Juneteenth, which officially become a federal holidaythis week, memorates June 19, 1865, the day that 250,000 enslaved Black people finally received word that they were free — more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
We spoke with Khadijah Booth Watkins, a psychiatrist and associate director for the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital, who shared insights on how parents can talk to kids about Juneteenth, and how to continue the conversations around racism and anti-racism year-round.
Here is our Q&A, lightly edited for length and clarity.
So let’s talk about Juneteenth. What is it? I think it’s great we’re talking about this for sure. ... [Freedom of enslaved people] didn’t really happen right away. It took two years for the news to travel to Texas, which was the last Confederate state to hear it. Part of that is important to note, because there was still a lot of resistance [to the ending of slavery], and it was horrific and brutal and [people were] forced to work and lose lives. And to this day, we’re still fighting for people of color to have freedoms and liberties.
How does this fit in to the larger issues we need to teach our kids about systemic racism, especially since the last year or so has uncovered such deep-rooted issues? The way I think about it is, it really just highlights the continued struggle against structural racism. It’s a place to talk about where it started, and we can’t ignore that it continues. This just gives the history ... to understand what is structural racism and what needs to be done to unravel systemic racism.
Why is it important that we, as parents, explain it to our kids? For starters, this conversation [about racism] is happening. Whether you like it or not, it’s happening. So I like to control the narrative in my household and what our values are and what we prioritize. To be in charge of information or clarify information that they’re hearing and be able to help them understand why you’re hearing this, why people think that. The other thing I think is important to know is that everyone has to be part of the conversation, whether they are families of color or not. Because everyone has to be part of the solution. It’s important for families who aren’t families of color to talk about privilege and how to be anti-racist. This is a great opportunity to take a moment and show [children] how racism plays out. If the floor is not open for kids to ask these questions, they are left to their own devices to put the pieces together.
How do we get our kids to listen and talk about issues of racism in this country? As long as it’s safe, help them learn they can speak up and say something and not just stand by. Get kids involved in protests, write letters. It’s an education. Hearing their thoughts about what’s happening and going on, and what they want to do to play a role, that’s really important. They have their own thoughts about the role they want to play. Don’t force them to do anything if they feel unsafe or uncomfortable. Take their lead. It’s always a gradual process.
Why is Juneteenth a good moment to talk? Juneteenth, a lot of people still aren’t talking about it. It’s a great starting point to have a conversation. It’s a good opportunity to seize the moment; it’s a conversation starter. [Then] continue to have the conversations. It’s really a chance to start the conversation and talk about what their role is. Go back and read books together. Visit museums. You can do things virtually to think and explore it. Make it comfortable to have these conversations. [Racism] is scary to talk about, but we have to think about how to increase [our kids’] tolerance.
What tips do you have on how to talk to kids about racism? Key points: Create a safe space, where they feel comfortable that it’s not clouded with judgment and criticism. Kids are very attuned to body language and nonverbal cues. Make your kids part of the problem-solving team. Bring them in and ask what is a good way to celebrate this holiday. We could visit a museum, paint a picture, for instance. But most important, listen and be aware of their emotions. Once they see we can’t tolerate their emotions, they feel that they are upsetting us or being a burden. Most kids don’t want to upset their parents or feel like a burden, so they immediately shut the conversation down. Being able to tolerate their emotion is extremely important.
How do you do this with your own children? I have two boys: 12 and 19. I feel like we don’t talk about it enough at home. We have to talk about it more than I’d even like to. We watch documentaries that are up around this month. We usually will go back and learn more about something, like why did it take so long to get the news. Documentaries usually foster a lot of questions. I try to make it an educational experience, but I don’t want it to be daunting.