Talking to your kids about race can be messy and complicated for parents. I know it has been a journey for me.
Conversations on race don’t come after a parent’s PowerPoint presentation on racial issues followed by a timed question-and-answer session; the questions often pop up directly and unexpectedly from your child. Children read you for reaction and response, and then quickly form their own opinions on the matter.
I’ve realized that my attitude towards discussing race directly impacts and influences my child’s approach to race and diversity in future situations. If my comments are biased or based on prejudice, whether conscious or subconscious, my child is bound to adopt a similar mindset. I’ve grown to believe that these moments in parenting are when intentional words and actions matter most.
I am white and my husband is Persian, and we practice the Baha’i Faith—a religion which teaches that humanity is one human family. Lifelong consideration of the oneness of humanity will require ongoing and substantive learning, which is something I feel responsible for instilling in my children.
Society tends to want to group individuals and separate those groups into “us” vs. “them.” Consciously or subconsciously, we will find ourselves doing the same unless we routinely step back to assess our own reaction to a racial event. Sharing our reasons for reflection and our feelings on these issues with our children allows them to be cognizant of the racial divisions in the world and hopefully begin stopping that division early on.
When a white individual asks my husband where he is REALLY from, or touches my child’s hair because “it’s so interesting” the message, even if unintentional, is that we are different from the majority and being categorized in some “other” group, directly removing us from the one human narrative, the oneness which we all belong to. While I believe most individuals mean well in interactions with diversity, division can no longer be the premise or result of any interactions. The Baha’i writings actually give white people explicit instructions beyond just having good intentions on what our specific role is in dismantling racism:
Let the white make a supreme effort in their resolve to contribute their share to the solution of this problem, to abandon once for all their usually inherent and at times subconscious sense of superiority, to correct their tendency towards revealing a patronizing attitude towards the members of the other race, to persuade them through their intimate, spontaneous and informal association with them of the genuineness of their friendship and the sincerity of their intentions, and to master their impatience of any lack of responsiveness on the part of a people who have received, for so long a period, such grievous and slow-healing wounds. – Shoghi Effendi, The Advent of Divine Justice, p. 40
In our home, we regularly take the time to reflect on the role race plays in society. Kids naturally have questions on what is happening around them through things they’ve seen in the media, heard from classmates, or experienced themselves. We do not shy away from answering the hard questions, but we keep our responses honest, age appropriate, and succinct.
Our thought about using this approach is that working through questions in this manner allows our children to process our words with their own feelings, while providing opportunity to continue the conversation if our kids wish. We don’t set out to expose our children to the divisiveness shown on the nightly news, but with her own eyes and ears our preschooler has asked “What is that protest about?”
When I answer I try to bring it back to issues within her own experience. Learning that it’s Black History Month is important, because she can then understand that an entire group of persons were discriminated against because of the color of their skin. The protesters you are seeing believe that this is still happening to them, I explain, and that discrimination is not an issue of the past. Then we ask her: have you ever seen someone being treated poorly because of something they cannot control? Have you ever been treated poorly because of something you cannot control?
Our children are still young enough not to understand that it was a Confederate flag painted on the hood of the truck next door. However, they were home when the Sheriff came by because that same neighbor had a complaint about a street parking rule we were unaware of. I was upset, but shared that the frustration was in part because our neighbor chose not to come by and plainly ask us to move our car up the road five inches. She will learn about the Confederate flag in her own time; for now, she just needs to learn what it means to be a good neighbor. In our household, as Baha’is, we try to keep this quote at the forefront of our discussions:
The fundamental solution to racial and ethnic conflict rests ultimately on the common recognition of the oneness of humankind. – The Vision of Race Unity: America’s Most Challenging Issue; A statement by the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’i’s of the United States.
We also understand, though, that the Baha’i teaching of the “oneness of humankind” does not mean any indifference to the special, unique backgrounds and characteristics that make us individuals. Teaching our children that “we’re all the same on the inside” and pretending that “race doesn’t matter” is not only a luxury that most parents of color in America don’t get to experience, but also a disservice to all children because race greatly impacts all of us in a very real way. Refusal to acknowledge this reality leaves children, especially white children, unprepared and ignorant of the influence white supremacy has on power and privilege dynamics that will inevitably occur throughout their lives.