If you turn to any major news station, you’ll get a visual reminder that the United States isn’t okay.
That’s because black families can’t afford to wait until adolescence to begin conversations about identity, and most black children, by age 10, have an adult view of biological and social racial constructs, says Afiya Mbilishaka, a D.C.-based clinical psychologist and professor. “Starting early and remaining consistent can help children to buffer the toxins of mainstream society. Setting the stage for a positive outlook on culture allows for a secure ground to unpack systems of white supremacy.”
Caron Jackson-Harrigan, a black mother of two in Sicklerville, N.J., says that she began discussing race with her children when they were toddlers. She and her husband, who is white, wanted to get ahead of what they’d learn in school. “I believe that’s where kids start to navigate their identity and relationships apart from their family,” she says. She and her husband wanted to ensure that both cultures were represented for their boys in music, books and social issues. “They are still brown males who will be treated as such. I am not multiracial, but I am raising my sons the way I was raised: as a citizen of the world.”
She believes that in this political climate, these aren’t conversations to skip. “There is no one ‘right way’ to talk to children about race. Mistakes are bound to be made, and kids’ racial thinking does not begin or end with a single conversation,” she says. “They should never stop talking about race, or educating themselves. Ask your kids if they’ve seen racist language in YouTube videos or comments. Help them understand how following or sharing racist accounts helps spread hate.”
Another black mother, Cicely Mangum, from Philadelphia, has taken a similar approach with her four boys. She and her husband “talk about it more frequently and more in depth, almost every night at dinner. We admonish the boys, caution them about how they are perceived as black boys [and] men,” she says. “We talk about how they should conduct themselves around police and how they may be viewed when they are in predominantly white spaces, that they will not be afforded the same privileges as their white counterparts and that these individuals may not see their humanity.”
But what about white families? Are they sitting their children down to discuss how to interact with the police, how to avoid suspicion? Do they even know how?
Jason Moore, a white father from Blackwood, N.J., has chosen not to discuss racism and police brutality with his 9-year-old daughter. “She has a child’s understanding of the world, so I try to protect her from all of the negativity. However, we do speak of bullies and charlatans, and how they manipulate and lie. So she has the appropriate instincts about questionable people and situations.” Moore’s daughter has not seen any footage of protests or encountered any instances of overt racism, but he says he will be honest when the time comes.
Mbilishaka believes this period it is the right time. “White parents should begin discussing racism upon a child’s exposure to the media, and when it happens, they should recognize that they are not the authorities on the topics of racism and police brutality,” she says. “Caution should be taken to not ‘whitesplain’ racism, even to their own children,” meaning when a white person explains something and adds their own bias, often in a condescending tone.
Sociology professor Sarah Tosh says that it is common and not surprising that many white families might find these topics difficult to discuss. “Since the civil rights movement, there has been a movement toward what is known as ‘color blindness’ in the United States. This basically means there is a push for racial equality on a basis that we ‘do not see color,’ ” she says. “While the societal prioritization of colorblindness has positive intentions, it also makes it much easier for white Americans to ignore examples of racial bias, and to persistently look for nonracial explanations when presented with instances of racially motivated violence or race-based inequality.”
Of course, many white families have prepared their children. Here is how they navigate these difficult conversations.
Stacy Cohen, of Moorestown, N.J., says that when talking to her four children, ranging in ages 6 to 13, she puts her emotions aside and just focuses on the facts. “I talk to them as current events dictate. All of my children know that not all people feel safe calling the police for help and that, sadly, these people that so many of us depend on for safety, don’t do a fair job of keeping everyone safe, especially people of color,” she says. “We’ve talked about how black families have to have conversations on what to do if they get pulled over by the police, but we don’t have to have those conversations. My oldest three were told about George Floyd and how he was killed by someone who is supposed to be protecting him. The conversations are always uncomfortable, and I attribute that to my uncertainty of how to relay the information to them in an impactful but nonthreatening way.”
Donna Cassise, a mother of two in Berlin, N.J., says that she’s been having honest conversations with her 14-year-old daughter Josephine since she was young. Donna’s adult son, who is half-Mexican, has been profiled, so it was important to make her daughter aware. Recently, the conversations have become more frequent, since Josephine watched the footage showing George Floyd’s death, and was upset by racist comments from her friends. “The conversations are twofold. I have family members who are police officers, and we know most cops are good, but it’s a tough subject. You want to tell your kids the cops are there to protect you,” she says. “Unlike my son, I don’t have the fear of her going outside because of the color of [my daughter’s] skin, but we have friends and family who are black that we worry about. I tell Josie that if the good cops aren’t speaking out about the bad cops, then they are a part of the problem.”
Kate Delany, a white mom in Collingswood, N.J., has taken her 11- and 7-year-old children with her to protests. She says that the honest discussions with them aren’t uncomfortable, but they are emotional. “Samara, like me, gets really angry. Felix, my 7-year-old, cried about George Floyd and has cried about police brutality against people of color before,” she says. “We talk about it in full, and as a history teacher, [my husband] Seth often anchors conversations in the historic and systemic racism that is endemic to our country. I don’t pretend to have answers, but we talk about recent events and white privilege in the context of how Seth could go on a walk late at night in our town and Bill, our close black friend, could not without being harassed. Because my kids are close with Bill, that gave them a context to think about it and feel more deeply about it, I hope. I think that’s probably another takeaway for white people — they need to desegregate their lives.”
Mangum’s 17-year-old son, Yende, also wanted to offer advice to white families: “I wish my white friends knew what it was like to have the color of your skin be one of the most defining aspects of your existence, and that they could walk around in my skin for a day. Then, they would experience the prejudice and microaggressions that we face on a daily basis. We are not attacking them personally when we protest. All we want is equality, not revenge; your quality of life will not be negatively impacted if ours is improved. We do not hate white people. The color of your skin is no more your fault than mine is mine. Your white privilege is not your fault, you didn’t ask for it. The way you choose to handle it determines what side you are on. When you acknowledge that it exists, it shows us that you value us as people and as equals, and we appreciate you all the more for it.”
It is never easy to discuss racism, no matter your race. Nobody ever feels ready to have these conversations, but the sooner we begin to communicate, the sooner we can all begin to heal.
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