I feel it’s important for you to know that in the process of writing this, I spiraled a little, oscillating wildly between “Am I the right person to write this?” and “It’s not fair of me to abstain from writing this and put the responsibility of writing this onto a person of color.” And after much deliberation, research, and finally a panicked video call with a former professor of mine (thanks again, Monica), the real question this boiled down to is: “If I don’t write this, who will?” So, I’m writing it.
First things first, Black lives matter, and that shouldn’t be a political statement.
Secondly, racism is a public health crisis, and we, as the public, must fight against it. Anti-racist book lists are a good place to start. Luckily, we have those (duh, we’re a library!), and Hannah, our Youth Services Administrator, wrote a fabulous blog post on Raising an Anti-Racist that you should definitely read. Step one is to read the books, and step two is to live the lessons from the books. Part of living those lessons is having the difficult conversations.
Talking to your kids about race can seem daunting. What if I mess up? What if I say something wrong? Maybe if I don’t talk about it, they won’t notice it, and it won’t be a problem, right?
The truth is, no one knows all the answers, and you are bound to mess up. You’re human! That doesn’t mean that you should shy away from having important conversations with your children who are, let’s face it, absorbing information all the time. Kids constantly receive messages that show them how to perceive the world. Books, TV shows, movies, music, commercials, toy packaging, how you interact with people, things you say, and things friends and teachers say all give subtle clues that form their beliefs and opinions. Even if you don’t talk to them explicitly about race, they will learn about it, and possibly inaccurately, so it’s better to get the scoop from a trusted adult.
They’re smart. You know this, we know this, they know this, so we know they can handle these conversations. Studies show that children as young as three “can express explicit forms of racial bias.” They’re learning about race anyway, so let’s help guide them in the right direction.
Here are some tips to get you started:
Read books where the protagonist is a person of color. Books act as both mirrors and windows this way—they may show a child themselves in a book, and they can show that children that may look different from them can be the star of the show, too.
Explain that different skin tones come from melanin which produces color in skin and hair, and that makes everybody unique and beautiful.
Be honest and open. If you’re open with your kids about these topics, they’ll likely come to you when they have questions or concerns. This also reaffirms that this is not a taboo topic.
Acknowledge with your children that there are scary things happening right now. There have been protests in every state in the country this year against systemic racism and police brutality, which disproportionally harms Black and Brown lives. For centuries, people of color have been victims of horrible violence, and those ripples are still felt today. Being honest about the fear and danger that creates opens space for children to feel fear as a normal emotion, which can help them empathize with their friends of differing racial backgrounds.
Discuss with your children the concepts of fairness and equality. Explain to them that there are people in this country who are treated unfairly, and when we see someone being treated unfairly, we stand up for them. Whether it’s on the playground or in the grocery store, kids can understand these concepts.
Remember that empathy is at the core of anti-racism. If your child still struggles with the power dynamics that our society reinforces (like how older kids, bigger kids, and smarter kids have more power than younger, smaller, or less savvy kids, etc.), encourage them to shift their perspective. “How would you feel if someone called you names? Would you feel good if someone hurt you just because your eyes are green?" (watch this clip on the Jane Elliott experiement following the assassination of MLK). When children are given the opportunity to “walk in someone else’s shoes,” they understand larger concepts like racism more vividly.
What it boils down to is: model anti-racist behavior for your children. When you see something unjust happen, speak up against it. Read books with your kids, ask them questions, speak up against racism boldly in front of them (and everywhere). Model to them what it means to treat people with kindness. They’ll follow your lead.
Apology without action is no apology at all. We have to look back and know that what has happened, and continues to happen, is wrong. And it is not enough to simply say “Oops, sorry” and make no effort to change things. We must follow up that apology with immediate action and behavior changes. We must have the difficult conversations with our kids and family members, we must speak out and stand up, we have to do the right thing, even when it seems uncomfortable, insurmountable, or futile. Enough little voices and actions add up to something big.