Debates and discussions about race relations in the US have sprung up everywhere over the last week following the deaths of Alton Sterling in Louisiana, Philando Castile in Minnesota, and five police officers in Dallas.
Yesterday in the Boston area, as I drove from errand to errand, the discussion continued on sports radio. As in other places in the media the debate eventually turned to what parents should teach their kids about race, the police and their place in US society.
Michael Holley (@MichaelSHolley), one of the co-hosts on WEEI, at one point spoke about “the talk” black parents have with their kids, specifically their teenage sons, about racial profiling (If you are not sure what this might sound like then take a look at this short documentary, ‘A Conversation With My Black Son’, at the NYTimes). Holley made the point that he does not want to have the talk with his kids. He does not want to have to scare them and make them feel as if they are less than their non-black peers. Yet, Holley concluded that in order to keep his kids safe, as a black parent, he has to. Holley got me thinking about my own interactions with race, and my attempts to discuss race with my kids.
But what do I, as a white parent, have to offer my white kids about race in the US?
And let me be very clear on my position…white kids need a language and an understanding about race, because we all need to be part of the national conversation about the continued racial inequalities in this country. And it is a very hard conversation. Without that understanding all our white kids (and the adults they become) will be able to offer is responses such as #AllLivesMatter, which is not a response, but a deflection from the real issue we are facing as as a nation.
What do I, as a white parent, have to offer my white kids about race in the US?
In order to answer the question fully I need to offer you my qualifications on the topic.
Please bare with me as I give a little bit of a biography.
The first thing that I need to explain is that immigrants, such as I am (born in Poland, immigrated at 5, and became a naturalized US citizen at 17) , begin their understanding of race and racism in a very different place than Americans. The way we in the US understand race is based on our shared history, cultural symbols, and experiences. Understanding of race in other countries is based on that population’s shared history.
I bring this up because my first understanding of race was based in my Slavic identity. 6 million Polish people were exterminated by the Nazis in World War II, 3 million Slavic Poles and 3 million Jewish Poles. In my own family, my grandfather was taken to Germany towards the beginning of the war as a slave and forced to work on a farm. He escaped, but was recaptured and sent back. He survived the war, but slavery during the Nazi occupation was real for Polish Slavs. My grandmother, many years later, received reparation payments from the German government (very much the same type of reparations that many African-Americans have asked for over the years from the US government).
As a child my learning about what happened in Poland during World War II was part of how my racial identity was built. My childhood nightmares involved being chased and killed by Nazis. In other words I was different from Germans and in the past there were Germans who made it their duty to kill people like me.
Still with me? There is a parenting point. I promise.
Later in high school, being involved in the hardcore punk movement, I became interested in the proliferation of Neo-Nazi groups in the US. And Nazi-ism, in the historical context of the US, is among other things anti-black. Despite this learning I still finished high school not needing to think about my identity as a white male in relation to non-white Americans. My interest in understanding/monitoring white supremacy movements led me in college to join a group called the Coalition Against Apartheid and White Supremacy (CLAWS). The group was one of the many anti-Apartheid groups that had been created on campuses across the country in the 80s as part of the divestment movement to protest the Apartheid policies in South Africa.
I joined the group out of an understanding of race based in my Slavic identity, but in the years that followed my work with CLAWS helped me develop a language and understanding of what race means in the US. I joined my peers in bringing activists to campus. Sponsored panels on issues of race and discussed the issues. I listened to speeches. Took classes. Read archives. Attended an African students’ national conference, where my interest in the race issues being discussed was challenged by questions such as, “what the hell is a white boy like you doing here?” After college I had the opportunity to spend a month in Ghana, where for the first time I had the opportunity to get a glimpse of what it must feel like to be a minority, standing out in the crowd based on the color of my skin. Everywhere I went the word “Obruni” (a non-African, typically white, but also used with black tourists) rang out and the interactions I had were influenced by that color difference.
I offer these experiences, among many that I have had, to show that I have spent many years discussing and thinking about race and racism. I have learned the language that allows me to have these conversations with others. I have challenged my self-identity, my white privilege, and biases.
AND despite all of this experience, when I needed to speak with my own children about race in the USA, I felt completely unprepared.
When our white children come home from middle school and blurt out the n-word (thankfully my own son has not used that word) because the rappers they listen to are using it, or slur their “r” using the old Asian stereotype (something my son has done) because their Asian friends are doing it, what do you say?
In that moment with my son I couldn’t draw on my own learning and experiences, because it would not have meant anything to a 13 year old who did not have those experiences. They were also not age nor topic appropriate (imagine being 13 and hearing your father start talking about apartheid in response to your use of a stereotype). The conversation ended up being about stereotypes and language. Although it is important to directly challenge our children on their language and biases, my response didn’t feel effective because it boiled down to “don’t say X, because you will get in trouble.”
The example above is an illustration of an acute response to a child’s experimentation with racial language and ideas. But how do we more consistently and deliberately steer our kids understanding of race? How do we do it if we, ourselves, don’t have the language to do it effectively?
My oldest son is about to start college this fall. He is going to my alma mater, the place that helped me better understand what race in this country is all about. A few weeks ago he and I spoke about his worries that he is not liberal enough for the students at the school. My advice to him is the same advice that I offer to all of us:
1. Be ready to listen and learn. Listen to peoples’ stories, especially those that don’t resemble your own. Be witness to their pain, their successes and their failures. Racism and racial biases are real issues in this country. Seek to understand them, not ignore them.
2. Seek out information and evidence. Read. Talk to people. Take classes. Don’t make a decision without evidence, but at the same time consider that there might be real reasons why evidence is not available.
3. Consider the fact that you are wrong. Check your beliefs. Revise your opinions and behaviors as you learn.
4. Value yourself and your own story, but realize that it is no more nor less important than someone else’s story.
5. AND know when your story is relevant and when it is not. Your response to someone’s pain does not have to be about your pain. Sometimes you don’t matter.
6. There is a place for you in the conversation. Not everyone is a revolutionary, but if you care about human dignity and civil rights, then you have a role to play in making progress in the race issues facing our country.
A final point I want to make about parenting our white kids on the issue of race. Everyone struggles discussing race, but it must be done. As I tried to illustrate with my backstory, even someone who has spend a lot of time thinking and learning about race issues struggles when it comes to teaching our kids. You do not need to be an expert to help your child develop the skills they need to be a constructive part of the dialogue.
Because the topic is infused with language and images that elicit strong emotions we should expect our family (and national) conversations on race to be messy. We are are not good at it and require practice. We need to learn and since learning is messy, every single one of us will make mistakes on this issue. Stick with it. Working to achieve the human dignity of everyone in this country depends on it.