Talking with kids about racism: your questions answered
by Arianna Rodriguez
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As parents we are constantly striving to do the right thing. We want what’s best for our children, and we pray that we are instilling in them the values and lessons that will help shape them in to productive, compassionate, upstanding citizens in society. But what do we do when we aren’t sure that what we are doing is enough? How do we teach them what the “right thing” to do in a certain situation is, when we ourselves are unsure?
Within these past couple of weeks, I have been met with variations of this question multiple times.
I am an African American woman. I am a daughter to an African American man. I am a sister to an African American brother. I am a sister-in-law to two African American brother-in-laws. I am an Aunt to African American nephews. My heart has been shattered by the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. Not only because their deaths were evil and unnecessary, but because yet again, the people who took their lives reinforced the message that people who look like all of those dear men that I listed above, aren’t worth the breath in their lungs. What made that determination for them? The African American skin that Ahmaud and George were clothed in.
As you can imagine, my hurt has run deep, and I am fortunate enough to have friends who have called or text to check on my heart. They have also asked what they can do to combat the evil that persists as racism in this world. And taking it a step further – how they can teach their children to combat the evil that is racism in this world. “What steps can I take?” several friends have asked. “How can I teach my children to value other cultures?” another inquired. And the question I have received the most: “How do I teach my children to be color blind at such a young age?”
My heart is to be a safe place for my Caucasian sisters and brothers who are genuinely seeking wisdom to do better and be able to ignite change in themselves and in their communities; free of judgement and anger and filled with grace and love. For me, I am committed to bringing about change through conversations – as difficult as some of those conversations might be.
Because I believe that we can shout at each other, (which only accomplishes us hearing our own voices) or we can create a space to listen to each other, (which allows both of us to be heard) and frankly, I think it is the latter that is going to propel us forward.
So let’s have a conversation! I’ll “listen” to you in the form of the questions that some of you have submitted, and then I’ll do my best to “talk” in the answer portions of this post. I do not have all of the answers and I do not know all of the things, but I hope that something I share can help you feel more equipped to love louder than you ever have before and be part of the solution that our country so desperately needs. Let’s chat!
How do I talk to my children about being color blind?
I have taken some time to process this question and in doing so, I realized that I myself haven’t talked to my children about how to treat people who don’t look like them; I have shown them. I have actually discouraged them from being color blind, but rather, have encouraged them to see other “colors” and embrace them, celebrate them, and create a space for them in their minds as well as in their hearts.
Because when we deny the existence of someone else’s color (and the culture that comes along with it), we attempt to paint everyone with the same brush, assume they experience the world in the same way that we do, and miss out on the opportunity of fulling enjoying all of the richness that our God has created for us here on Earth. Life seems much fuller when we are actually color aware.
Tangibly, my husband and I encourage color awareness by incorporating different colors and cultures into our everyday life. Since our daughters were young (they are 9 and 6 now), we were intentional about not just buying them Caucasian dolls (which are more easily found on store shelves) but buying them Black dolls, Asian dolls, Hispanic dolls, and dolls from other cultures. We try to make sure that some of the TV shows and the movies that they watch have diverse casts and characters. We expose them to different foods from different cultures and have the continuous conversation that just because something is different, doesn’t mean it is “weird.” We are fortunate enough to attend a multi-racial church. Our friend groups are comprised of extraordinary people who don’t all look like us, but also don’t all look like each other. They are from different backgrounds and colors, and it’s a beautiful thing to see.
What can I be doing as a parent to help destroy the bonds racism has over our nation?
First, you can pray. Dedicate a portion of your daily prayer time to asking God to dismantle and destroy the spirit of racism in our country.
Second, (this one might be painful, but it is so necessary) ask God to reveal to you if there is any forms of prejudice or implicit biases within you that you may not have even realized were there. I know, from doing the work myself, that this can be an uncomfortable process because we all want to believe that we would never think negatively about another person based upon their race. But the truth is, we all hold some prejudice inside of us, and it takes the active, daily renewing of our minds to confront these biases, get to the root of them, and replace them with Truth. Our children pay more attention to what we say and do than we realize, and it is important to take stock and notice if the words that we speak or the actions we do perpetuate negative stereotypes or challenge them.
Third, if you are not already doing so, incorporate some of the things I mentioned above into your children’s lives. It is harder to hate someone that you have seen the humanity in. If your children grow up with positive images of different races and cultures in their lives, when someone has something racist to say about someone of color or commits an act of injustice against them, they will not hesitate to call out the wrong and demand that it be made right.
How and when do I talk to my child about racism?
The answer to this question depends upon the age and maturity of your child. You know your child the best, so I will leave the when part up to you.
In our family, we allow space for hard conversations to happen organically. My husband and I feel passionately about allowing our children to be children for as long as they possibly can. One of the gifts that comes with being a child is the innocence they possess in believing that the world is rainbows and butterflies. We want to allow them to hold on to that notion for as long as they can, because once that is gone, there is no getting it back. However, if they ask tough questions, we do not shy away from them, but endeavor to answer their questions with age-appropriate truth.
For example, when our oldest was 5 years old, she learned about Martin Luther King Jr. in school. She came home and said to us, “Today we learned that White people and Black people used to not be able to go to school together or be friends. Martin Luther King Jr. helped change that… Why did some White people not like Black people?” We answered her question along the lines of, “Unfortunately Honey, not everyone has a kind heart like you. And there are people in this world who chose not to like someone just because of the way that they look. That is not the person they don’t like’s problem, that is their problem. But we know that isn’t right and not what Jesus tells us to do right?” and she said yes, and then we further discussed how God tells us to love all people regardless of what they look like. We allowed her to lead the conversation, meaning, she didn’t ask any more questions about it, so we didn’t continue the discussion.
Sometimes as parents I think we get intimidated by hard questions and think that we need to give an entire dissertation on a subject, when really, our children just want to know the specific answer to their one question. In our family, when it comes to hard topics, we let our kiddos lead the discussion by paying attention the questions they are asking. Because if they are old enough to ask you the question, more likely than not, they are old enough and ready to hear the (age appropriate) answer.
How do I teach my child to become allies at a young age? How do I teach them how to stand up to attitudes and beliefs that are racist?
You model for them how to do so. When you hear family members or people making racist comments or holding racist beliefs, you call them out on it. Your kiddos are constantly watching and listening. If they see you being brave and standing up for what’s right, they won’t know that there is an option to be silent and will stand up for what’s right as well.
What are good books for me to read with/to my kids to get them to recognize and celebrate our differences and learn the full picture of history and race?
Oh my goodness! There are so many. The way that I found most of the ones that we have read as a family and to our kiddos is by browsing in the library or local bookstore and picking up books that have people of color on the covers. When our kids read about and see books with people of color in them, it moves them away from being the “other” and closer to being “just like me”.
You can also Google “children’s books by Black authors”, and a laundry list of great ones will pop up. Some of our favorites are:
“Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History” By: Vashti Harrison (she’s writes wonderful children’s books in general)
“Hidden Figures” By: Margot Lee Shetterly
“Hair Love” By: Matthew A. Cherry
“Amazing Grace” By: Mary Hoffman.
If your children are older, the “Who Was?” series has books about famous Black people that they can read about.
And then there is the “I Am” series by Brad Meltzer, that is kind of along the same format as the “Who Was?” books, but for a younger audience.
How can majority white churches (and families) be a place that celebrate God's multiethnic family?
Bring in speakers of color that line up with the vision and theological stance of your church. There are plenty of them out there. You can also partner with a church whose congregation is predominantly made up of people of color to do a type of service project or community outreach endeavor together. It might be a good way for your congregation to be reminded that the Body of Christ is made up of people from all different backgrounds.
How can I pray for families suffering from racist acts, whether directly or indirectly?
You can pray for the plans of the oppressor to be thwarted and for God to do a work in their heart. You can pray for God to comfort and bring peace to the families suffering from racist acts. You can pray that the oppressed would hear God’s voice louder than their oppressor’s, and that they would be reminded of their value, their worth, and that they are loved despite what society or someone might be telling them.
Specifically, as it pertains to the murders that have taken place in these past two weeks, you can pray for your Black brothers and sisters who are hurting right now. Pray for their hearts to heal. Pray for strength to endure as we seek change. Pray for rest for our souls as most of us are so tired – emotionally and physically – from all that has taken place.
Our time together is coming to a close, but before I go, I want to leave you with a few closing thoughts: More is caught than taught as it pertains to raising children. If your desire is to raise children that are anti-racist and inclusive to all of God’s children, then show them how to do that, don’t just talk about it. And if you weren’t sure how to show them how to be anti-racist before this post, it’s okay. God’s grace is new every morning. Accept it for yourself in this area and start today.
Lastly, understand that this work takes time. If you are a Caucasian parent who hasn’t actively incorporated other cultures and races into your everyday life, start small. It may look like ordering one of the books I recommended above and reading it to your children before bedtime. It may look like coming home one day and telling your daughter, “I bought you a beautiful new doll with the cutest outfit and fun accessories!” and handing her a Black doll – without pointing out to her that this is a Black doll, but rather just another cute doll to add to her collection. It may also look like you finally saying something to your dad when he talks negatively about “those people”. Ask God to show you where to begin. He’ll let you know.
Arianna (or Ari as she is known to friends) is a lover of Jesus, wife to her Forever, and mom to two pretty rad kiddos. She enjoys making new friends, delicious food, and making people feel loved and valued. She has never been known to turn down a vanilla birthday cake, and might hug you with intense passion if you ever give her a glazed or sugar donut.
Ari has a unique desire to invite her reader in to a conversation, make them feel seen, and remind them that they are not alone in whatever area they find themselves in. She is passionate about making people feel included, and hopes her writing does just that.