Unmuted: Talking to Kids About Racism
This strange, new, complicated world just became more strange when thousands of people all over the country and even the world took to the streets to protest police brutality against people of color. I’ll admit the temptation was pretty strong to close my ears, turn off the news, shut our windows and pretend it’s not happening. After all, why should we burden our children with the awful realities of this world?
Growing up in a rural, mostly white community in western Colorado, I did not personally encounter racial issues until I was 19. In college, I was cast in the play, Fires in the Mirror, a series of monologues regarding racial tensions and riots in Brooklyn, New York in the 1990s. The director made the interesting and jarring choice to cast across gender and racial lines, so I played a young black man speaking to two friends—two beautiful, real black men. By performance time, my co-actors slapped me on the back and claimed, “You’re black on the inside, girl,” which padded my ego, but only hurt us both; we knew deep inside I would never know what it is like to be a black man.
The point is, I was far too old to be encountering issues of racial tension and white privilege for the first time. As cliché as it is, our children are the future, and systematic change starts in individual hearts. Our children’s education starts in our own homes.
What I offer here is basic because I recognize the complexity of the issues, but complications and challenges must not cause us to turn away. It is our responsibility to engage difficult issues as a family.
1) Tell Them What is Happening/Has Happened
Obviously, this will depend on the age of your child, but use simple words to tell the story of the protests in the street and why they are happening. Think of it as laying a foundation for future conversations as your family continues to engage with these issues in the future.
2) Get Books
Whatever your child’s age, the books you surround her with can have a huge impact on her orientation to the world. Choose wisely. Be intentional and select books that include people of color, that address difficult topics like racism and poverty. These books will generate conversations and keep these issues as ongoing topics in your household.
One book that my daughter really enjoyed at age six was “Can I Touch Your Hair?” by Irene Latham and Charles Waters, illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko. The story is of a white kid and a black kid who are assigned to work on a poetry project together, and it beautifully celebrates differences in perspective and experiences.
This can be a challenging time to get books, but libraries are opening up for curbside pick-up. Get online, select a handful of books, and schedule an appointment to pick them up.
3)Decide On an Action Step Together
Again, it is tempting to let the complexity of the situation release us into inaction or apathy. Let’s be honest, there’s plenty to do with young kids in the house under normal circumstances, how can we possibly fit in one more responsibility? We can, because we, as parents, get to decide with a thousand tiny choices every day what kind of family we are going to be. We do not decide who our children will eventually become—they will grow and change, experiment with ideas and challenge us, but for now, we help lay a foundation for their future.
Will they be people who speak with kindness?
Then they must hear kind words coming from our mouths.
Will they reach out to others in love?
They must see us reaching out in love.
Will they be people who work toward a more just society?
Then they must see us working toward a more just society.
The campaign on social media to mute ourselves in order to hear the voices of the oppressed and the silenced is a fascinating and powerful one. I was startled to check my Instagram account and find almost everyone I follow had posted a black box. There was a strong temptation to carry the campaign's impact into reality, into my own home.
Muted. There’s nothing I can say. It’s too complicated for me to address in any articulate way.
But we have a responsibility to guide our children in this to the best of our ability. Yes, we will say something wrong, teach them something wrong, perhaps misjudge a situation, but consider the reward of a household that is grounded in love, of children who are aware and sensitive and who may very well be the ones who guide our society to a more peaceful and just future.