Growing up in Los Angeles I was always aware that prejudice existed. I can remember as young as 5 years old hearing my older white father debating the cons of interracial marriage with my adult sister and my adult sister resisting the notion that there was anything wrong with inter racial marriage. I also remember my sister talking to us (the younger siblings) about how in our suburb the police would harass her friend just for driving within the city limits after dark because he had dark skin. I remember believing from a young age that I was expected to have babies with light skin – all of my dolls had light skin after all.
At the age of seven my mom started dating and later married a man with dark skin and I noticed the parenting style was different between my mom and step father who had several grown children of his own. I noticed that he was parenting through a lens that was different than my mother’s. He thought we were privileged and spoiled. From a young age, he told us to behave a certain way around police and he warned us not to attract the attention of adult men. These ideas had never been shared with us by my mother or the other white adults in my life. My mother would shush him when he would go there, saying it was unnecessary. We had been very sheltered.
When I first became a parent I didn’t talk to my child about racism. I was careful not to let him hear negative language about race. I upheld that all people are equal and I encouraged him to be friends with children of all skin colors but largely his friends were white. We lived in a mostly white Suburb of Los Angeles, where I had also grown up. I wasn’t a conscious parent yet. I was doing my best as a young single mother but I wasn’t intentionally raising an anti-racist child. I wasn’t even anti-racist myself. I just considered myself, not racist. I wasn’t aware of what a micro-aggression was. And I didn’t know about systemic racism except to the extent that it was talked about in work and business circles in relation to affirmative action. And I wasn’t sure whether affirmative action was right although in theory I understood it had a positive intent.
Then I got a wake up call. I was literally at work when I got a call from a parent at my son’s private high school. She was the only African American parent at the school. I didn’t know her well, we had only joined the school half way through 10th grade and it was my son’s senior year. She proceeded to tell me that my son had said the “N” word at school in earshot of her daughter. She was pissed. And I was horrified. Tears began streaming down my face. My boss walked into my office and saw that I was crying – he asked me what had happened and as I looked up to his dark skinned face, I could speak. In that moment I couldn’t tell this man that my child had said that word at school. I did eventually talk to him about it. We were good friends, we’d been raised in the same church and he’d shared with me his experience of prejudice and how his childhood had been destroyed when his father was jailed for assaulting his teacher who used racial slurs against him as a student in school. Bringing it back to my own complicity in racism, he was like, so what are you going to do about it?
The mom who called me asked me to do something too. She said several of the boys had been using the word in a slang way and that the school was not willing to confront the issue. The school had told her that it was the fault of popular rap music and that the boys had begun using this language as a greeting toward each other because they were emulating their favorite artists and that it was not being used in a negative way. This poor mother was at her wits end and was desperate to gain my support to confront the behavior and motivate the school to fully step up to the teachable moment with our children.
After first addressing the situation with my son, I learned that he didn’t think there was anything wrong with using the word. He thought racism was a thing of the past and that it was old antiquated folks like me (then in my early 40s) who were perpetuating racism by making it be a thing. This shocked me. How could my son have this opinion? Where had I gone wrong?
I approached the school. I asked them to hold a council circle with the class. I asked them if we could bring in a speaker from the black community to enlighten them. I was immediately shut down and met with some shaming that I hadn’t expected. I was told immediately by the Highschool coordinator that it would sure be a shame if my son had this incident included in his permanent record and how that would negatively affect his chance of getting into any decent college. The school, known for its foundation on social change and raising children with capacities to change the world, wanted nothing to do with the teachable moment. They wanted the parents of the involved students to handle it quietly at home.
As a parent I had to contemplate what had happened. Contemplate how I got here. I now had two younger children age 3 and 4. I had an opportunity to correct my parenting mis-steps so that my other children wouldn’t be in this same boat. It took me awhile. I realized I hadn’t done a good job of being anti-racist. I hadn’t made sure my children were exposed to diversity. We lived in a white town and they were in a fairly un-diverse school that didn’t even have a diversity or inclusion statement. This was a mistake. I had taken for granted that because I wasn’t racist my children wouldn’t be either. Never again. At the end of the school year my son graduated and I withdrew my 4 year old from preschool. I was determined to find her a new school with more diversity. And I did.
We found a small preschool with diversity as their main intention. It followed the Waldorf education philosophy that we loved, had chickens and gardening in the curriculum and a founding teacher with dark skin, part African American and part Native American who spoke fluent Spanish and had started her career in social justice organizing. This school was so perfect, I wanted it so bad – I was worried they wouldn’t have a space for us. But it was meant to be and we were accepted. Both of my girls stayed there through their first year of Kindergarten.
As our community widened, the parents we were now raising our young daughters with were a very diverse group. Much more conscious than I had been. I found myself listening to their experiences. Hearing their concerns as parents of color raising black and brown skinned children.
I realized that whatever we talk to our children about they will talk to their friends about. And as I was aware that many parents of young children in our circle had dreaded the day their children would learn about the wound of their race. About racism and police brutality. And the ultimate wound, slavery. I didn’t want my children to be the informers of their friends on these sensitive topics. Topics that their parents were waiting to share with them. Those parents knew that a certain amount of innocence would be lost when the wound was opened. That their child’s carefree childhood would become a little less carefree. That a certain weight of the world would be placed upon them when they became aware of the history of slavery in America and racism.
We decided to follow the lead of our black and brown friends in our parenting circle and also lean on age appropriate guidelines for sharing information. This felt really right to me. Our white friends however were not on the same page. The friends we had at the Unitarian Universalist church where social justice was considered an important and unifying call to action. They wanted their children to know about the civil rights movement and to march in the streets against gun violence. They wanted to raise young activists. They wanted to have stories about Dr. King read to the children in Sunday School. Stories that included reference to the conflict he was fighting for and reference to his assasination. I’ll never forget the day our children walked into church only to be met with protest posters at their eye level depicting guns and messages about the Sandy Hook shooting. Fortunately my kids were not readers yet but other children in the congregation were. I’ll also never forget the day our minister read a story to the group of children, including one African American boy, that talked about skin color in an effort to teach them not to discriminate – without realizing that the child of color hadn’t known he would be discriminated against for his skin color. And for the first time my young children heard another child referred to as “black”.
I realized that there was a disparity even amongst parents who wanted to raise anti-racist and social justice conscious children. Our teacher at the preschool had made the point to us that she learned as a new parent, conscious of child development – that taking her child to a march was detrimental to her child. It had overwhelmed him and created anxiety within him. So she, a mother of color had decided not to bring her young child to marches. She knew that if she wanted her children to carry on social justice work, they needed to be strong and fearless adults ready and willing to carry on without childhood trauma. Scaring them as children was not the way. She encouraged us to raise our children age appropriately to protect their childhood so that they could be fearless and free of anxiety as adults.
Meanwhile our church friends wanted to demonstrate to their friends and family that they were raising anti-racist children by including them in their adult activities, they believed bringing awareness of the wrongs of the world to their young minds was the way. They wanted social justice conversations and activities to be a natural part of their childhood experience. Something very normal. What I found though was that the children of those parents were frequently exhausted by the time they reached adulthood and really didn’t want to take up the causes of their parents. Some even had high levels of anxiety as adults.
Feeling that the church was still where we belonged but wanting to parent shoulder to shoulder with my black and brown friends I decided to get involved in our church’s Sunday School to have some influence over the curriculum and my own children’s experience. I found books about Dr. King that talked about his life and not his assassination. I found age appropriate ways to bring the Unitarian Universalist principles into the curriculum without bringing adult topics of violence against people into the classroom. This seemed to go well. When we relocated to the diverse neighborhood near my children’s school I brought this new curriculum to the congregation in our new neighborhood and we grew the class from 3 children to 50 (usually 10 on any given Sunday).
We had frequent conversations with our children about implicit bias. We had an experience where a young man attempted to car jack us in the driveway of our new home. It terrified my children and for weeks after my little daughter shrank back when we would pass a dark skinned man on the sidewalk who had a similar braided hairstyle. I had to help my daughter see past his skin color and say to her, “that man is much older than the one who tried to take our car. See, he is smiling at you. He isn’t the same person.”
When in first grade my daughter would report that the game at recess was to chase the only African American girl in her class I had to question whether implicit bias was at play and bring it to my daughter’s awareness while also empowering her to do the right thing. I asked her why do you chase Patty. She said, “because she likes it.” I said, “do you think she really likes to always be the one getting chased or maybe she just wants to be included?” Willow didn’t know. I continued to say “sometimes it’s easier to pick the person who looks different to be chased. And maybe Patty keeps getting picked because she looks different – that’s not really fair for Patty.” I said, “you know how our 5th principle at church is that every person should have a say in the things that effect them.” She acknowledged that she did know. I said, “sometimes we have to be the voice for others who don’t or can’t speak up for themselves.” I suggested that the next day she should help Patty by asking her if she wanted to be chased. She did. She reported back that it turned out horrible because instead of chasing Patty the other children chased her – and she didn’t want to be chased. She was crying. I quickly said, “well next time when you speak up for Patty you can also speak up for yourself and say Patty and I both don’t want to be chased.” The next day she did. It worked out well. She was empowered. And without over informing my child of the wounds of racism I had also taken up the teaching moment and in an age appropriate way empowered my child to be anti-racist. I had addressed a micro-aggression on the play ground that the teachers hadn’t noticed. I was finally becoming anti-racist myself.
I took a job at my children’s elementary school and started an equity and inclusion committee that formed a statement for the school and a process for heading off unconscious racism in the school’s administration. I also witnessed first hand the backlash of those efforts. The reality of racism both in practice, systemically and energetically became very apparent to me.
In third grade the curriculum at our school included Hebrew stories and that included the story of Moses. This was the first introduction to the concept of slavery for my children and it included the images of leading a group of people out of slavery to freedom. This was an age appropriate introduction that prefaced the eventual conversation that we would have in our home about African American slavery.
At school one day a white child informed my daughter, now in 4th grade about American slavery. As much as I didn’t want to have that specific conversation with her yet for the very reason that children talk and my parent friends of color hadn’t had that conversation yet – I now had to explain to my daughter what he said. I kept it simple. I acknowledged that it was true that at one time in this country people with dark skin were enslaved and that it wasn’t fair and that some people still treat people with dark skin in unfair ways. I also asked her not to inform her friends with dark skin because they might not know and it would be scary for them to find out from someone other than their parents. I knew she would learn more about the specifics in 7th and 8th grade when our school curriculum covers African history and then in 8th grade – great rebellions in history. It’s a time when children are feeling rebellious themselves as they enter the teen years and it’s a time when they can really get inspired by a story of Joan of Arc and other leaders of rebellions. Like Dr. King and Rosa Parks. Age appropriately. Without fear or anxiety.
When the Black Lives Matter movement came to my children’s consciousness – they sweetly said, “they shouldn’t be calling people black.” I had to acknowledge that although we wouldn’t describe our friends with that word, always preferring just dark, tan or light skin, curly, wavy or strait hair or brown, blue or green eyes as more accurate descriptors, the word was being used in a way by the movement to say that a whole group of people should be treated better than they usually are. And that by supporting the statement we are supporting our friends with dark skin and hair. That made sense to them. When the uprising happened in June we kept the televised news off but our children could see that we were glued to our devices more than usual and talking to our friends more than usual. We explained to them what was happening and shared some clips of masses of people marching. When some of our white friends (not from our church or school) got upset that their neighborhood was looted, we as a family gathered up our brooms and dust pans and went out the next morning to help clean up. We saw lots of other helpers out too. We demonstrated to our kids that while the demonstrations had been messy – they were important for a whole lot of people to have a voice and helping clean up was better than complaining about the inconvenience. We also found a non- violent and not scary event for our children to witness the historic movement. We attended a candle light vigil for George Floyd who we explained to my children had been killed by people who didn’t respect everyone, especially those with dark skin. We brought a candle to light and as we heard a parent in our circle speak to the crowd – they played with his daughter in the park where we had gathered. It was an event that they got to witness and to participate in that was on the right side of history and also full of friendly faces that they know from our community.
I believe we are now doing our part to raise anti-racist children. We are always learning from our mistakes and constantly adjusting. The mother of my daughter’s closest friend shared with me recently that a white friend had asked her daughter if she was ever a slave, when they were about 7. She had to un-pack that at home. she shared that she was grateful that in all the time her daughter had spent with mine – nothing like that had ever come up. I felt happy to hear that I was a trusted ally in her parenting circle. I have come a long way as a parent from that first wake up call from the parent at my son’s High school. I didn’t stay in touch with that mom but I credit her for spurring me into action, for helping me see that I needed to make better choices and for getting more involved in my children’s education and consciously raising anti-racists. I hope this sharing of my parenting experience supports yours. All children are different and each child’s reaction and tolerance for crowds and protests is also different. I encourage you to do what feels best for your family and take ques from your children about their readiness to get involved.
I’m also happy to report that my son has taken up his own share of work in support of the Black Lives Matter Movement where he now lives in Seattle.