The beginning, middle, and end of all conversations about race in my family of origin were that racism was bad and skin color didn’t matter. There’s a story my mother loved to tell: She was reading a children’s book to one of my brothers that asked the question, “Do you know anybody who has a skin color that is different from your own?” and my brother confidently replied that he did not, much to the amazement of my mother. One of her closest friends, a woman my brother saw nearly every day, was black. When my mother pointed this out he said she was silly, but the next day when mom’s friend came over, my brother grabbed her arm, stared at it, and then announced very seriously, “You’re black!”. This story was always told as a punctuation to an argument or conversation about how we’re all born colorblind.
Until I was in my 20s, I believed that this story proved, not only that we’re born colorblind, but that my family and I were not racist. After all, we didn’t even see color! And my mom’s best friend was black! Of course, now I know that a young white male child not seeing color only proves the existence of white privilege. If he’d been walking around this world in black skin, he wouldn’t have the luxury of not noticing skin color as his skin color would have had a profound effect on his experience of the world. (Also, the idea that children do not see color has been completely debunked.)
We do a great disservice to our children when we explain away racism as something that is simply “bad”. If racism is bad, then people who are racists are bad people, so if you’re a good person, then you can’t be racist. We cannot frame racism as an individual choice rather than a systemic reality. Racism – specifically white supremacy – is the water in which we all swim.
In the wake of yet another police shooting of an unarmed black man here in the United States, I find myself discussing race a lot with my two children.
They are 5 and 2, and the challenge of having these uncomfortable and complex conversations-and answering the myriad of questions that come from them- make me understand why so many white parents stick to explanations that sound an awful lot like the ones I got.
As white folks, we like for things to be tidy. We like for things to be easy. We have benefitted a long time from binary thought. Wading into the discomfort of naming and facing systemic racist oppression feels hard. There is a term for that: “White Fragility”.
I’ve seen a lot of white parents posting on social media, asking how to discuss racism with their children. I’m not an expert, but I can share what I tell my children.
- We are white, which means we have benefited from many unearned and undeserved advantages.
- Our experience of the world is greatly influenced by the fact that all of our systems are set up to uphold white supremacy. Our worldview is shaped by our experience of being white. We do not and cannot know what it is to be a person of color.
- Since we do not and cannot know the experience of being a person of color, we must listen, pay attention, and believe. We cannot make excuses or sweep things under the rug of good intentions.
- We are witnessing with our own eyes and, thanks to the internet and social media, hearing more and more stories that confirm what people of color have been expressing about their experience of the world.
- Black lives are in danger (as they have always been). Nobody is questioning or wondering if white lives matter. There does, however, seem to be some disagreement about whether or not black lives matter. So, we need to say, loud and clear, that yes, #blacklivesmatter.
- When #blacklivesmatter, (and brown lives, and queer lives, and the lives of all folks who are on the margins due to systemic oppression) then, and only then, will all lives matter.
- It is the job of white folks, not people of color, to end white supremacy. It is the job of white folks to educate themselves, and not the job of people of color to educate us.
- We are all complicit in racism, systemic oppression, and white supremacy. No amount of good intentions or meaning well will change that. There are a lot of good people who do not realize, or do not want to believe that they are racist. But does a fish know it’s in water? Or is water all it knows, so it can’t even comprehend or imagine any other reality? Racism is the water in which we all swim. We have to choose to see the water. #blacklives depend on it.