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Race: Just put it on the table!

Photo credit to Davida Carta. Photograph courtesy of Green Mountain Crossroads.

Here it is, the end of March, and we’ve only posted once on this month’s theme, Racial Justice! There is so much to say on this topic. WHAT’S UP WITH OUR LACK OF BLOGPOSTS??! Seriously. Sorry, everyone. It’s two things for me—I just started a new job so this month has been one blurry smear of days going past, and me working into the night just to get my work done.

But also, if I am to be truthful, there’s an undercurrent of hesitation on writing for this theme. This topic is the big one, right? Racial justice—this is the hot issue for parents, for teachers, for law enforcement. The Black Lives Matter movement has done an amazing job of bringing this topic to the forefront of the national dialogue.

Three decades ago we (the generation now raising small children) grew up with the false notion that we were supposed to be colorblind. If they (teachers, parents, role models, cultural leaders) kept drilling ‘colorblindness’ into our heads, then we would eventually develop into a utopian society where everyone is the same and no one notices the color of another’s skin. Right? Except it didn’t really work, and thirty years later, we know that the colorblind campaign left us all confused and struggling with cultural identity, awareness of race, and all the ways that racial injustice affects our society.

So here’s the hesitation—I know there’s a lot at stake with this topic. Have I done enough? How do I talk to my kids about this? Am I doing it right?

This morning we were in the kitchen, having a snack with Angela’s boys. Out of nowhere, Levi (7 years old) says, “I don’t know why white people ever thought they were better than black people. I mean, it’s just like the jaguar who has dark fur under his eyes, to protect his eyes from the sun.” Okay, thanks, Wild Kratts for another interesting bit of information about wildlife. This is a good connection he’s made, and we talk a little bit about how melanin is in people’s skin in differing amounts, and that it’s an adaptation, just like the dark fur around the jaguar’s eyes. A little science lesson. But the cultural lesson—why and how did racism start? And how does this long, complicated history get boiled down for a 7 year old? We didn’t go there this morning.

We talk about race a moderate amount in my household. Not as much as I think we should. But I try to bring all the pieces to my kids. I sort of think of it as a trifecta.

• First, there is the history of people of color and communities of color, including both the amazing heroic or cool stories of individual groundbreaking African Americans, Hispanics and Asians (Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Jr, Bessie Coleman, Sonia Sotomayor, Matthew Henson, Gandhi, etc. etc) as well as the collective history of oppression that our kids should know about.

• Secondly, there is the task of normalizing the experience of people of color (no small feat in Vermont, the whitest state in the country!), through personal relationships (again, not always easy, when all your neighbors and the people you work with are all white… ) and books that feature characters of color doing normal life things (as an example, tonight we started on the EllRay Jakes series, by Sally Warner, about a black third grader in a nearly all-white town, and just the normal kid stuff he does).

• Finally, there is the need to talk to my kids about being advocates through actions, getting involved in change, and participating in actions like this as a family.

Is this enough? It’s more than I had. I had lots of questions about race, and the cultural differences between the kids at my schools, but race was an off-limits question. It was clearly uncomfortable, and no one knew how to talk about it, so I understood that I was not supposed to ask. I went to three different high schools in three very different race climates. In San Diego, in ninth grade, I got jumped in the bathroom because it was “the Mexican bathroom”. It turned out that the girls who beat me up had gotten similar treatment from a gang of white girls, and were told they were in “the white bathroom”. After the incident, we never saw each other again, and never had a chance to talk about any of it. In Seattle, tenth grade, I was in the minority in a very diverse high school. In a rural town in Virginia, for eleventh and twelfth grade, no one talked about the fact that the white kids and black kids sat at different tables, or why that would happen, and I heard a lot of rumblings of discontent about how this one was “trying to be white” or this one “trying to be black”. All of those incredible opportunities for kids— those of us who now have children—and we missed it. We missed it, and the adults in our lives missed it, all because it was too taboo to mention. The kids were mentioning it, to each other, in acts of violence, or in social labeling, but the adults in our lives weren’t backing this up with any conversations that validated the truths we were all experiencing.

So I try to make sure the conversation happens with my kids, even when it feels awkward or I’m not sure if I’m doing it right. It’s the same thing with sex—I don’t have a blueprint for how to talk to my kids about their sexuality, but I absolutely know I must talk about it if they are to be comfortable coming their dad and me with questions and concerns later on. Quantity replaces quality in this case, I think. Just talk about it. Talk about it as freely as you can. Haltingly, awkwardly, yes, but put it on the table.

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