There are many talks that take place along the journey of raising a child. You know the ones: The importance of kindness and sharing, the physical changes that occur while growing up, why it’s important to be smart about dating and sex.
Like in my house, where I have two beautiful daughters who are excited to explore the world around them, unafraid to speak their minds. It is a marvel to watch as they learn how to navigate their community. They have the dual perspectives of being first generation through my status as an immigrant from Jamaica while simultaneously tracing their ancestry to the original colonizers on the Mayflower through their father.
In this country, they are children of color and need to know what that means.
For one thing, we need to talk to them early because there is a transition where children of color are no longer viewed as cute kids, but as threats by some and objects of fetish by others. Little black girls are seen as less innocent than their same-aged white peers.
And so, shortly after the 2016 election, I was driving with my kids in the car and we had a talk. They were around 5 and 7 years old and I was heartbroken for the changes that were about to befall our nation. There were words they needed to hear from me before they heard them from anyone else. I felt that they needed to understand the context and meaning of horrible language so they could call it out if they heard it being used. I cried and ran down a list of racial slurs used towards African Americans, East Asians, South Asians, Latinx and white people.
I did not want them to tolerate verbal abuse of anyone in their presence. I had that experience myself and did not want the same thing to happen to them.
The first time I heard the “n” word was when my second grade teacher at my suburban Philadelphia school used it against me. I had no idea what it meant, but I knew he didn’t like me and as a 6 or 7-year-old, I knew he was being mean to me. I asked my older sister, who was in third grade, what it meant. She didn’t know either, so we asked my father. My parents were livid and contacted the school immediately. I was moved to the other second grade class, but he continued teaching at the school. The other teacher didn’t seem to like me any more than he did, nor did the teachers for the remainder of my time at that school. But I don’t think I heard that particular word again.
As my children were in their early elementary years in 2016, I doubted that would happen their school, but one never knows. They had to learn to recognize hatred if there was any hope of them being able to call it out, name it and most importantly, know it was wrong. It was a painful conversation that they still remember.
Last week, when we talked about the murder of George Floyd, my older daughter burst into tears. It was another painful discussion, but once again, in no way was it an optional one. They need to know the world we are in.
And your children do, too, no matter what color their skin.
The conversation I had with my children about racial slurs was as important to me as conversations we have had and will have about consent and bullying. The conversations are difficult, to be sure, but they are easier than some. The parents of black sons in particular have to spell out, in excruciating detail, what to do if and when they have an encounter with law enforcement. They need to talk about it and some even have drills to practice, because the heat of the moment can trigger the flight or fight response. And that can lead to death. Death can be the result even when black men who comply with instruction. Prone. On the ground. Begging for the opportunity to breathe.
The chilling effect of repeated murders and the use of law enforcement to dominate and subdue, rather than to protect the public good, is profound. The cycle of murder, outrage, isolated punishment and complacence will not stop until all parents feel the need to have the talk. It will be different in homes where there are not children of color, but is no less necessary. Parents who don’t recognize their implicit bias will be forced to reset themselves. Children will grow up with different internalized messages. Some homes will propagate racist and white supremacist ideologies, but those children might run into someone who was raised differently and explore a different path. That has to be the hope. We cannot keep doing this. Because as parents raising children in this world, it’s too hard to breathe.
Dr. Khama Ennis is the Chief of Emergency Medicine at a community hospital in Western Massachusetts. She enjoys raising her two daughters and writes to share less heard perspectives.
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