Since the horrific shooting in Charleston, the questions have been pouring in, mostly from white parents. “How do I talk to my children about what happened?” “How do I explain racism to my 6-year-old?” “How do I talk about this level of violence?” “How can I support African Americans in my community?”
Why didn’t any black parents write to me, asking what they can be doing? As one black mother put it to me, “We don’t have the luxury of deciding whether or not ‘to educate’ our children; this is our lives. These are the waters in which we swim. Join us.”
Okay. Message received.
The questions overwhelm me because I have no answers. Oh, sure, I have theories. I have data. I have brain development science and I have sentence starters. I have lists of books you can read and advocacy groups you can turn to.
But the feeling under every question I’ve received has been fear and despair. The questions are asked out of despair, and they inspire deep despair in me.
How do you make rational what is irrational?
How do you bring peace to utter chaos?
How do you bring love to hate?
Feeling overwhelmed, angry and sad beyond words, I turned to people who had some wise words, and who have been talking to their own children about racism for as long as they have had them.
Lonnae O’Neal is a writer for The Washington Post and a mother. She writes about racial issues from the heart, and when I asked her, “What can parents do in their families, with their children, to begin to change the conversation?” she did not list tips or talking points. Instead, O’Neal highlighted the need for parents to “befriend discomfort.”
The discomfort of living with racism. The discomfort of talking to children about racism. And for me, discomfort with the fact that I have misguidedly tried to insulate my children from the existence of violence and racism instead of facing it head-on. As O’Neal states so eloquently, “Instead of looking for answers and perfection and framing everything as simply ‘Black Issues,’ as parents we can begin the conversation that this is the story of America.”
If this is the story of America, here’s a good way for parents to tell it to their children. From picture books to early readers to young adult literature, the world is full of African American stories. The choices are endless, and you can begin wherever and whenever you like. There is no curriculum, and you can follow the stories as far down the path as you like.
With younger children (ages 2, 3 and 4), it is all about pointing and showing. It’s about making differences real, normal and equal. You don’t have to go far at these ages; children are pretty willing to be interested in anything that you are interested in. If you learn about the stories of people different from you, your children will follow suit. I like “Shades of People” by Shelley Rotner and “A Rainbow of Friends” by P.K. Hallinan. Both books are easy to read and gentle for young children. These and so many other great books can be found at Shades of Love at www.shelfari.com.
With older children (ages 5, 6 and 7), deeper questions can begin. “Why do you think the person in this story feels sad?” “Why do you think someone would treat someone else like that?” “How would you feel if you saw that?” “How would you feel if that happened to you?” As children develop, empathy can naturally occur, but we can aim the direction of that empathy.
Because the United States is predominantly white, we can begin to show children that it is very easy for many children to feel left out. Children can look far and wide and not see anyone who looks like them. Not in toys, not in commercials, not in movies, maybe not even in school. Two good books for children this age are “What Color Is My World?” by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (about African American inventors) and “The Other Side” by Jacqueline Woodson.
The objective is not to get perfect answers. The objective is to begin a conversation, a place where thoughtful discourse is encouraged and accepted.
Older children (8 and up), can begin to take in the news and have a dialogue with their parents about what they are seeing — whether it be the nightly news, newspapers (which I strongly recommend bringing back into the house) or magazines. A quick Google search also reveals numerous “kids news” sites, and they can be a great way to begin a conversation. Additionally, there are so many excellent books about children from other cultures, so many museums and historical sites to visit, so many pieces of music, theater and art to see. Some great books for children this age are “A Taste of Colored Water” by Matt Faulkner and “Mixed: Portraits of Multiracial Kids” by Kip Fulbeck.
And despite all of these easy recommendations, there remains a nagging problem: This is the parent’s responsibility. As O’Neal puts it, “In order to provide our children with the cultural dexterity to help them in our increasingly multicultural world, we cannot sit by and wait.” It is our responsibility not to scare children into caring but to bring about a realistic picture of what is happening in our country. To gently expose children to how different groups of people experience this life. And above all, to share the belief that each person is an individual and deserves to be compassionately heard and appreciated.
As I struggled with this idea of parental responsibility, a blog popped up in my Facebook feed by the Rev. Denise Anderson of Unity Presbyterian Church in Temple Hills. Titled “ ‘Allies,’ the Time for Your Silence Has Expired,” the blog is a call to action for all white people to stand up and do something. To stand behind the convictions we talk about and make them real. These lines made me sit up straight: “At this point, I’m not interested in your listening. I think the danger in this listening posture is, while it seems like the mindful and conscientious thing to do, it can also be far too convenient. It’s a great way of doing nothing. For the sake of finding the right action, you take no action instead.”
As a white parent, I check out books and show the news to my children and have heartfelt conversations. This is all good stuff. But I have to look into my own heart and ask myself, as Anderson asked me yesterday, “Am I living and helping and parenting with intention” toward social justice?
Many of us are living such insulated lives that it requires true planning and intention to learn and simply be with others who are different from us. Parents, we cannot wait for it to happen, we have to seek it out. We must create the circumstances.
In the spirit of living with this intentionality, Anderson pointed me to SURJ, or Showing Up for Racial Justice. SURJ describes itself as “a national network of groups and individuals organizing white people for racial justice. Through community organizing, mobilizing and education, SURJ moves white people to act as part of a multiracial majority for justice with passion and accountability.”
There are groups in almost every state, and you can make a difference by donating to their efforts, but make an even greater difference by participating in their events. And yes, bring the family!
So, of course, there are easy ways to show kids that racism is alive. That having a black president doesn’t mean that we are living in a post-racial world. That the history of how our country has treated people of color repeats itself until it bubbles to the surface, as it did in Baltimore this spring.
The not-so-easy part is that the racism and murders in Charleston are about us, parents. The shootings are a call for us to stand up. To not wait for the right politician or law or someone braver or smarter or holier or better than us. We need to account for how insular our own lives have become and ask ourselves some hard questions. What may result is guilt or discomfort, but that is okay. Use it to effect change. To care. To look with eyes wide open. To say something. To do something. Start small and continue. We can do it.
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” — Martin Luther King Jr.
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Also at washingtonpost.com Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A with Leahy at washingtonpost.com/advice , where you can also find past columns. Her next live chat is scheduled for June 8 at 11 a.m.