The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How I’m teaching my Black children to thrive in a world that isn’t fair

Rioters broke windows and breached the Capitol building in an attempt to overthrow the results of the 2020 election. (Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket/Getty Images)
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On Jan. 6, my children and I settled down to watch a historic moment: the certification of our next president, Joe Biden. It would be a teaching moment, I thought, about how democracy works. The day certainly didn’t go as I expected, but the teaching moment only grew.

As we watched the certification of Joe Biden, my 8-year-old and 14-year-old wanted to know why there were protesters outside the Capitol. Why are they angry? Why do they think Donald Trump won? Why, they asked, aren’t they getting in trouble?

I tried to explain the First Amendment, that we are supposed to be able to say what we want to say in this country. That we can peacefully protest and should be protected from being arrested.

But eventually, we watched as a mob rushed the doors of the Capitol, smashed their way inside, removed a lectern, scattered congressional documents, stole files and kicked a boot up on a desk in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office. There was no National Guard on site. There weren’t many officers, and those who were there were being overrun, or in some cases appeared to pose for pictures and allow rioters to enter the Capitol grounds.

Lafayette Square, Capitol rallies met starkly different policing response

As hard as it was to watch unfold, it was a teachable moment for my children about the dual worlds inhabited in America: one Black, one White.

They asked me: How can the mostly White crowd storm the U.S. Capitol with so few arrests? (Capitol Police made 14 arrests that day, and D.C. police had arrested 69 people by the next morning, most on curfew and unlawful entry charges.) Why was the police presence so apparent for the protests after George Floyd was killed? (During the June 1 Black Lives Matter protests, D.C. police arrested 289 people, many of them on curfew violation charges that were later dropped.)

Miriam Carey was shot at 26 times by officers near the Capitol in 2013. Her sister contrasts her fate to the treatment of the Jan. 6 rioters.

“Why are they doing that?” my daughter asked.

“Because they can,” was my pathetic answer.

Being children, they care deeply about what is fair, what is right and wrong. They see when someone isn’t being treated the same, when people play favorites.

Here are the ways I have taught them about the “two Americas” so they can thrive in a country where systemic racism threatens to hold them back:

Talk early, talk often

My son got his introduction to our racial caste system at the tender age of 5. Before the killing of Trayvon Martin, his whole life revolved around trains and Elmo. After Trayvon’s death, my parenting style immediately shifted into protect mode. I needed to keep him emotionally and physically safe and disrupted this sweet spot of childhood to teach him that being a Black male in America made him the target of people who saw only his skin color and not his brilliance. Today, he’s become accustomed to my lessons about unconscious bias and systemic racism. He understands, sadly, that despite how handsome and bright he is, despite how kind and caring he is, some people view him as a threat. He now knows that he has to live his life with eyes wide open.

Teach through their eyes and interests

Throughout my children’s lives, I’ve used their interests to talk about how Black people are treated differently, in hopes that it helps them understand the issues we face when the subject of race becomes more abstract.

After learning that lacrosse was an Indigenous sport initially played by the Algonquin tribe and that Jim Brown was one of its greatest players, I introduced my son to the sport. During the first three seasons, he was the only Black player on his team. And on game days, amid all those kids across the length of a football field, our numbers rarely topped five. If my son was bothered by being the “only” Black person on the team, he never let on. I believe his nonchalance was because he had been fortified by our talks about loving his skin and being proud of his race. I made the point of telling him that lacrosse wasn’t always easily accessible to kids who looked like him, and not to take the experience for granted. This was probably his first lesson in how racialized sports could be.

My daughter, lean and graceful, loves to dance. Her introduction to discrimination was a story about famed ballerina Raven Wilkinson, who was the first African American to dance with Ballet Russe. Even with years of classical training, Wilkinson was often redirected to African dance or jazz, not because she couldn’t Développé, but because she was Black. I directed this conversation, drawing a line from Raven Wilkinson to Virginia Johnson, a founding member of the Dance Theater of Harlem, to Misty Copeland, the first Black female principal dancer for the American Ballet Company, to let my daughter know that Black women had already fought for their place in the dance world, and she had a spot, if she wanted it. Not only could she be mesmerized by their talent, she could see them as groundbreaking models for girls like her.

Help them find role models

When my daughter turned 6, a friend gifted her “Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History” by Vashti Harrison. This book contains short biographies about Black women who overcame discrimination to have success as political activists, talk-show hosts, scientists and artists. These women are tangible examples of how to fight injustice. When we travel, we go to museums and historic sites to make what they’ve learned in a book or on the Internet come alive. I want them to appreciate how resilient Black people are, even as injustice continues to plague us well into the 21st century.

Children’s books can help start a conversation about race. Parents have to continue it.

Give them the real story on fairness

Like most young kids, my daughter sees fairness as her North Star. She expects to be treated the same as her peers, and lo the fallout when the scales become unbalanced. As she matures, she is learning that it’s okay to feel disappointed when things don’t go her way. And both of my children are learning that, as much as we tell them “No one is better than you,” there are also things that White people can do that they can’t.

Double talk is a staple of Black parenting and necessary to prepare our kids to be surveilled wherever they go, be it the grocery store or a peaceful march.

But this is the burden for parents of Black children. Parents of White children have the luxury of shielding their children from the sting of racism. They can cherry-pick heroic aspects of American history and ignore unsettling talk of Indigenous and African enslavement, segregation and double standards.

All I can do for now, as a Black mother to two Black children, is keep talking. This conversation will continue well into their adulthood, and hopefully serve as a bridge over troubled waters.

I’m thankful, at least, that Wednesday’s inauguration offers a bright spot, along with teachable moments, in that conversation.

I will teach my children about the tenacity of President Biden, who ran for office three times before he won; I will teach them the value of an education from an HBCU; and I will share with them the pride I have for my soror, Vice President Harris, whose glass-shattering ascendance to this office means my daughter can dream without limits.

Nefertiti Austin is a memoirist and author of “Motherhood So White: A Memoir of Race, Gender and Parenting in America.” She lives with her two children in Los Angeles.

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More reading:

Don’t shy away from talking to kids about the Capitol riot. They know more than you think.

The exhausting reality of parenting, and why we hide it from our children

What White parents get wrong about raising anti-racist kids, and how they can do better

In Black families like mine, the race talk comes early and it’s painful. But it’s not optional.