Start Where You Are: Talking To Kids About Race
My son was sitting in the backseat of the car, quietly reading I Am Jackie Robinson, a brief biography of Jackie Robinson, easy for 7 year olds to understand. He checked the book out from the school library the week prior and was almost finished. As we sat a a stoplight, my son closed the book and said, “Mom this book is really cool cause it teaches you a lesson.” I smiled (of course I smiled, my kid just said he learned a lesson from a book!) and asked, “What lesson was that?”
“Well, actually there are two lessons. One is: if you work hard and practice you can reach your goals. And the other is, that black people can do all the same things as white people. Your skin doesn’t matter.”
I instantly had a pit in my stomach. Giving into a knee-jerk reaction, I responded, “That’s right, baby.” The message my child had taken from this story was so earnest, it just broke my heart. I wasn’t sure how to explain to him that in the literal sense, he was absolutely right. The color of your skin does not determine your skills, capabilities, or potential. But in the cultural context, no. No, baby. Black people can not do all the same things as white people. Well, at least not without consequences.
It’s not easy to break down a topic into bits a 7 year old can digest, when it’s something that’s difficult to wrap around my 40 year old brain. There is no way to make this relatable to a child who had the dumb luck of being born into so many privileges beyond the color of his skin that his biggest concern is how fast he can spend the “fun money” his grandparents sent him on in-app purchases.
After sitting with this for a few days, I decided I’ll never have the perfect solution to make my children understand racial tension or unnecessary murders or systematic racism — the point is I have to start saying something now. At the very least tell them that what is happening is very, very wrong, show them how to spot the lies, and teach them how to question things that don’t feel right. The things that give you a pit in your stomach when you’re sitting at a stoplight.
After my kids were in bed that night, I picked up I Am Jackie Robinson from the counter and read it myself. It was a beautiful story. As I was closing the book, I noticed a sticker inside the front page of the book; it had been donated by a family at the school to the school library. I recognized the names of the children. I don’t know the family well, but I do know one thing, and that is that they are a biracial family. Here was something I would never have to worry about: my kids going to the school library (or any library) and finding a book about an awesome person who also looks like them. In addition, it shouldn’t be up to another parent to make sure my kid reads books about awesome people who do not look like them.
Sometimes the perfect place to start is right where you are. I don’t need to have the perfect words, just an honest conversation to build the framework to more complicated subjects. And the good sense to stop myself from saying, “That’s right, baby,” when I know the opposite to be true.