One of the most shared images in my newsfeed this past weekend, when the violence in Charlottesville unfolded, was one of a toddler dressed in full KKK garb, standing in the street and touching the riot shield of a black state trooper. The caption was simply: "Hate is taught. #Charlottesville"
Photo: Keith Trice/Flickr
The image, which was taken in 1992 in Gainesville, Georgia, is deeply piercing on many levels. It's making people wonder -- if hate is something that's learned, what do the teachings look like? Here's the punch-in-the-gut truth: Sure, sometimes it looks like this -- a Klan hood on a baby -- but more often, it looks like nothing and sounds like silence.
It would be wonderful if you could just say to children 'people might look different and come from different places, but we're all equal and should be treated the same' and leave it at that. But if recent news has taught us anything, it's that reality is not so simple, and we need to face the topics of race and racism head on.
For many white parents, it can feel easier to switch off the news cycle and avoid talking about race with kids, instead encouraging them to just be nice to everyone. Some even chirp, "We don't see colour!" -- a statement that's both ridiculous if you have working eyeballs, and hurtful. Margaret e Jacobsen, a black parent raising two mixed-race children, hears remarks like this all the time in their family's predominately white neighbourhood. She writes on Romper about why it's so damaging.
In the past, I never really thought about my children making friends with white children. For the most part, I was just happy they were making friends. But one day at my son Beck's preschool, I was talking to another mother about being black and raising a mixed son. She turned to me and said, "We don't even see Beck's colour! He's just Chance's friend!"
It felt like someone had kicked me in my stomach. When someone says they don't see colour, they're simply stating that they refuse to acknowledge someone else's ethnicity, thus erasing their background and culture. I couldn't respond to what she said. She stood there smiling at me, as if I should be thanking her for saying that, when all I wanted to do was shake her and say, "How do you not see that he's black? It's OK to see that!"
Staying silent about race doesn't only not prevent racism, it actually helps perpetuate prejudices. Parents should be explaining to their kids that people are often treated unfairly because of the colour of their skin, and that isn't OK. But how do you create a family environment where tough conversations like this flow? I talked to Brittni Lefevre, a mother in Livermore, California, who has organised trainings on how to be an ally to marginalised groups. Here are some tips:
Before kids even hit preschool, they're masters at sorting things. Blocks, crayons and, yes, people. Acknowledge their observations.
From The Washington Post:
Researchers say babies as young as 6 months can distinguish skin colour and facial features among ethic groups. So when your 3-year-old points and asks at the grocery store, "Why is he black?" Don't hush or ignore him. Instead help him. Reframe the question, "Yes, he is black. Do you want to go say hello and ask him what his name is?" Toddlers ask, "Why is the sky blue?" and "Why is his skin black?" in the same breath. They don't associate meaning until they intuit our discomfort.
Lefevre remembers when she was three years old and received two baby dolls as a gift -- one doll was black and one was white. She took both dolls with her into the bathtub and started scrubbing the black one. When her mum asked her why she was doing that, she replied, "This one is dirty." Her mum simply said, "Oh, that's the colour of that one's skin. It's clean!"
"I was not shamed," recalls Lefevre, who is Mexican and white. "From then on, I was always very comfortable asking my mum questions about race, gender and sex."
Use Age-Appropriate Language
This weekend, Lefevre and her husband were talking about attending a vigil for the victim of the Charlottesville violence. Her three-year-old wanted to know what was going on. "What happened?" she asked.
Lefevre told her, "A bad man hurt a nice girl and it's very sad." It made her feel included in the conversation. "I didn't say, 'Well, there's this alt-right group, but they're really like Nazis, and they bought these tiki torches .... She doesn't need to have added stress put on her. But we can answer her questions in an honest way."
When You're Wondering What You Can Do, Know That This Is It
It's easy to get stuck under the weight of what's going on in the world, and feel paralysed, especially when you're seeing friends on Facebook marching in the street. But the actions you take and conversations you start at home may be just as integral. Lefevre, who has an infant and a toddler, says she'd love to be out there yelling on the front lines, but she says her "main job right now is taking care of these kids".
What we can do right now is raise children to be active, aware citizens, to speak out when they see injustice, and to keep the tough conversations going with their friends and in the world.