February is coming to an end and I have failed to have the conversation that I had hoped to have with my daughter about racism and black American history. She’s heard poems by Langston Hughes and Nikki Giovanni, knows the lyrics to Leadbelly’s “Good Morning Blues” and we just read a story by Jackie Robinson’s daughter called Testing the Ice, a beautiful parable about everyday courage that features the famous ballplayer in an unexpected role. But I have yet to connect the dots.
It is one thing to share third-person stories about other dark-skinned people who weren’t treated fairly or overcame incredible odds. (It is one thing to cuddle up to black dolls with names like Harriet, Ida, and Sasha.) When the perspective changes, when the story is about you, me, and us – our family, our lives – well, that’s another thing.
I once considered the implications of “Creative Freedoms and the Not Now Book” and the choices parents and teachers must make when it comes to introducing controversial material to children. My little one is turning four in a few months and she’s become more observant, more inquisitive. Whether I like it or not, now is the time to talk about racism.
In Jonathan Liu’s recent post on GeekDad called, “How to Raise Racist Kids,” he offers disturbing sltatistics about the larger consequences of our reluctance to talk about race in America. It’s a great piece, and while it’s mostly aimed at white parents, this passage struck home:
We’ll say things like “everybody’s equal” but find it hard to be more specific than that. If our kids point out somebody who looks different, we shush them and tell them it’s rude to talk about it. We think that simply putting our kids in a diverse environment will teach them that diversity is natural and good.
I winced at this last sentence. It applies just as much to me, a black parent (with advanced degrees in African-American Studies, for heaven’s sake) as it does to the rest of the nation. Though I know better than to make romanticized claims for preserving her innocence, I worry that her recently developed sense of fairness and mutual respect will be shaken. I worry that she’ll turn on her non-black preschool playmates with anger or shame. I worry that her first understanding of history – the stories of past realities that shape our present – will be tangled up with confusions about prejudice, difference, and hard-won triumphs.
Liu’s post directed me to an article by Sasha Emmons at Parenting.com that I’ve since found quite helpful: “5 Tips for Talking About Racism With Kids.” Reading the suggestions from Dr. Beverly Tatum in the piece made me realize that one of the biggest obstacles that I’ve not fully acknowledged until now is the fear that my daughter will learn about racism the way I did – not with screaming racial slurs and burning crosses, but through hushed words and stern glances.
Do you remember how you learned about race and racism? I recall the moments as puzzle pieces. One of your great uncles lets something slip. Your classmate makes an ignorant joke. You begin to unravel the subtext in all those re-runs of The Jeffersons and Good Times, and you see your mother wiping her eyes as she watches Roots on the tiny black-and-white TV in the kitchen. A librarian gives you a copy of Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and the truth that has been creeping on you for years becomes very real. You’ve been oppressed, enslaved, hated for nothing more than the color of your skin. And the problem still persists today.
It’s tough. Even as I look for ways to simplify these conversations (plural, because I realize this is an ongoing thing), I am also wary of limiting the scope of her knowledge to what NPR’s Sam Sanders calls, “the peanut gallery.” Nevertheless, as I head out to a local Harambee Festival today on this last weekend in Black History Month, I am letting go of the notion that my daughter will learn what’s important simply by our proximity to drum circles, gospel choirs, and MLK posters. Instead I’m going to keep the very first step of Dr. Tatum’s advice in mind: “Don’t be afraid to bring it up.”
I’d love to hear about your experiences and any suggestions in the comments below!