Do you remember the first time you realized you were Black? I know it’s a rather odd and maybe even off-putting question. But just consider it. In that same vein, as a parent, how does this impact how you prepare your children for the dynamics of race from preschool to graduate school?
Without a doubt, if you are a conscientious parent, you’ve got every doll shaded beautifully from mahogany to chestnut. India Arie is blasting from speakers with that kid-friendly reminder “you are not your hair.” You tell your kids constantly their hair and skin are just the way God wanted them to be and of course, you make a point to tell them all about the achievements of African Americans. Look, you even have a Black president and first lady to point out.
Imagine your surprise when your kid asks something like “why isn’t my hair straight” or “why isn’t my skin white.” How do you respond to this? Do you quickly dismiss their question? Maybe you find a way to degrade or insult White people with the hopes of uplifting your child’s race in their eyes? You could just dodge it, but we shouldn’t. Parenthood has so many humbling moments when you feel ill-prepared. Where is the handbook for preschool racism? How about the manual for growing healthy racial identity?
We live in a culture that values “White” identity. Often a White identity that actual White folks don’t meet themselves, but nevertheless the face of all that is “normal” to good is White. Chris Rock once quipped, “there ain’t a white man in this room that would change places with me. None of you…and I’m rich. That’s how good it is to be White. ”Even small children can detect that the people of color are not the people of privilege. Kids internalize this racially charged culture we live in and must with the help of parents create a defense to toxic stereotypes, lowered expectations, and feelings of being ignored or scrutinized very early.
I think it’s time we have the “talk” with our kids? No, no. Not about the birds and the bees, but rather the talk about what it means to be Black. Now, you can probably guess what I will say next. This talk can only be approached by parents who have already had this conversation with themselves. What does your racial identity mean to you? For that matter, what does all of your identities mean? Have you worked through what your religious beliefs, nationality, or gender mean to you and the larger world you call home?
How do we prepare our children for racism? How do we help them to embrace and appreciate the beauty of diversity? How do we assist them in developing a secure racial identity that’s both protective and healthy but resists demeaning others?
Here are three things to consider as we help our children with the lofty goal of understanding race.
In all honesty, most parents want their children to be something that they are not. That sounds harsh but it’s true. We often expect a level of virtue and achievement beyond our own achievements. It’s understandable that we want our children to be better than us. However, parents must be what we want our children to be. We must offer our children an alternative to negative stereotypes through lived experiences. Black women are “loud and aggressive.” Black men are “void of self-control and responsibilities.” These outrageous sentiments pervade the undercurrent of our culture but with every false imagine we as parents have an opportunity to expose them as lies. Our character, compassion, and ethic will ring louder than the images they encounter. They must ring louder.
Can your kids talk to you? Getting a good poker face can go a long way in parenting. Our kids learn us just as we believe we learn them. If we send messages that what they are saying and feeling is ridiculous, too taboo to discuss, or beyond our ability to handle, they will likely not discuss it with us. One of the many reasons, that we see an epidemic of bullying at play, is because many children don’t feel comfortable communicating their fears to their parents. If your child won’t talk to you, you will not know how they feel. Starting healthy communication starts before words are vocalized in children not when they are a secretive teen with a hidden life that you are attempting to infiltrate. So, are you able to talk about your concerns, fears, and strengths in child appropriate ways? As mentioned before, we must model what we hope to see in regards to communicating.
Many Black parents think that dropping their kids into a suburban or predominately White school is somehow the answer to grossly improving their academic and social outcome. It’s not that simple. Minority children in more affluent schools may have better academic resources, but social issues still persist. It is our job to see if our child’s school takes racism seriously by not treating children as if they are color blind when the research clearly rejects that. Does the school celebrate racial differences? Are there people in leadership who reflect the diversity of the students in the classroom? Does the school value the fair and dignified treatment of others as a value worth teaching and enforcing? In 2011, I don’t want my child to have to be a “trailblazer for equality.” I expect the school and extracurricular organizations that she participates in to be conscious and respectful of the cultural background of the children involved.
I will not likely forget when my oldest daughter, who at the time was in preschool, walked past an African parent while entering her school building. She stopped dead in her tracks and said to him “YOU are brown!” She beamed with delight. She put her hand next to his and although they were completely different colors, my little one was beyond excited. I believe her appreciation for their similarities makes her open to respecting and admiring the differences in others.
Nearly a century ago, Black psychologists, Mamie and Kenneth Clarke, showed the reality of racial consciousness among young children. The unfounded sentiment that kids don’t see color sets our children up for hard falls. A parents’ lack of self-introspection leads them away from tough questions and talks with their children. Considering that not only group membership but group exclusion became evident for preschoolers, we must lead the way on these conversations. Long before I was a mom, I had a conversation with a Black psychologist. She recounted a moment when she held her newborn son in her arms. She described weeping at the thought of all the stereotyping and bigotry that awaited her little one. Though sweet in her eyes, he was yet born into a world where Black men are demonized, degraded, and bombarded with low expectations. We cannot hide our children from racism nor can we make them think that hating the “other” is the solution. Growing a healthy identity starts with modeling, communication, and protection. It also starts now.