Today is Martin Luther King Day and for many of us it will be just a fun day off school. What if this year we used the opportunity to help our kids understand their world better and develop empathy along the way? Race has become part of the national conversation in a way that it hasn't since the Civil Rights Movement which brought Dr. King to prominence. It's possible that the #blacklivesmatter protests are the start of a new civil rights movement. It may be that talking to your children about race and discrimination feels like walking into a minefield. However, one of the best ways we can become allies and advocates for equality is by raising children who are educated, empathic and want to make the world a better place for everyone. Here are a few steps to get you started.
1. Actually talk about it
Apart from the "birds and the bees", talking about racial differences and inequalities is one of those subjects parents dread. There is a common superstition that by talking about it we will bring it into existence, even though we know that's naive. However, unlike sex white parents can fool ourselves into thinking that race is something that just won't effect our children. Yet, like sex, the messages that our kids receive will have a big impact on their relationships and how they see the world. Our children have been learning about race their whole lives and most of that has been from a society in which inequality continues to exist. If we want our kids to develop empathy and a sense of justice and equality it has to come from us, both verbally and non-verbal.
2. Acknowledge the differences
Most of the time we, as white people, can pretend that racism it a thing of the past. We can teach Martin Luther King as a historical figure and a model for how to be an agent of change. But for a large portion of our population inequalities have carried on through today. If you live in the suburbs there is a good chance that the vast majority of the people your child sees everyday look like them.Though not official racial segregation is a reality, socioeconomic segregation is a reality. Let them know that because of who they are and where they live, your kids most likely have more opportunities then a child with darker skin who lives in a poorer neighborhood. Notice that while their school may be mostly kids with light skin, there are other schools that are mostly kids with dark skin. You can also talk about ways to spend time around people who may look different that them.
3. It's ok to not have the answer
Let's face it, if this was an easy subject to talk about and the answers were simple we would be a lot farther on the road to true equality than we are today. I think one of the reasons we are scared to have these conversations is the dreaded, "WHY?". You have permission to say, "
I don't know. I don't know all the answers, but I do know that it makes me sad when people are treated differently because of their skin and I wan't to try and help fix that." Bringing it back to how you feel rather than what you think can be really helpful because it teaches empathy and makes the conversation real.
What happens when we see inequality with our eyes, but are told that everyone is equal?
Often the conversations that we have with our children about race happen when they ask, "Why does that man have skin like that?" in the grocery store. These talks are usually quick, negative and focused on ignoring differences. However, looking at the world through our child's eyes can teach us a lot about our own biases. What would it be like to see someone with dark skin when everyone you see at school, at church has light skin? What happens when the people on tv with dark skin are usually connected to violence and crime? What happens when we see inequality with our eyes, but are told that everyone is equal? I don't have all the answers, but I do know that I want to raise children who keep asking the questions.
Disclaimer: I am a white man and though I've spent much of my career working to help heal racial inequality, my experience has been much different than others with different skin than mine. Also, I have grown up with cultural biases that make it difficult to see much of the injustice that people with darker skin experience. If you have questions or want to know more, don't be afraid to reach out to someone who looks different from you. If it comes from a place of empathy and curiosity, it will most likely be welcomed. Just be prepared to listen.