The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The making of a global citizen means teaching your kids about racism

Jacinth Green with daughters Logan, 13, and Marley, 11, at their home in Herndon. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)
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When Jacinth and Miguel Green returned to Virginia after six years in Senegal and India, they had to deal with culture shock. Especially for their kids. Having said goodbye to friends at their last international school in 2019, the Greens’ two daughters enrolled in a Fairfax County elementary school.

International schools cite as their mission the development of the “global citizen” and place a premium on fostering cultural understanding. In Virginia, the word “culture” tends to be associated more with war than understanding. As in culture war.

What was happening to their girls sure seemed like an attack to the Greens.

“Almost as soon as my kids started school, one of them came home asking why somebody had told her that her skin looked like dirt,” Jacinth Green recalled. “Then she’d ask why teachers were making comments about her hair.”

Last year, Green learned that a daughter’s virtual class discussion on slavery had been disrupted by a White student who joked about the cost of buying an enslaved African, she said.

“I was like, ‘Man, I’ve really got to bear down here and help my kids understand what’s going on,’ ” Green said.

Green, 44, moved to the United States from Jamaica as a fifth-grader. She has a master’s degree in public health from New York University. Her husband, a childhood friend from Jamaica, is an electrical engineer with an international clientele. She took the lead in keeping the girls’ spirits up and keeping them on the path to global citizenship.

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Miguel prepares breakfast for his daughters, gives them a daily pep talk before sending them off to school, and then heads to work.

Jacinth Green had an idea for creating a timeline of African American progress, possibly as a school project. But Virginia schools were still recovering from a bruising fight over critical race theory. Conservative politicians were still trying to restrict teaching about race, not encourage it.

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At school board meetings and on social media, White parents are saying that teaching any lessons about institutional racism or implying that the United States is a racist country is unfair to them and their kids. Somehow, anyone who brings it up is accused of “race shaming” White people because of the color of their skin.

The concerns of Black students seemed all but forgotten.

But not by Black parents.

Not by the Greens.

Jacinth Green and her daughters decided to go ahead with plans for the timeline — but make it gigantic, like academic wall art, stretching from the kitchen along the walls from one room to another, utilizing whatever space was needed to encompass a grand time frame. Five thousand years of Black achievement, dating back to the rise of the great civilizations of ancient Africa on up to the present-day United States, topped off with the nomination of the first Black woman to the Supreme Court.

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They have already set up a “brainstorming” blackboard that they use to list prospective topics and events for inclusion on the timeline.

“To look at what has been accomplished, the obstacles that were overcome, and then locate yourself on that continuum, will be empowering,” Jacinth Green said.

The books they are using for research line the shelves of a bookcase. Books are stacked on a coffee table; books are open for study on the carpeted living room floor.

The books include “The History of White People,” written by historian Nell Irvin Painter in 2010. This is a primer on how race became a social construct — a concept in this country based on a notion that “one drop” of “Black blood” determines whether you are “Black” or “White.”

“It is very important for my children to know the origins of racism, that racism is a malady of society,” Green said. “I don’t want them to come up questioning their self-worth because of somebody else’s sick mind.”

Another book she found helpful was “White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity,” written by Robert P. Jones in 2020. Jones was head of the Public Religion Research Institute, a polling firm that looks at politics and religion.

The book makes a case, as Jones puts it, that “American Christianity’s theological core has been thoroughly structured by an interest in protecting white supremacy.” He lays out the ways White Christianity has been the primary cultural and religious institution creating the nation’s racial caste system, and he calls on his fellow White Christians to cease with their imagined sense of superiority and anti-Black racism.

In other words, racism is not just personal. It’s also institutional. Just bigger obstacles to overcome.

Green and her daughters also discussed “Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment Is Killing America’s Heartland,” written by Jonathan M. Metzl in 2019. The book shows how White conservative politicians sold their opposition to Obamacare, gun control and education funding as a way to keep government small — and prevent Blacks and immigrants from getting undeserved benefits.

The actual results, according to Metzl, were an increase in White deaths because of poor health care, suicides by gun, and despair over being uneducated and unemployable.

“To realize how easily racism can be used to get people to vote against their best interest was an eye-opener,” Jacinth Green said. “Of course, it’s not just conservative White people who suffer. The Black people who live around them in Southern red states also fared poorly. So, ending racism is still in everybody’s best interest.”

While living in Dakar, the family had visited Gorée Island, just off the coast of Senegal. Millions of enslaved Africans had been sent to labor until death in the Americas between the 15th and 19th centuries. The Greens had stood in a doorway that looked out over the Atlantic, where many Africans had jumped to their death rather than be forced to live and die as enslaved people.

Green daughters Logan, 13, and Marley, 11, remember the scene with reverence whenever the subject of slavery comes up. And they also remember that some classmates made jokes about it, disrupting a discussion and preventing others from learning the truth.

Logan used their plans for the timeline to show how truth eventually prevails.

“We start the timeline in the kitchen, which is like the classroom, then we expand it out into the dining room, which is like the world,” she said. “That’s what you do with knowledge. Take it out into the world.”

You can bet that no small-minded people will stop them.