During the holiday season, my 5-year-old children — our adopted daughter, who is black and from Ethiopia, and our Jewish and Cajun biological son — watched the 1942 American musical “Holiday Inn” with my husband, a Christmas-y movie that he assumed would be lighthearted.
It starred Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. It had snappy dance routines and music by Irving Berlin, including “White Christmas,” which received a 1943 Academy Award for Best Original Song.
All was merry, until suddenly, Crosby and his love interest Marjorie Reynolds sang “Abraham,” a song honoring Lincoln’s birthday, in shoe-polish blackface. The band behind them and the waiters were also in blackface.
Our children looked confused, my husband later told me, and barraged him with questions.
“Why is that person black, now?” my son, named Lincoln, asked.
“How much of him is black?” my daughter, Gabby, followed, her face scrunching up into her something’s-not-right-here expression.
Doesn’t matter that the song’s technically about the Emancipation Proclamation that freed slaves in the South. It was cringeworthy and jarring. My husband said he didn’t know how to answer their questions, stumped by two 5-year-olds seeing blackface for the first time.
Wanting only to protect them, he fast-forwarded through the scene. For days, my husband and I wondered how to explain it. I worried it would be too difficult for them to understand such an abhorrent form of dehumanization. Should I even bring it up again?
First, I checked in with their amazing teacher, Phillip Andrew Williams, who said he would keep a topic like blackface simple for very young children. He said he would explain that, for a long time, people painted their faces to be mean to those who look different from them.
“Because of what happened in the past, this idea of painting your face to look like a real-life person who looks different from you is a really bad idea, because you can really hurt someone’s feelings, and make them feel unsafe to be around you,” he said he would tell children.
Blackface is back in the spotlight after a photograph emerged last week from Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D) medical school yearbook page. It shows one man in blackface standing beside a figure in a Ku Klux Klan robe. On Wednesday, another Virginia official, Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D), said he once dressed in blackface during college.
For insight on how to speak to my kids and navigate our country’s often preposterous reality, I talked to Lawrence Ross, a best-selling author and speaker on racism — and a parent. He has written several books, including, “Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses.” His responses have been edited for length and clarity.
How does a parent explain blackface to young children? And more specifically, how does a white parent of an African American child and a white child explain this?
If you’re going to talk to your children about blackface in this country, you’re going to have to first recognize whether you understand it yourself. Do you use your white privilege in your life to avoid conversations about race? In fact, do you understand that we don’t start with racism, but the foundation of this country held white supremacy as a fundamental philosophy of America?
So as a black parent, how would I talk to your children? I would expect you to do the same as a white parent: “What you saw was blackface, a way for white people to pretend that black people aren’t human like they are. Unfortunately, our country was founded on the idea that all people are created equal, but we also believe that people who aren’t white don’t deserve to be seen as equal. But the good news is that you can help change that.”
Blackface and minstrel shows were designed to strip humanity of people of color. What’s going to happen is that your child’s questions are only going to get more complex, and it does them a disservice if you don’t explain it. If you don’t give them the real truth, you are trivializing its importance. We can say colorblind this and colorblind that, but what happens when that little black child is Tamir Rice?
Do you talk about racial progress in the United States?
Absolutely. Every person in this country has a responsibility to look at what is wrong in this country and deconstruct it. I’m not a rosy-picture person, trying to say, "It’s all okay now.” That’s not true.
But the great promise of America is that we believe in principles that every generation has to strive for. Then you empower them. You show them the heroes and heroines. President Barack Obama. Martin Luther King Jr. Ida B. Wells. And talk about how she, for example, went in the face of white supremacy and she became a superhero. You tell them that, in this world, it’s not just about her being a good person; it’s what do you do to create a better world. That’s why I wouldn’t start with slavery and segregation. Those were public policies that grew out of white supremacy. Then you are playing whack-a-mole, and someone can say, ‘Well, we got rid of slavery.’ What’s deeper is that this country was built on philosophy where — for some — whiteness had a higher value, and every generation is trying to deconstruct that.
What if their attention spans are very short?
Sure, they may say, “Thank you. Can you put Elmo on?” But, at 5 years old, it’s less about them being fully engaged. It’s really a call to action for parents. How will you parent on this issue until they are 18 years old? It’s the same with gender. If I’m the father of a girl — when they get into elementary, I’m going make sure they are not dismissing the talents of my daughter in terms of math and science.
What are the differences between the way white parents and black parents deal with this?
White parents, especially with a black child, want to protect. “Treat everyone nicely and you will be fine” or “Oh, he’s just a jerk.” But that’s disconnected from systematic racism. How would black families react? You don’t want to make them scared of the world, but you don’t want to walk out into the world completely unarmed and unable to understand the world. It’s the same way that we don’t believe in making up baby names for sexual organs. At a young age, there are concepts they are going to get and not going to get. You tell them the truth from the beginning; that helps empower them.
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