By Gloria Jones Ellis
It’s Black History Month and, if you have not already done so in the past, now could be a great time to initiate conversations about race with your children.
This is not necessarily an easy thing to do, but it is certainly not impossible and it is definitely valuable! For every parent, and every child, I believe that conversations about race need to start with conversations about your own family identity and culture. A big mistake, that even the most enlightened or compassionate of people often make, is to equate race with culture. However, race is often just one piece of the cultural context in which we grow.
It is important for children to have a positive sense of their own identity, and the values of their own family and the culture in which they are raised, as a basis for understanding themselves and respecting others. For families of all races, that may mean difficult conversations about history, but these conversations should also include a lot of positive identity building and personal reflection.
I, myself, am not a fan of teaching children to feel guilt or shame, whether their ancestors were part of the traditional oppressors or the traditionally oppressed. Accepting responsibility for the past, and internalizing shame based on the choices or experiences of our ancestors, are great ways to sow division and breed hatred. Acknowledging history should not coincide with guilt, shame, anger, or hostility towards ourselves, or towards each other, if the goal is to promote respect and understanding for all human beings. Hopefully, this truly is the goal of many parents and educators out there!
Assuming that this is the goal, how do we get there? How do we talk about race with children in ways that help them feel beautiful, confident, respectful and supportive of others, and able to advocate for themselves!
As a parent, my conversations with my own children have not been planned sessions or lectures, but rather dialogue and sharing that arises naturally in our day-to-day lives. As a woman of color who has created and is raising children with a white man, I was asked an interesting question when I was pregnant with my first child. In a psychology class in grad school, I was asked by a classmate what I planned to teach my children about their race. My answer, which felt somewhat dissatisfying but was quite honest, was that it would depend on how dark they were. My father, my siblings and I, and much of my extended family, have experienced various degrees of racism over the course of our lives. How society has treated us has been, unfortunately, often directly related to skin color.
If my genes were prevalent, and depending on where we ultimately decided to raise our children, my husband and I would need to prepare our kids to deal with the racism that comes with darker skin. We would need to teach them how to react and respond safely, and with strength, to the dismissal, suspicion, fear, and potential violence that automatically comes with possessing dark skin in our society, no matter where you live. If my husband’s genes dictated their appearance, our conversations about race would be quite different, based less on how the world would treat them, and more on developing their own sense of identity and pride, and an ability to recognize and stand up to all forms of racism, whether directed at them or at others. As it is, my husband’s genes ended up dictating their coloring, and in a strange twist of fate, I had to have conversations with my toddlers about feeling beautiful in their pale skin, even if it didn’t look the same as Mommy’s or Pop Pop’s or some of their best friends’ at school.
Along with teaching them that they are beautiful and valuable in their own skin, we also talked openly about how other people are beautiful and valuable in their skin. We never dissuaded or chastised them for saying things like, “I wish my skin was dark like yours” or “I wish I looked like my best friend Claudia.” Those are valid feelings! But, we would smile and say, “Yes, Claudia is very pretty, but I love, love, love your beautiful golden skin just like Claudia’s mama loves her beautiful brown skin!” We also talked openly with our kids about how we had felt about ourselves growing up- wishing we were more attractive, or skinnier, or had straighter hair, or bigger muscles. Wishing we could tan more easily or had eyes that were a different color. We never tried to teach “color blindness” or hide the fact that appearance dictates how people are treated by others in society. We tried to normalize the experience of admiring others and wishing you could look different, while simultaneously instilling a love and appreciation for who you are and how you look in that moment.
So, as parents, talking openly and honestly about perceptions of beauty, both inner and outer, as well as about our own insecurities and experiences with racism, has helped us to lay a foundation where our kids feel confident enough to respectfully ask questions and state opinions regarding how they feel about themselves and about others, without fear or shame. This is a good starting point for us. There should be no shame in being curious, confused, or even uncomfortable with differences, as long as children show respect and don’t place value judgements. “Different” should not be understood as “better” or “worse,” but just different.
As an educator, conversations about race have been much more planned. In speaking to students in the mid-elementary grades and above, I’ve had opportunities to engage in very meaningful conversations, activities, and projects that are designed to give students a sense of identity, pride, and respect for those who are different from them.
We’ve started with considering where our “us vs. them” divisions come from. What purpose do these distinctions serve and what harm can they cause? There are valid reasons why we form groups and distrust “the other.” There’s a biological basis for these feelings and the behaviors they inform. So, we start by discussing how these distinctions and stereotypes help us to efficiently organize new information which serves the purpose of helping us navigate the world; by using stereotypes, new experiences and interactions with new people can be swiftly categorized and this can help us make quick decisions about how to behave in the moment. In understanding that forming distinct groups and creating stereotypes serves a psychological purpose, we can release any guilt or shame at the start. Obviously, there is a real danger in stereotypes as well; they serve a purpose, but they are far from reliable. Plus, when we create too many categories of “them,” we can become distrustful of everyone and, if we are in positions of power, we can cause harm to a large number of people who we have categorized as “other.”
So, when educating children on race, we start by looking at the broadest category of “us.” We are all human. Beyond that, we begin to self identify into other broad categories- gender identity, nationality, race, age, sexuality, political party, lifestyle, socioeconomic class, religion, and education level. Then, we might get more narrow- company of employment, school, town, family structure, and affiliation with sports teams and extracurricular clubs. At each level, you can see how you might feel allegiance to a particular group while experiencing distrust for members of the “other,” depending on the situation. We’ve talked about walking into different rooms, filled with a large number of strangers, and determining who we would gravitate towards- the people of the same race, or age, or gender, or clothing style? The people who are of similar age but different race, or vice versa? The people who are neither your age or race, but are wearing the jersey of your favorite sports team? What determines our feelings of connection or discomfort in a given social situation if we’re basing our connections purely on external factors? In our classes, we’ve joked about the fact that, if aliens invaded the planet, suddenly all of our smaller distinctions would disappear and we would probably feel connected to every other human being on earth, no matter how they looked or what language they spoke, because “we” would be humans bonding over our fear of “them,” the aliens!
Through these brainstorming sessions and discussions, students created lists of the different groups they feel they belong to. They then wrote “Who Am I?” essays and drew self portraits, with symbolic representations of their groups and values- their family, their state, their home or school, a national flag, a soccer ball, a religious symbol, or any number of symbols that represent the groups on their list. We talked about our lists, and listened to each other share our essays and our posters. We learned what makes us the people we are, and what group experiences and values inform our different perspectives on the world. Then, we started talking about real-life scenarios and how people with different symbols on their poster might experience or view the same situation very differently. In understanding this, students were able to visualize that what is right or wrong for them is entirely influenced by the groups to which they belong, and that interpretations of good or bad can be based on strongly held convictions, but that they are, in no way, universal.
From this point of understanding, students can begin to respect the beliefs and opinions of others as being different, but equally valid. To further enhance this experience, students wrote poetry- first exploring their own identities and writing about how they are perceived based on stereotypes and the extent to which those stereotypes reflect who they really are. Then, they did the same thing again- visualizing an experience and writing in the first person, but from the perspective of someone very different from each of them.
Through this entire experience, which took place over several weeks, no questions were dismissed and no beliefs were devalued. Every belief was explored in terms of “Why do you feel that way?” and “How might someone from a different background or with different experiences see it differently?”
Through this process, there was a sense that the students were developing a strong understanding of themselves and their identities, an appreciation for the perspectives of others, and the ability to ask questions and state opinions in ways that are respectful to everyone!
Bottom line, in discussing race with children, your language and encouragement should serve to help them:
- Eliminate shame and guilt
- Establish a positive sense of identity
- Consider the perspectives of others
- Keep asking questions and forming opinions
- Become strong self-advocates and allies
With these skills in place, our children can feel good about themselves, relate compassionately to others, and be part of positive change in our world!