Racism Explained to a Toddler

A really great friend of mine moved to St. Louis in pursuit of love more than a decade ago.  Being raised on the east coast, she was anticipating having to shift her fairly liberal mindset for her move to the midwest.  Thankfully, the amazing man she followed to St. Louis, a lifelong Missourian, helped ease her into this new life.  They settled in a liberal part of downtown, and as she quickly popped out three kids in succession following her marriage, she felt a loaded decision looming: where should they send the kids to school.

She’s an educator like me; we actually met teaching at a pseudo-urban school district outside of Boston.  At this school, most of the parents were working class, a large percentage of students lived in the projects, and the AP classes were populated with the children of upper-middle class parents who wanted to stay close to the city without being directly in it.  After the move, she found herself in a fairly similar suburban school in St. Louis County, although the cultural identity of the school was clearly very different than where we met.  A few years went by and she had the opportunity to apply for a job in a wealthy suburban school district; we lived strangely parallels lives, as I was making a similar shift at the same time.  We both ended up taking jobs with these new districts, and we both ended up moving our families out of the city into those districts where I children can earn a top-notch education.  And go to school with mostly white kids.

Of course my friend and her family are all white, yet the decision to move her kids out of the city and into the suburban schools was one that she weighed just as heavily as my husband and I did.  She is an amazing ally for equity of all sorts, and she often pushes herself to have tough conversations with friends and family simply because she knows she has the privilege not to.  She’s referenced on many occasions that knowing the way my family must live its life has often influenced her decisions in what issues she feels she must address in her world.

Then this past August, she found herself near the epicenter of racial tensions in this country when Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer.  She says that Facebook became a place she could no longer frequent due to the vitriolic postings that she felt she couldn’t ignore.  The result of course were rampant flame wars battled out online with people she felt had always been measured and calm in their understanding of the social constructs of this world.

I spoke with her on the phone this weekend.  As the country eagerly awaits word on whether the grand jury will indict Darren Wilson on murder charges, the anticipation of violence has permeated the media where we live.  She assured me she was safe, and she told me some of her struggles:

“This is going to be in my kids’ textbooks in twenty years, and I don’t want them to wonder why they had no idea this was going on right down the road when they were kids.  But how do I tell them about this without totally betraying their innocence?  I’m just so completely aware that I don’t have to have this conversation, but families like yours do.  And that feels really horrible.”

I told her I think she need to have the conversation.  She needs to lay the foundation for the more in-depth conversations that will occur as her children grow older.  She needs to provide a bedrock for the inevitable loss of innocence that her children will go through when they really see how race works in this country.  Without that, she runs the risk of shielding them from every knowing their privilege and actually contributing to the problem.  (I may be elaborating a bit more here than I actually did on the phone.)  Of course, she needs to do all of this in an age-appropriate way.  I took a stab at it and took on her role:

“Listen, mommy needs to talk to you about something very serious.  There is a lot going on in St. Louis county right now.  We’re safe where we are, and there are a lot of people nearby who don’t feel as safe as we do.  We feel comfortable knowing that the police officers in our town will protect us, and there are some people who don’t feel that way.  Isn’t that awful?  Well you know that sometimes police officers have to hurt people in order to keep them from doing bad things to good people right?  A few months ago, a police officer with white skin made a mistake and hurt a young man with black skin who wasn’t doing anything wrong.  The police officer was acting on impulse, which means he just acted without thinking, and a lot of people think he had a bad reaction simply because of the color of the other man’s skin.  Is that really bad that someone would react like that?  What has made people really mad is that this has happened a bunch of times before, and people are just tired of it.  Mommy is really sad about it and wants it to stop happening too.  Think about the people we know with black skin.  If someone hurt them, even by accident, we would probably be really mad and sad right?  Well that’s what’s happening right now.”

No work of art, but that’s essentially what I suggested she do.  I’m not sure if she’ll be able to follow through, but it makes me incredibly happy to know that she is pushing herself beyond her comfort zone to educate her children about what the world is like for others; she surely doing her job as an amazing parent by improving her kids’ empathy and guiding them to consider the world from a perspective other than their own.

Maybe her kids will have questions, and she might have to say, “I don’t know.  Let me know think about that and get back to you,” or maybe her kids will simply ask if they can go play with their Legos.  The important thing is to have the conversation so that they start hearing that dissonance to the message being promoted by the high decibel silence in most white families’ homes.

Who knows what will happen when the grand jury verdict comes out, which may happen any minute now.  Whatever does happen, it will likely result in another difficult conversation for every black household in this country and the choice to ignore the conversation in so many more.

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4 thoughts on “Racism Explained to a Toddler

  1. Conversation is happening around the dinner table tonight with my own family that have opposing views, all white males (53, 25, 21 and 19). I feel like I am fighting an uphill battle but the conversations are happening. The first step in the direction to change.

  2. I needed to read something like this this morning. It makes me feel like it is possible to have these conversations in the coming few years in an age-appropriate and sensitive way; just one small thing I can do. I feel a little less helpless than I did when I went to bed last night.

    • I’m glad this helped; last noght and this morning have been really tough, and it helps knowing there are people out there willing to talk and truly listen.

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