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Monday, June 3, 2013

How to talk to kids about racism

It was Field Day at our elementary school and I was tense. My oldest had behavior trouble on Field Day in Kindergarten and first grade. The lack of routine and structure just brings out his wild side. I prayed that second grade would be different...third time's a charm, right?

It wasn't.

"Curse you, Field Day!" I cried when the school's phone number popped up on my caller ID. I wasn't surprised...until the administrator told me this:

"Your son made a racially insensitive comment."

My son? A racist?

If you ever want me to stop talking, tell me that. I was speechless. I was embarrassed. I was disappointed in him. But I was even more disappointed in myself. Yes, I felt blame for his bad choice because I have this huge parenting flaw that makes me think I can teach my kids so effectively they won't make idiotic choices. I blame myself for that misguided belief, too.

Ok- here's the situation: At one of the (accursed) Field Day stations, a mother who is Asian was helping the kids. My son repeated one those rhymes that includes the word "Chinese," uses pidgin English and implies that Chinese people are dumb. I know the rhyme. I heard it as a kid. Maybe you did, too. Probably we laughed as we repeated it in our childhood.

But I'm more informed now. I'm a diversity trainer for non-profits in this city. I taught The Autobiography of Malcolm X to hundreds of undergrads. I read books about racial identity in my spare time! I'm not a racist for God's sake!!

And yet...according to the definition offered by Dr. Tatum in her book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, I am a racist if I benefit from the institutionalized preferences and prejudices based on skin color that exist in our society and I don't actively work to change the system.

Dr. Tatum also argues that parents should not aim to raise their children as "color-blind." She encourages parents to talk openly about differences in appearance and discuss the prejudices and injustices that exist based on appearance because this very awareness can help the next generation make a positive difference.

Now it's been a few weeks since this happened, and I've gained some perspective on my son's behavior. I can accept the fact that he said this rhyme because he saw someone who looked - to him - Chinese and it just popped into his head. He does not know the history of racism like I do. But he does know better than to call anyone dumb. And I've changed my parenting approach to discussing racism. I used to think I could protect my kids from developing a racist attitude. You can read about my naiveté here. Now I think that's not enough. I believe now I need to help them be on the lookout for prejudice and work with them to create an equitable, respectful society.

On the lookout - together - for a chance to do good

When my son came home, we didn't talk about what happened. I was too upset. This subject needed a calm, but meaningful, discussion and my husband handled it that evening. He talked about the many ways people have been horrible to each other just because of how they look. I was grateful that my husband did that first discussion, but I know this isn't over. We're going to discuss racism and other forms of prejudice much more frequently so we can all work to make things better.

Here are some tips from about talking with your children about racism, featuring Dr. Tatum.

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