My daughter was just three years old when we had our first conversation about race. She came home from her Jewish preschool upset that a classmate had said her brown skin “looked like poop.” I was speechless, and honestly, I just wanted to cry. Thankfully my mom, a retired teacher, was there to take the lead. “You know what else is brown?” my mom asked her. “Chocolate, and chocolate chip cookies, and we all love those!” Relieved, we laughed (because, well, poop) and then, of course, ate chocolate chip cookies. But this heart-wrenching moment emphasizes two key truths that I face as the parent of Black children. First, I am given no choice but to talk about race with my children at an unnervingly early age. Second, my white friends and acquaintances, and the children they raise, play a significant role in shaping how my children see themselves. To say that we must collaborate is an understatement. We are partners.
I am biracial. My father was a Black professional athlete, from a family of 10, raised in a small town in western Pennsylvania. My mother is white and Jewish, raised just south of Boston. I married a Black man, and until we moved to a suburb of New York City in September, we were raising three Black children — ages 8, 6, and 4 — in Manhattan.
Growing up outside of Boston, I attended a predominately white private school for thirteen years. I spent my days on a sprawling campus, scurrying between academic buildings, free periods on the quad and lacrosse practice. In contrast, I spent evenings and weekends a mere 15 minutes away at a predominantly Black Boys and Girls club playing basketball. My wardrobe varied from L.L. Bean blucher mocs and rugby shirts to Nike Dunks and basketball shorts. Despite straddling these two worlds throughout my youth and into adulthood, and identifying as a mixed-race, Jewish woman, my mom taught me very early on that no matter what, the world will see me as a Black woman — or more specifically, as “not white.”
In June, as thousands protested over the deaths of Black men and women at the hands of police officers, and as we continued to suffocate under a President and administration that deliberately inflamed racial tension rather than calm it, many of my dearest friends from childhood who are white began to reach out.
In one conversation, I was asked what I am telling my children about the current racial climate. My friend admitted not knowing what is appropriate to share with the four children she is raising in Manhattan. I felt her vulnerability, humility and perhaps guilt in questioning her Black friend about race. But being trusted with this question gave me comfort and hope, and it reinforced that I’ve surrounded myself with people who care enough to ask:
“If you could design the conversation that white parents have with their kids, what would it sound like?”
I’m confident almost every parent of a Black child has The Talk – we don’t have a choice. But so much of the progress we need to make is dependent on white parents having a talk of their own. We must share this responsibility.
After three months of virtual lock down in our two-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side, we rented a house in a suburb of Manhattan in June. As we pulled into the driveway, our family’s collective exhale was likely audible to our friends back in the city. Life here seemed eerily unchanged by the pandemic, the protests, politics — everything creating history in that moment. Neighbors knocked on doors maskless, extending invitations to socialize in driveways, and wiping down groceries seemed less of a thing. It dawned on me that this sense of normalcy is a privilege many of my friends raising children outside of the city, most of whom are white, are afforded, while many of my friends raising children inside the city are not. And once again, I found myself straddling two worlds — only this time, with a clearer sense of self, a greater responsibility as a mother and a profound urgency amidst the racial turmoil roiling the country.
How we approach race with our children is a uniquely personal decision for every family, but if we do not approach it at all, or if we teach our children to be “color blind,” we perpetuate the dismissal of a history of white-over-Black systemic racism that represents the very core of the imbalances we must address now.
Clearly, white parents will not have The Talk that Black parents have. But a commitment by white parents to engage in this dialogue with their children can be a mutually beneficial equivalent. It may establish a foundation of tolerance, acceptance and understanding that will not only educate white children, but also help protect mine, from the unintended consequences of unintentional racial bias.
As a multiracial woman raising Black children in a predominately white environment, I urge my white friends to start talking to their children about race. Here are my ideas on how:
1. Read books that teach your kids history.
Humanize the Black experience. Read about Black history. Give them context for what we are fighting for today.
You don’t have to know what to say. The easiest way to start a difficult conversation is with someone else’s words. Choose books that introduce historical figures who impacted racial history and social justice.
We read “The Drinking Gourd” by F.N. Monjo at lunch recently and we talked about the Underground Railroad. More than just the surface-level history or Harriet Tubman’s inconceivable bravery; we discussed how white people risked their lives to help Black people escape slavery.
This is such an important lesson for children to experience and is a powerful and positive message to impart to white children in the context of learning about slavery. The instinct to skirt this conversation is understandable, but slavery is the very foundation of the systemic imbalance that is the impetus for our current reckoning. Choosing this line of conversation allows you to discuss slavery in a context of unity, hope, and the power to do what is hard, but what is right.
Read more books like “The Other Side” by Jacqueline Woodson, “Amazing Grace” by Mary Hoffman, “Pink And Say” by Patricia Polacco, “Teammates” by Peter Golenbock, and “Henry’s Freedom Box” by Ellen Levine. Books like “Say Something” by Peter Reynolds, “Separate is Never Equal” by Duncan Tonatiuh and “We March” by Shane W. Evans facilitate conversations about responsible activism. Expose them to anything that teaches them to find their voice and have the courage to speak up for what is right and, more importantly, speak out against what is wrong.
2. Teach kids in ways they least expect it.
My girls wear a lot of their history. They alternate between shirts with images of Harriet Tubman, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Ida B. Wells, Rosa Parks and Maya Angelou. They pick between an Earth Heroes shirt, one promoting Suffragettes and some days, a “Justice” tee. Through a shirt with a name, an image or a word, they meet a significant historical figure or celebrate something important to all of us. (A book from a series like “Who Is” or “I Am” is an excellent way to compliment their gear and expand their knowledge.)
Reclaiming your kids’ TV and tablet time with content that they will enjoy and learn from will help ease the screentime battle for all. If you’ve added pureed cauliflower to their mac and cheese or thrown a little pumpkin in their pancakes, then you’ve already mastered giving them what they want, while making sure they get what they need. The Xavier Riddle series on PBS Kids introduces so many complicated and important historical heroes. In an age-appropriate way, they show how “kids like you can change the world,” with episodes featuring everyone from Wilma to Jackie, Thurgood to Confucius.
3. Unify through listening and action.
Everything we must teach our Black boys and girls requires nuance. You must be strong and assertive but know that you may be intimidating simply by walking into a room. Remember you belong here (valedictorian, boss, team captain), but people may tell you you don’t. We must constantly negotiate a world of contrast and mixed messaging and teach our children to compensate for things, and in ways, that they can’t even understand.
Parents of white children have the power to create listeners and allies. Actively seek out inclusive organizations and avoid those that are not and then explain those choices to your kids. Maintain a diverse group of friends, ask questions and engage in dialogue with those who have had different cultural experiences than yours. You almost certainly have different perceptions of fairness and equality because you experience it as a white person; to acknowledge that reality is integral to the pursuit of racial equity and justice.
4. Demonstrate that it’s everyone’s fight.
If we focus on how alike we are as human beings, we might just expose to our children how artificial the things that divide us truly are. Talk about the power of partnership.
One of the most emotional conversations I had with my children this summer happened as we watched coverage of marches from LA to NYC. Showing them a clip of the protests, I began to cry — but in joy, not sorrow. “Look at the crowd,” I told them. “Do you see who is marching? It’s not just Black people! It’s white people. It’s everyone.”
Movements are collaborative and our kids need to know this is a shared battle. We are in this together. The Civil Rights Movement doesn’t work without white people. Social and racial justice in 2020 doesn’t work without white people. This can and should be celebrated.
5. Do Unto Others.
Finally, I think one of the most important elements of any conversation white parents have with their kids in the context of race has more to do with humanity than color. Quite simply — follow The Golden Rule.
As parents, it is our responsibility to raise a generation of human beings who want to learn from, listen to and understand each other. Can you imagine a white police officer jamming his knee into the side of a Black man’s neck as “treat everyone the way you want to be treated,” runs through his head? Neither can I.
Talking to my son this summer about why a policeman may treat him differently than his friends, simply because of the color of his skin, was heart-wrenching for me. It was clearly bewildering to a boy who adores police officers and at that time, wanted to be one. The only solace I find is in telling him that I will surround him – and that he must surround himself – with people who love him, listen to him, speak up for him, stand by him and help him stay safe.
When we become open and honest about our country’s racial history, normalize the conversation around race and commit to work together, we will raise educated and empathetic kids who will fight for the change our world so desperately needs. We can’t afford to wait.