How Do We Talk With Our Children About Race?
Mom of 4: 17, 15, 13, 10
I recently completed my ancestry DNA test through 23 and me. When the results came back I shared them with my children. According to the results, I am 73.6% African, mostly Nigerian and 25.6 % European. My 10 year old instantly declared, “Mom, I have to be honest I’m not very proud of that white side of us so I’m not going to claim it..especially with what happened to George Floyd.
While race can be difficult to discuss with children, it must happen. As a mother of four black children these conversations began very early, both directly and indirectly. It initially began with me telling my children how beautiful their skin, hair, and lips are. I wanted them to have an arsenal of validation. I knew that as they got older, they’d encountered those who would hate them based on their skin tone. I knew they would have to deal with people who would refer to their hair as bad. I wanted them to be able to simply repel the insults. My first two boys are 19 months apart. I must admit, I was thankful because I had time to figure out how I would address the Disney princess phenomenon with my daughter. I wouldn’t have to yet deal with introducing them to Disney princesses none of which were African-American. As I was pregnant with my third child, Aminah, The Princess and the Frog came out on Disney. I felt a sense of relief. She would be able to see a Princess who looks like her and not feel the pressure to be white to be a princess.
For my sons I remember so clearly when the Trayvon Martin murder happened. They were attending a summer program called Freedom School and learning about police brutality. A couple of years after Trayvon Martin’s murder, there was Tamir Rice, a 12 y.o. male black child who was killed for having a play gun in the park. He was the same age as my 12-year-old. When he heard about this story he came to me and said mom, “Why do they hate us so much?” I did my very best to explain to him the history of racism in America and why certain people hate us simply because of the color of our skin. Even though he heard me, it still didn’t make sense to him. As he grew older he became taller and his shoulders more broad. My second son became even bigger, 6’0 and over 200lbs. One evening we were in the store and he said to me “Mom, I don’t know what it is but I sometimes feel as if people are expecting me to steal something out of the store because of the way they look at me and follow me when I’m looking for something. I just prefer to be with you in the store.”
Our conversations about race have been authentic and based on their personal experiences and what is happening in our society. While I knew this was a topic I would have to discuss with my children, I didn’t know quite how or when it would occur. Each of my children, although born to the same mother and father have different skin tones and different hair textures. I remember my lightest skinned child coming to me and saying why can’t I be dark like you mom. I had to explain to him that Black people come in many shades of beautiful and he is just one of the shades of beautiful.
I encourage all parents to do three things as they have healthy conversations with your children about race one.
Let the conversations happen naturally. When they ask you questions about race don’t give them the simple answer of we are all one human race. This can make no sense to a child who sees the differences in how people are treated based on their race. If they ask a question, answer it as openly and honestly as you possibly can.
Educate yourself. Invest in authors who have a clear understanding of how race works in our country. Have a variety of books on your bookshelves which reflect a variety of cultures and perspectives. Whether, it’s bedtime stories for a toddler or novels as a teen, include books which promote appreciating and not just tolerating other cultures.
Be Open. We are all still learning about the intricacies of race. Don’t see it as a taboo issue and something we should avoid. At some point in their life, as a child in this world, they are going to be confronted with having a conversation about race and they are going to see things that don’t settle well with them. They are going to need someone they can talk to about it throughout their development as human beings. Conversations about race with our children do not only happen when they are in our home. They are to continue throughout the rest of their lives. The reality is they see us as the source. We have the power to change generations to come. If we embrace the topic, they will not feel uncomfortable standing up when they see injustice in the workplace in their school environment or even their neighborhood.
I am sure you are wondering what I said to my child when he said that he was not proud of the white portion of his ancestry. Do know that all of my children agreed with him and pretty much decided that they did not want to claim that part of our heritage. I simply told them that they are on their own journey as it relates to race. I cannot dictate how they feel about who we are. The reality is that it’s a part of our heritage. In fact, the majority of people in America are “mixed” with various cultures. At the end of the day. They will have to come to their own conclusions and embrace who they fully are in their time.