or concerns relevant to our own families, we all need to be having conversations with our children, investigating how we each contribute to and are affected by inequality and injustice. Our shared goal should be raising children who grow up self-aware, informed, empathetic, and able to thrive in a decidedly different world than the one we inherited.
Here is how we begin.
As a child, how homogeneous or heterogeneous was your community and household? Who were your friends? Who were your parents’ friends? What voices were deemed valuable or irrelevant? The answers set the foundation for our comfort or discomfort with human diversity.
Most important: Who was at your dinner table? Who is there now? When we “break bread” together, it inevitably leads to an exchange of stories, perspectives, and ideas, however quotidian. The more we create opportunities to be with people who are different from us, the more we open ourselves to new points of view - a necessary component of empathy. The more we take risks and practice speaking up at our dinner tables, the more confident and prepared we become in the world to confront prejudice and racism, while modeling for our children how to do so. Our children watch what we do more than they listen to what we say, and they are natural imitators.
Talking about race can be uncomfortable or painful, and is thus often avoided. Many well-meaning parents and educators have, over the years, promoted a "colorblind" philosophy - the impact of which inadvertently reinforces racism by suppressing a critical conversation. To be clear, research shows that children independently perceive differences of race (and class) very early on, but they learn to ascribe value to these differences from adults around them. Most children use their perception of race to determine playmates by 30 months (Katz & Kofkin 1997.) By the age of five, children are projecting many of the racial attitudes held by adults around them, and have learned to associate some racial groups with higher status than others (Kinzler, 2016.) If we encourage children not to “see color,” it becomes impossible to see the systemic ways people of color are marginalized in our society; they can't see the ways whiteness has been constructed to maintain a social, political, and economic hierarchy. And if you “don’t see color,” you don’t see a significant part of another’s identity. You don’t see my son or me.
In order to have a productive conversation about race, we have to recognize that race is a social construct. There are no biological bases or genetic attributes to determine someone’s racial classification--we are a human race. And we have to move past individual racist acts to recognize the systemic nature of racism. A great resource for this is the book "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" by Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, who breaks down the insidious ways in which "the smog" of racism impacts our society.
Our willingness to talk openly about race and the ways people are treated differently as a result signals to our children the importance of the conversation, and empowers them to show up differently in the world. These won't be easy conversations to have, but they will prepare our children to change the world, as we begin to lift the veil of illusion and constructively guide our children toward a more conscious existence.