I am so, so grieved at all that took place in Minnesota, Baton Rouge, and Dallas last week. None of those victims deserved to die; “tragic” doesn’t seem big enough a word for all of this.
I do believe that systemic racism is, unfortunately, still alive and well in our nation. To believe that, does not mean I do not appreciate the work and lives of our law enforcement—I very much do. There is much to be said (and much to be quiet and listen to) about what happened last week. This particular post is focused on talking to kids about privilege and racism.
I can still remember walking downstairs on the morning of April 20, 1995. I was eleven years old and reaching the end of 5th grade. Although this Thursday morning held the typical routine—my mom working hard to get my siblings and I fed and out the door to catch the school bus—nothing about this morning actually felt “normal.” The TV, which usually played the news in the background, was turned off, and the newspaper was not scattered about on the kitchen table, divided into the sections my mom and dad would each read.
I did not wonder why things felt “off” on that morning. Terror had struck our nation the day before; we were going through the motions of life in our little Chicago suburb, while all we were really thinking was Oklahoma City.
I could tell you the exact intersection our car was in when the news of the Oklahoma City bombing came on the radio the day before. My mom was driving me to gymnastics practice; my first reaction was fear, followed by deep concern for Shannon Miller—my favorite gymnast who is an OKC native.
On that Thursday morning in our quiet kitchen, I learned that my mom had moved our copy of the Chicago Tribune to the recycling bin before any of us kids had made it downstairs. The front page displayed a large photo of a firefighter carrying a bloodied, deceased baby. It was an image that she didn’t think our young eyes needed to see, as it is one that would inevitably be seared into our developing minds. I wholeheartedly respect her decision today. However, I must not have respected it entirely back then: I snuck to the stack of recycling to look at the iconic photo. Mom was right—it was horrifying.
And yet, I wanted to be informed—at least a little bit. I could sense that all was not right and it was more uncomfortable for me to be left out in the dark rather than knowing the darkness of what was actually unfolding. Kids are intuitive; how we talk to them about current events now can help them better engage with current events as they age.
(I do want to be clear that my mom did talk with me about what had unfolded in OKC and gave me space to voice my fear and sadness. I did read articles about the events and was not barred from engaging in what had happened, despite the semi-hidden front page.)
As I sat down to write this morning, all I kept thinking about was that morning after the Oklahoma City bombing. Maybe it’s because that event is one of the first I can remember of terror striking and bringing fear, anger, and grief to our nation. These types of happenings seem to be a more regular occurrence now, but it was certainly new to me back then.
Over the past week, with the shootings in St. Paul, Baton Rouge, and Dallas (and the ugly comments spewed as a result of these tragedies), I have often thought about what it must be like to be a parent during these tumultuous times in our country—no matter your skin color. I imagine that, for many parents, there is a desire to both protect and inform your children. To that, I say, Yes! Of course! Bless you! The struggles you face are different, depending on your skin color, but it is big and tough work, nonetheless. Most often, however, white people can choose whether or not we do that work, while people of color have little choice in engaging these conversations.
I am not a mom. I cannot pretend to know what it is like to raise a child, especially during such divisive times. But I have been a child raised in a country becoming increasingly defined by bombs and bullets. The world can be scary, but pretending that the violence and inequality are not happening is a fantasy that robs others of having their reality be seen.
My word for parents today is nearly always: grace. You have a wildly difficult and honorable job. Whenever I consider joining you, I often get scared at all of the shame and judgment our culture flings so freely at moms and dads. Block it. You are not responsible for the shame others try to soak you in.
As I have thought of you and prayed for you during the past week, I feel the need to remind you that you are not alone. You are not entirely responsible for hosting every conversation your child is in about racism, diversity, and violence in our nation and world. It takes a village to raise a child; that village, through its collective voices, can be such a rich resource in bringing your child up to be an informed and well-rounded individual. (So choose a diverse and kind village!)
And yet, so many of these conversations do start in the home, if we welcome them. How you have conversations in your home about privilege and racism (and violence that stems from racism) is not a one-size-fits-all discussion. It will be unique to you and your family, based on your own dynamics.
Sometimes, a helpful place to start for white families is bringing in books and dolls that represent people of color. It is easy for white children to be surrounded by books, movies, and toys which all feature children looking like they do. As they grow older, they may not even notice that Band-Aids are colored to blend in with white skin, and “nude” undergarments are not made to match the skin of black people. When we are surrounded only by whiteness, our understanding of “otherness” can be so limited.
The first real conversation about race that I was engaged in wasn’t until I was 28 years old. I thought that being “colorblind” was honoring towards people of color (although I had never actually asked a person of color how it had made them feel); now I know that being blind to one’s skin color is dismissing part of who they are. Colorblindness says we are all the same, when we’re very much not the same. Our differences are rich, but they cannot enrich us if we don’t acknowledge them.
Because these conversations and systemic problems can feel so overwhelming, I want to help by starting small. Creating more diversity in a child’s playroom can help to make a difference in how they interact in the larger world; so, below are some children’s books featuring people of color.
Kids notice when we are at war—especially if we’re at war with each other. They might sneak a peek at the images on the newspaper, or hear the news playing in the background. We can and should support their digestion of this material; I’m not telling you how to do so, but I’m cheering you on as you do so in a way that honors your child and the realities of those in our country who are hurting and unseen.
Grace and peace to you and yours.
Books + Resources:
More books for younger children:
The Color of Us
The Skin You Live In
People Aren’t Socks
The Snowy Day
We’re Different, We’re the Same
Books for older kids:
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and its sequels