By: Shannon Ralph
Recently, my 9-year-old son began taking swim lessons at one of our local Minneapolis YWCA locations. On the first day of his class, we had planned a family dinner out afterwards, so my wife, my other two children, and I marched into the YWCA hand in hand as a show of solidarity for our beloved Nicholas (and because traffic would have been a beast if we had to go back home to pick anyone up before dinner).
As Nicholas furiously tugged goggles on over his blond head and hopped into the water, I waited with anticipation to see how he would do. He had never taken swim lessons before and was excited to show off his splashing skills.
A few minutes into the lessons, after all of the kids had arrived, my 12-year-old son turned to my wife and said, “Ummm…mom? Have you noticed anything unusual? Nicholas is the only white kid in the class.”
We immediately shushed my son—so as not to offend any of the other parents excitedly watching the swim lessons from the sidelines. So as to appear colorblind.
“I didn’t mean anything…”
The truth is that my son didn’t mean anything by it. He was only pointing out a fact. A decidedly non-offensive fact. Nicholas was the only white kid in his class. The other five students were all black. It was a noticeable disparity only because my children are not used to being the minority in any given group. And my oldest son was only commenting on the unusualness of this fact.
So why did we shush him?
I think the answer is that—as white, liberal (lesbian even, for goodness sake!) parents—we want to pretend that we are colorblind. That we simply do not see the color of someone’s skin. That it holds no bearing on how we value people. And we want it to hold no bearing on how our children value people. It was a knee-jerk reaction to shush our son. Done before we even realized what we were doing. But I think we were wrong. In our desire to not call attention to the race of the other children in the class, I think we handled the situation poorly.
I used to think that if I was colorblind, my children would be colorblind. If I did not talk about race, it would be a non-issue for my children. But I have come to understand recently that my approach—and the approach many well-intentioned white parents take when it comes to issues of race—is inherently and dangerously flawed.
Let me say, first and foremost, that I am a white woman with white children living in a fairly white, middle-class neighborhood. I realize that my experiences and opinions may differ considerately from parents with different backgrounds living in different situations. I am not going to pretend to know anything about the racial landscape that minority parents have to navigate other than to know that for many parents, talking about race is not a choice. It’s not a subject up for debate. It’s not a blog entry. It is an absolute imperative to protect their children from a world that sees my children and their children very differently.
My two sons, by doing nothing more than being born, have attained the highest level of privilege our society bestows on an individual. They were born white males. Doors will be opened to them that may be slammed in the face of my daughter, their friends of color, and other minorities. They have done nothing to earn this prestige, but it has been granted to them without question. Without reserve. Unmerited and undue.
To pretend that race does not exist—to be colorblind—does a great disservice to both minorities and to our white children. To pretend that the privilege my sons enjoy is imaginary—to be “colorblind”—is to ignore and ultimately belittle the experience of people of color.
Our world is simply not colorblind. Perhaps colorblindness is an ultimate goal for the future, but it is unequivocally fictitious in our current day and age. To think otherwise is naïve. I want to raise my children to be many things—kind, patient, gentle, earnest, strong, hard-working, respectful—but naïve is not one of them.
So we must talk about race.
I recently read an article on the Huffington Post that said that, in a recent survey, 56 percent of white people believe that “racism isn’t really an issue in my community” and therefore, they do not feel empowered to act upon it. The article went on to say that three out of four white people say that racism is at least a “somewhat serious” problem for our country, while nine out of 10 black people say the same thing.
Are we living in different countries?
No. White people are simply not talking about race. We are closing our eyes to real injustice that exists in this country. In our attempts to pretend the world is colorblind, we are blinding our children to the truth about race and racism.
We all know that racism is alive and well in this country. The proof lately has been indisputable. From several high-profile police killings of unarmed young black men to racially motivated murders in a black church to racist chants on college campuses to the Confederate flag debates, we are country still steeped in racism 50 years after the Civil Rights Movement.
How are we, as white parents—parents of privilege—going to do our part to mend this country if we do not talk about race with our own children? How are we helping our children by leaving them to figure out the issues of race on their own? How can our children grow up to combat a problem they cannot see? By not talking about race, we are not sending our children the message that race does not matter. Rather, the message they are receiving is we don’t talk about things like that.
If you think about it, it’s really quite ridiculous how we leave our children to figure out issues of race on their own. We do not leave our children alone to navigate relationships, religion, education, sexuality, morality, drugs, alcohol or any other challenging realities they may face in life. We equip them with the tools they need to make informed decisions. We educate ourselves so we can enable our children. Why should issues of race and racism be any different?
It is not enough to simply say “Everyone is equal” or “We’re all the same underneath.” We do not live in a colorless world. Have you ever actually met a “generic” person—a person free of race or gender or ethnicity? Neither has your child. Race is a part of life. It is not something to be ignored or swept aside with meaningless platitudes.
We do not raise our children in a vacuum. Even the children of the most well-intentioned parents can develop racial prejudices. Studies show that children notice race at an early age, and that they tend to choose friends who look like them. Kids naturally categorize people based on skin color, even when we don’t talk to them about it. And if we don’t talk about race, a kid’s natural predilection is to put people who look like them in the “good guy” camp and people who do not look like them in the “bad guy” camp. When children don’t learn about diversity from their parents, they may make assumptions about race that are not true based on information from misinformed peers or stereotypes in television, movies, video games, and music. In other words, our silence can breed prejudice—the exact opposite of our goal of colorblindness!
We need our children to see color and to understand how it affects the events that happen in our world. We need to discuss our country’s racial history with children. We need to discuss current events in the news. Our children need to know that the people in that church in Charleston died because they were black. That the Confederate flag—historically a symbol of racism and slavery—belongs in a museum and not in our government buildings. That one in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime. They need to know that the experience of being black in America is different than their own experience. And that this inequality is unacceptable. It’s scary business, I know, but it is reality. And to ignore race in an effort to shelter ourselves and our children from a little unpleasantness is wrong. Plain and simple.
My youngest son’s best friend is black. Both boys love video games. They both have the same wonderfully quirky sense of humor. They are alike in many ways. I could easily ignore the fact that Devon is black. I could assume my son is colorblind. But studies show that children develop racial prejudices as young as 3 years old—even the children of liberal, well-meaning white parents. So I talk to my son about his best friend being black. I explain that not so very long ago, he and Devon would never have met because they would not have been allowed to go to the same school. We talk about how wrong that is. How unfair that would be and how sad that would make my son. We talk about how Devon is like him in so many ways and how he is such a good friend. We talk about the color of Devon’s skin. My son is not colorblind.
Will these conversations be uncomfortable? Sometimes. Will they reveal our own hidden biases? Perhaps. Are they essential? Absolutely. No matter how uncomfortable I may feel broaching the topic with my children, I am pretty certain my level of unease is nothing compared to the parents of color who are having—every day—to explain to their sons how to act in the presence of the police. My conversations are not a matter of life and death, but their conversations certainly may be. And it is unfair.
Just as non-parents will never fully understand the beautiful, wonderful agony of desperately wanting to do right by our children, I know I will never explicitly understand the day-to-day experience of being a racial minority in this country. As a parent, however, I want to make this world a better place for my children. I want to do right—to be right—for my kids. If we wish to do right by our children—for all of our children—white parents have to start talking about race. Early and often.