“I can’t breathe.”
Three words said by George Floyd, a black man, as a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck and pinned him down with his knee. These would be some of George’s last words as he was murdered while in Minneapolis police custody on May 25, 2020. Another black man killed. Another black man killed by police. These three words would ignite a worldwide movement to end racism.
How do you explain racism to school age children?
As a biracial family, we have had conversations about race and racism with our kids since they were little. We only shared as much as we thought they could comprehend. Kids have an unfiltered view of the world, and will surprise you with what they understand. I’ve often found myself in awe of the logical and unbiased way that children process things – they have a unique ability to get straight to the point.
I have not found there to be a “one size fits all” approach to talking with children about racism and other complex issues, but one common thread that has been useful for me is to not wait and do it later. Most likely (at least in a non-pandemic world), kids will be talking with each other about current events like George Floyd. Why not help guide the narrative with your own kids? Consider giving your kids a safe place to ask questions and share their feelings. If you’re struggling with this issue yourself, find someone who can be a resource for both of you to express your feelings. For young children, home is their primary source of learning about race and ethnicity.
In our house, we didn’t let our children watch the cell phone footage of George Floyd being murdered (I watched it, and my heart was racing with anger and heavy with sadness). We have allowed them to watch the peaceful and not so peaceful protests on tv. They watched the memorial service held in Minneapolis, hearing the powerful words of Reverend Al Sharpton. (That man can deliver!) They listened to George’s brother and relatives share their memories of a man that is now larger than life itself. Will they take away the same message that I will? Probably not, because I’ve been around a lot longer than they have. But, they will hopefully pick up pieces that they can grasp. They are learning to feel and understand. Learning how to process on their own what we hope will become part of their moral compass.
Modeling the change we want to see happen
By no means are any of us perfect examples of what we want our children to be. If we were, we wouldn’t still be experiencing social injustice and discrimination today. What we can be, is a group of parents committed to modeling the kind of growth mindset we want our children to have. Looking inward and questioning our own prejudices and ignorance can help us model behaviors we want our children to emulate.
I aspire not to accept the world as is, but to question and challenge what we see in our daily lives. This is easier said than done sometimes. I feel it is important for my kids to see me modeling these behaviors, so that they know it’s ok for them to do it, too. Will they be willing to speak up for a friend or cause? Hold an adult leader accountable for their actions? Some people are very comfortable as activists, while others are careful not to share their opinions too loudly. Whatever your comfort level, know that you can make a positive impact on your child. You don’t have to be leading a thousand person protest to make a difference. Your difference can be changing how you think, and in turn helping your kids live more open-minded.
Many years ago when I was at work, I was verbally discriminated by a guest shopping in my store. He was demanding to speak to someone who was anybody but me. After the incident, I couldn’t help but think of his young daughter, by his side, who was witnessing this entire scene unfold. It’s easy to think that your kids aren’t watching, or don’t understand, but they do. And they deserve better. (He did come back the next day and apologized for his behavior.)
Committing to the change
I’ve been astonished at the reactions and movements happening in our town and around the world. I know it will take time and a conscious, persistent effort to rebuild systems, policies, and mindsets. The question now for our community is whether the changes people are making and the views they are espousing will be permanent or just a passing fad? Will they live a life that reflects the status update they posted on Facebook, or the profile pic they changed? I would like to hope that we can commit to an end to oppression.
Here’s a starting point of resources to check out:
“A Kids Book About Racism” read aloud: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LnaltG5N8nE
“Something Happened In Our Town” read aloud: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lcOhOFGcWm8
Here are top selling books on Racism & Prejudice: https://www.amazon.com/Best-Sellers-Books-Childrens-Prejudice-Racism/zgbs/books/3135
Here’s a list of books to add to your reading list this summer:
A compilation of books, videos, and other resources:
A website created by and for black millennials: https://blavity.com/