How Should We Talk To Our Kids About Bigotry?

Laurel Hermanson doesn’t just want her daughter to not be racist; she wants her to be consciously anti-racist. But how and when should she start that conversation?

I was putting my daughter to bed a couple of weeks ago and we were running through our end-of-day debriefing. We had been approached in the park that afternoon by a canvasser asking for signatures, so I was happy when Gigi asked, “What was that thing you signed today?” A teachable moment!

I told her it was a petition for marriage equality. She asked what that meant. She’s 8, and even though Gigi is hip to single parents and divorced parents and blended families, she has not been around same-sex families. How did that happen?

I used to have gay and lesbian friends. I still do, but most have moved away and I didn’t run out to replace them in order to maintain diversity in my circle of local friends. I might have if it hadn’t been for Gigi’s birth and the temporary non-existence of my social life. But it turns out I’ve been inadvertently raising my kid in a sort of heterosexual bubble.

After I processed that parenting lapse, I realized I would have to start by explaining the word “gay.” I asked her if she thought people should be free to love whomever they wanted. She nodded. I told her that for some people that meant loving someone of the same sex. Her eyebrows shot up. Shit, I just said “sex” to my kid.

I tried again. “For example, some men are gay, which means they love other men.” Her eyes got big and she said, “You mean like two men kissing each other?” I nodded. She made a weird face and said, “Ew, that’s gross.” I said, “I don’t think it’s gross at all. It’s love. And lesbians are women who love other women.”

I explained that some states don’t allow men to marry the men they love, or women to marry the women they love, and that the marriage equality petition was trying to change that. We talked about how some laws try to control what people do in their most private lives. She thought about it for a few seconds and said, “Those laws are really mean.” Yes!

I agreed and left the conversation on that high note, but not before breaking suggestion #4 in this piece that I really wish I’d read beforehand.

I figured I got lucky this time around, because she asked about it and because I had some facts and coherent thoughts to share. Gigi also understands the basic concepts of male and female, love, marriage, and family, which made the conversation easier for both of us.

What she doesn’t understand is the concept of race. She used to describe friends from school or camp as having brown skin. I would say something like, “You mean Delaney? The little black girl?” And then she would look confused and say, “No, she’s brown.” I never explained why people have different skin colors, not because I’m colorblind or expect her to be, but because I didn’t know where to start, or at what age.

In a recent allParenting article Janelle Hanchett wrote about white privilege in response to President Obama’s speech following the George Zimmerman verdict. Toward the end, Hanchett posed this question:

“So hey, white mothers and fathers of America, tell me this: Are you going to let your kids know about Trayvon Martin? Are you going to tell them what it means to be black in America?”

Hanchett said a lot of smart things about white privilege—mainly, if you’re white you enjoy white privilege whether or not you realize it. But that parental call to action resonated and stuck with me. It also brought up some questions. For starters, how do I talk to my daughter about what it means to be black in America if she doesn’t even know what it means to be black?

My reluctance to approach the topic of race is obviously not the best way to prepare my kid for the bigger discussion of racism. I consider myself anti-racist, but if I don’t pass that along to my daughter, I’m not doing my job as a parent.

When I saw this Upworthy video from Laura Willard, something finally clicked inside me. I realized that not talking to our kids about racism can be almost as harmful as spewing racist crap in front of them. The parents in the video looked surprised at their kids’ responses, but should they be? If we don’t explicitly teach our kids not to be racist, society may teach them something we don’t like.

As Willard notes, “We can acknowledge we’re not ‘post-racial,’ we can stop saying that we have a black president so there’s no more racism, and we can affirm that this most certainly is a thing.”

I am in total agreement with both Hanchett and Willard. I want to teach my daughter about race and racism and instill in her my own anti-racist beliefs. The fact that I have put it off this long is a perfect example of white privilege. I don’t have to worry every day that my kid is going to go out into the world and get picked on because of her skin color.

I have rationalized this avoidance because my daughter is going through what I hope is a phase. Social interactions have become increasingly difficult for her and she is easily frustrated. That frustration can, and usually does, turn quickly to anger, and she uses whatever verbal weapons she has to lash out. For now, this is limited to calling other kids stupid or mean. She knows this is wrong but she does it anyway.

We’re working on that, but until she learns to control her words I’m afraid to provide her with more hateful language, or even ideas. Her school isn’t racially diverse, but her summer camp is. If I talk to her about race and racism, what’s to stop her from using her newfound knowledge to say even more awful things if she argues with a black girl or boy at camp?

But when I look at it from a different angle, I see that if I don’t talk to her, I’m not providing the proper context for social cues she may see around her. In that case, there is nothing to stop her from acting out in hurtful ways. I’m her mother. It’s my job to get to her little brain before anyone else does.

The other night Gigi was sitting next to me while I was writing. Why not talk to her now?

To get her attention, I told her I was writing about her. I reminded her of how she talks about some of her friends having brown skin, and I told her those kids are “black.” She looked at me like I was really dense and said, “I know, Mom.” Huh, she knows more than I realized.

I asked if she thought it was a good idea or a bad idea to judge people based on their skin color. She said, “A bad idea.” I told her I agreed and asked why she felt that way. She flashed another my-mom-is-not-very-smart look, and then she said, “Because it’s stupid! What difference does skin color make? We’re all just people.”

I started crying because I was proud of her. I was proud that she didn’t hesitate before responding with the exact words I would have said to her, the words I should have said to her way before she turned 8. Despite a regrettable lack of guidance from me, she has not yet been influenced by a society in which racism is most definitely still alive.

Last night I took advantage of Gigi’s bath time and talked a bit more about bigotry against both gays and minorities. She remembered that a boy in her second grade class has two moms. She said she would defend another friend from school if anyone picked on him because he’s black.

We have a lot more to talk about, my daughter and I. I want to teach her to respect other cultures, to let her know that even though we’re all just people, we’re not necessarily all the same. For now, I’ll keep laying the groundwork so one day she will understand the insidious nature of bigotry and white privilege. I don’t want her to simply not be racist; I want her to be consciously anti-racist.

It turned out that thinking about talking to my kid about bigotry was harder than actually having the conversation. I’m glad I didn’t wait any longer, because I remember reading that kids between the ages of 5 and 8 begin noticing similarities and differences. They are old enough to understand social issues, but still young enough to adopt their parents’ belief systems—if we teach them.

Talk to your kids about bigotry. It probably won’t be as hard as you expect. And even if it turns out to be more difficult than you imagined, isn’t it worth having that conversation with your kid before someone else does?

Role/Reboot contributor Laurel Hermanson is a freelance writer and editor in Portland, OR. Her first novel, Soft Landing, was published in 2009. She is currently working on her second novel, Mommune. She blogs about almost everything at Grace Under Pressure. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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