As the countdown ensued and the last notes of Auld Lang Syne ushered in yet another January, none of the predictions made from futurists, academics or the government could forecast the global reckoning and revelations to come. 20/20, a term typically used to reflect one's visual acuity, would now metaphorically reflect the world’s account of a deadly pandemic—one that has claimed the lives of so many. The reality is that this pandemic has separated families, promoted fear, evoked anger, revealed truths, challenged policy, and shut down the world. The PANDEMIC I speak of is called racism and it did not begin to reveal its ugly truth in 2020. For over 400 years, we have witnessed the normalization of legalized oppression of people of color, while many have continued to turn a blind eye. We must not only open our eyes but also open our mouths and start to have these difficult conversations about race, specifically with our children.
I must warn you that this is not radical discourse of finger pointing and judgement (at least that is not the intent). It is neither a placated account made more palatable to those who have grappled with this very difficult conversation. It is; however, a sincere offering of my experiences in discussing race, prejudice and the Black Lives Matter movement with my children, and supporting those in my sphere who have sought ways to engage these topics with their children. I am no expert or teacher of all things race. But I am a student of the world who navigates as a woman of color, charged with leading four young minds (my children) to make wise decisions that will impact our world. More importantly, I am a part of a communal movement of those who have not always followed the precepts of what is appropriate to say or appropriate to do, but we continue to seek opportunities to learn more in order to do better.
Therefore, the question becomes when it is appropriate to have conversations with your kids about racism. My husband and I started these conversations as early as kindergarten after noticing the shift in our children’s interactions when meeting new friends. We would start with questions that could range from something as simple as, “How was your day?” to “Who did what and why and how did that make you feel?” We soon discovered that at some point, the questions would begin to come from them. I recently recall when my seven year old son entered my bedroom as my husband and I were watching, what was then, a peaceful demonstration on television. As he peered at the screen, he asked me why the people were marching. I began to explain to him that a man named George Floyd died. He turned and then asked, “Was he sick?” My reply was “…no, the police killed him and that’s why all of those people are marching.” He then said, “Are those people his family?” I smiled at him, envious of his innocence as pure as the lamb in a John Donne metaphysical poem and replied, “They are now!” And just when I thought the line of questioning was over, he asked “why are they yelling black lives matter!” I said, “Because sadly, for some reason, there are those who believe that they don’t.” He gave an inquisitive stare, which shifted to resolve and exited the room.
These conversations have an entirely different tone when speaking to my twenty year old son whose simple drive to the grocery store requires two checklists: one with a list of items needed, and the other a mental checklist of do’s and don’ts to make it home safely. Then there is my teenage daughter whose most upsetting account of racism or prejudice is witnessing her school administrators and teachers target black students for their dress code, hairstyles and argot. Nevertheless, the last conversation is one of an entirely different tone. It is bittersweet as I whisper in the ear of my differently abled (special needs) son who is completely unaware of the perils of the world. Each tear is a shared emotion of gratitude and grief. But what also grieves my spirit is that due to the unfair treatment of people of color, social justice movements, such as Black Lives Matter, must exist to both advocate and remind. The Black Lives Matter movement has been fighting to be heard since 2013’s urgent need to bring attention to police brutality. The impetus for this movement was the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012. Despite their valiant efforts, more and more lives are lost to police brutality and the saga continues. There are those who feel the need to remind us that all lives matter-and they do. But this dismissive response and inability to acknowledge black lives further complicates the notion that “they” truly believe that black lives are a part of the ALL lives they tout. There is reciprocal value in these types of conversations, and we imbue our allies and all to do something differently. My hope is the suggestions listed below will serve as a starting point in an effort to retain that innocence that celebrates the beauty of the world and not the perils of humanity.
1. My first recommendation to start these tough conversations with young impressionable minds is to do just that, START somewhere. As the quote states, “there are two mistakes one can make along the road to truth…not going all the way, and not starting” –Buddha
2. Acknowledge your own blind spots or micro aggressions before having these conversations. Be open to evaluating your lens of perspective before influencing theirs.
3. Choose your words carefully. Words have the power to embolden or dishearten. Which will you be responsible for? Our children are watching, listening and responding.
4. Identify teachable moments. Nurturing these moments help to impart tolerance and understanding. Our children look to us to find meaning in this world, so take advantage of those opportunities.
5. Discover parallels through avenues of interest like gaming, sports, and arts.
6. Utilize technology. Depending on the age, utilize social media as a catalyst for discussion. Though radical thinking and misinformation can be found on some platforms, there are organizations and reputable institutions, like that post responsible content that can jumpstart the conversation.
7. Find mirrors and windows through literacy. Conversations about race are not just about how others see you, but how you see yourself in the world. Find the mirrors and windows of opportunity to teach them about themselves and those around them. Cicely Lewis, founder of the literacy initiative READ WOKE, provides a comprehensive list of books that are authored by or have main characters who are people of color.
8. The Arts. The arts promote confidence, ensemble ethic, unity, and empathy. Young learners can create their own art (visual or performance) or attend an artistic experience and use it as the impetus for discussion.