in which i finally attempt to talk about racism with my kids

A book that helped my family finally have this important conversation: Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I have read the plethora of articles saying it’s important to talk explicitly about race with young kids, including the amazing Nurture Shock chapter “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race.” I know that humans are hard-wired to visually discriminate and that telling children vague platitudes like “everybody’s equal” don’t do much, if anything to chip into our proclivity for us-vs-them thinking. I feel sorrow and fury over the flurry of recent reminders  that yes, systemic racial oppression is still alive and real in 21st century America. So why, until this week, hadn’t I taken the discussion of race with my own family any further than pointing out that people have all different colors of skin but our samenesses on the inside are bigger than our differences on the outside?

Part of my hesitation was that I wasn’t ready to expose my kids to the awfulness of what humans can do to one another. I felt like telling them about racism and slavery and genocide would exterminate their innocent belief in the inherent goodness of people. One of the joys of parenting is raising little people to love the world around them and look for the good in everyone – my 4 year-old is especially expert at looking for the silver lining, and will often point out the good in what seems to the rest of us to be a rotten situation. (Today she told us that even though Jabba the Hut is disgusting, at least he has a cute smile.) Telling them about the worst that humanity can do seemed like I would be popping that bubble of good will and trust in the world that we’ve spent six years crafting.

But then I realized that we have talked many times about racial oppression, and even slavery, as we celebrated Passover, and I had never really even flinched about having that conversation. Why didn’t I? Probably because the events in that story took place so long ago that it feels more like fairy tale than real life, and because in that story, “we” were the victims, not the perpetrators, of this awfulness. While my kids had reacted with the expected righteous indignation about the unfairness and terribleness of the Hebrew slaves plight, they didn’t seem to make the same leap that I do to grim thoughts about human nature.

Even so, I still felt really reticent to tell my kids that our ancestors also enslaved people, and our whole country is built on a massive genocide. But I knew that they were ready for a discussion beyond “everybody has different colors of skin and that’s great,” and the next step needed to be the introduction of the idea of racism and the history that led us to where we’re at today. I still didn’t know exactly how to broach this subject with my preschool and kindergarten-aged kids, but I finally realized no one was going to give me a script, and like so many other things in motherhood, I was just going to have to wing it.

So in a way I was kind of relieved when my 4 year-old daughter came home from nursery school last week talking about the shooting of Martin Luther King Jr. It spurred us to have the conversation that’s been due for a long time. Look, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing half the time, so if you’re looking for the definitive script for How To Talk To Your Child About Race, keep looking. But if you want to hear someone clumsily stumble through a necessary but uncomfortable topic, read on. Our conversation went basically like this:

Me: How was school today? Did you have fun?
O: They shot Martin Luther King and he was dead.
Me: Oh, uh, I see. Did you talk about Martin Luther King at school today?
O: Yes. We read a story.
Me: That’s great. What else did you learn about him?
O: He had a dream and it came true except for when he was shot and he died.
Me: That was really sad. What was his dream?
O: [squinting confusedly] For everybody to be equal.
Me: Yeah. In those days there used to be really unfair rules that people with brown skin couldn’t do the same things as people with white skin.
O: White and pink skin, you mean.
Me: Yes. We call people black and white but really it’s more like brown skin and pink skin, and all different colors in between. When Dr. King was alive, there were tons of rules about what people could do depending on what kind of skin they had.
O: Yeah, like ride the bus.
Me: That’s right. The rules said only people with pale skin could sit at the front of the bus, and people with brown skin had to ride at the back. And even if they were at the back, if a white-skinned person wanted their seat, the people with brown skin had to get up and move somewhere else. And there were a lot of other unfair rules too. Like brown-skinned people couldn’t go to the same schools or eat at the same restaurants, or work at the same jobs, or even drink water from the same drinking fountains as white-skinned people. How do you think that made the people who had brown skin feel?
O: Bad. And sad.
Me: Yes, bad and sad and mad. It probably made them want to yell and punch things. But they didn’t. Martin Luther King and his friends used their words to convince people that they should change the rules. Even though at first no one would listen to them. They had to protest for a long time to get the rules changed. Do you know what a protest is?
O: No.
Me: It’s when a whole bunch of people stand together to make their voices heard. So even though at first none of the white people who were making the rules would listen, lots of other people were listening. Black people, and some white people too. They all protested together for weeks, and months, and even years. Finally the rules were changed to make things more fair.
O: And his dream came true.
Me: Well, yeah, pretty much. There are still some people who think that people with brown skin deserve to be treated differently than white-skinned people. Is that true?
O: No.
Me: Yeah! It’s not! But that’s why he was shot. Someone was so angry about his work changing the rules to make things more fair for brown-skinned people that they killed him.
O: And he was dead.
Me: Yes. It’s terribly sad when anyone dies, especially someone as wonderful as Dr. King. So our job is to keep helping his dream come true by standing up and protesting when we see something that’s unfair to people because of the color of their skin. And of course to treat everyone with fairness and kindness, no matter what color their skin is.

And that was pretty much where we left it. Bolstered by that modest success, I had a similar conversation with my six year old that afternoon. Phew. Step 2 of anti-racist parenting accomplished. Many more steps to go.

On Monday, I’m going to keep this conversation going by showing them this video based on Doreen Rappaport’s terrific book, Martin’s Big Words.

Here are a few other great picture books to help spur discussions with children about race and racism:
We’re Different, We’re the Same by Bobbi Kates
Shades of People by Shelley Rotner
Whoever You Are by Mem Fox
The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.