Raising Race-Conscious Children

Thanks to a grant from Faith in Action, the RE Committee participated in a webinar on “Raising Race-Conscious Children” last month. The committee decided not to share the webinar with RE parents (because of very poor sound quality and other technical problems), but I do want to share with you what we learned.

Note: Although the workshop wasn’t exclusively for white parents, this summary has been written with white parents in mind.

1) Name It
Naming race (and other social realities) can support people to be race conscious (as opposed to “color blind”).

In the book, Nurture Shock, Po Bronson and Ashley Merriman cite research by Brigitte Vittrup that shows how talking explicitly about race creates more positive attitudes about people of color. In fact, infants as young as six months old are categorizing by race. Using explicit language such as brown/peach or Black/White, we can become race-conscious.

Color-blindness ignores the reality of racism. Race-consciousness acknowledges racism. It is an essential first step of parenting our children if we want them to challenge and change this reality.

Naming race can seem hard at first. Affirm children’s questions and comments. Imagine a small child pointing out a person of color in the store, “Shhhhhh!!!! It isn’t polite to point!” (misguided, but comfortable attempt to raise a colorblind child) versus “yes, that woman’s skin is black, well it isn’t really black, is it? It is brown, but we say she is a Black woman.” In naming race we white parents are breaking an unwritten standard of behavior that says to name race is being racist. This summer my son, Liam, went to a soccer camp. On the first day, I watched as the kids dropped their bags and made friends easily, nothing like a soccer ball to help ease social tensions. All of the kids except a lone Black boy. He kept his backpack on and was kicking his soccer ball in place. I watched for a while. Then I went back, found Liam in the throng of boys, and said, see the Black boy over there, ask him to come and play. He did and they did. Maybe the boy wanted to play alone for a while? Maybe. Or did he want desperately to be included, but didn’t know how to break in. We need to bring race into ordinary daily conversations.

2) Narrate It
What does it mean to “narrate race.” After you have named it, continue and add your own feelings to make a personal connection.

Let your children see and hear you challenge stereotypes (“I feel…” “It seems to me…” “You know when I was growing up…”). We need to start talking about race even though we don’t have all the answers. We need to start talking about race even if we are terrified we will say the wrong thing (there will always be tomorrow to continue the conversation: “Remember yesterday when I said… I was thinking about it last night and I really feel…”). If you accept it as inevitable that we will make mistakes and that mistakes are a part of the process, it takes the pressure off of every encounter. Also if you have lots of encounters it takes the pressure off of each one. So the question I ended the last section with was my conversation starter after Liam got home from camp that first day. “So how did it go with the Black boy you were playing with? I was thinking about him today and wondering if maybe he just wanted to play alone or if he was relieved when you asked him to play? What do you think?” Building empathy can be very powerful in challenging white (boy) privilege.

3) Complicate It
Talk about fairness and unfairness.

This is such an important and often overlooked step. Tell your children that you think that what is happening is unfair. And that is why it is unacceptable to you (kids are all hard-wired about fairness–they will get this concept) and how you are changing things and how they can be active in not accepting the status quo. This can happen in little and big ways. I was back-to-school shopping at Target with the girls and there was a big push to get customers to sign up for a Target Card. When it was our turn at the register the Black cashier told me how great the card is and because she was so earnest I asked a question about the card. Like lightening, the white male manager came over and he started talking over her to me. Intent on giving her my attention, I changed my gaze back to her and addressed my follow up questions to her never looking at him. It worked. I ended up with a card I don’t really want, but also a nice lesson for my girls and a great conversation for the ride home, “Do you think the white manager would have talked over the cashier if it was another white man?” How do you think it made her feel to be talked over?” “How do you think it made her feel when I listened to her and asked her my next questions?” Also remember to be affirming about people of color in general and to counteract stereotypes. For example, during the same trip to Target, bathing suits were on clearance, but alas no “rash guards” that my very sunburned-prone daughter Mazie needs. She covets the typical suit with lots of exposed skin, “Yeah, if you were Andrea (a Black friend, who needs sunscreen but no rash guard) you could get that, huh?” “Yeah, Andrea is so lucky!” Or you can be subversive like my niece who while playing catch with her 9-year-old son, told him “Wow! you threw that like a girl!” And he just beamed with pride.

Does every conversation you bring up lead to a fruitful conversation about race? No, but we are setting the stage so that whenever an injustice is perceived our children know they can talk explicitly about it. How can you get started? If your child is young, you are in luck! There is no such thing as too young. Babies are the perfect place to practice talking about uncomfortable topics because they will not argue with you. You can work out how to phrase topics that are taboo while at the same time working to educate yourself on Black Lives Matter issues. If your child(ren) are a bit older check out the Racial Justice Library in the back of the Crossings Room. Take a book or two home and leave them on the coffee table. You read them. And then your child will be interested. Do not feel pressured to bring up race; it is enough to read the book, to do this every week, and let it happen organically. Two years ago, when I began this journey, I was reading the picture book “The Color of Me” to Abigail (then 3). As I was reading it for the 4th time, I assumed she was indeed color-blind and saw everyone as all people. She then asked, “Why some people brown and some people beige?” Oh, okay, there it is. But what if I wasn’t on my own journey to explore this topic with her? I am sure whatever I said wouldn’t win any Mother of the Year award, but the year before I would have said, “It isn’t polite to point out differences people can’t help” and that would lead her to form her own conclusions from life and the cycle would continue.

What else can you do? Write down the questions your children ask about race. Not in the moment, but later. Discuss the comments with your child’s other caregiver. This act will help you clarify and formulate how and what you want to communicate on this topic. Then toward the end of the year, we will have another event where we talk about raising race-conscious children, and you can share your stories.

Remember you are not alone on your journey. We are all in this together. Let’s find collective liberation with Black Lives Matter at the core.

For more information, please check out www.raceconscious.org.

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