Talking to your white kids about violence against black lives
Today Minneapolis burns. Unrest grows in Atlanta, Louisville, New York, spreading like a wildfire of rebellion. Communities and young people are mourning the modern-day lynchings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery--violence in which cruelty was the point. A knee on a neck for nearly nine minutes. A door kicked in, a shot fired into a home. A runner rounded up and killed in broad daylight as if for sport. But the unrest is not just about these three incidents. We have failed to stop the killing of black people in racist America. How do we talk to our white kids about what's happening?
1. Tell them about one or all of these deaths. A black man named George Floyd was killed by a white police officer who kneeled on his neck and wouldn't get off of his neck even when he said he couldn't breathe. Affirm their response to this. It is horrible. It is deeply wrong. Something must be done about this. Name the range of emotional responses. Some people feel sad, especially his family and neighbors and those who lived in his community. Some people feel angry, because...
2. Tell them this is not the first time. This incident comes in a long line of many incidents just like this. A simple way to say it for younger children might be something like this: Our country brought African people here as slaves, and we have treated black people unjustly ever since. Can they think of other times in our nation's history when people took action because black people were not treated justly? Connect the dots between these deaths and the ongoing struggle for black lives, dignity, rights, and equity. It can be as simple as acknowledging that yes, back in the time of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., black people organized and marched to have the right to vote and to desegregate schools and buses and businesses in the south. The point is to ensure they understand: this is a long struggle that goes back to the very beginning of our nation, and it is ongoing. Those who have organized for change have achieved important goals, but we still live in a world in which black lives are not valued and are the target of violence. This is why people are angry right now. Because people have been fighting for dignity and safety for so long, and they still do not have it. Black people are tired of always having to struggle against the actions of those who do not value their lives.
3. Define racism as race prejudice (or pre-judging) + the misuse of power. Racism is not just what this white officer did to kill George Floyd. Racism is the whole system of power that enabled three officers standing by not to stop the death, that allowed Arbery's killers not to be arrested for months following his murder, that so often protects white power and the way things are more than valuing black lives. It is the system that bakes disparity into every part of our collective lives--education, housing, healthcare, criminal justice. This is important. Racism is not just about mean people doing bad things. All white people have been raised in a country that tells us we are superior to other people groups, and we have to fight against that idea all the time, because it takes root in our hearts and it's like a weed that's really hard to pluck up. Sometimes we don't even realize something we are saying or doing is harmful, so we have to be prepared to own our mistakes and repair the harms we cause. But beyond individual actions, we live in systems that grant us privilege and harm black and brown people.
4. We can tell them the stories of white resisters, people of many faiths and genders from many different parts of the country, who have marched and organized and lamented and fought alongside their black siblings. People like Jim Brown, James Zwerg, Myles & Zilphia Horton, Clarence Jordan, Richard Loving, Anne McCarty Braden, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and Jane Elliot. In my family, we identify with this family of resisters when we talk about our own resistance.
5. Talk about resistance. What actions can we take? Brainstorm a menu of options. We can march or make signs to put in our windows or on our lawn. We can light a candle to honor those who have died and pray for their families. We can learn about the stories of black leaders. We can attend a prayer breakfast or worship at a historically black congregation. We can connect to a local black-owned business or cultural arts centers. We can send flowers or cards or prayer flags to a family, community, or school we know is hurting. We can make phone calls and write letters to help change laws. This is not something we do once, it's something we do over and over. It's part of the way we live if we are anti-racist.
6. One of the best gifts you can offer your child in the struggle to dismantle racism is immersion experiences. Particularly if you live in a majority white region or neighborhood, if you attend a predominantly white community of faith or school, if your child is constantly steeped in the comfort of being in the racial majority--take them into culturally diverse spaces where their skin color is not the norm and their way of doing things is not centered. Know that the discomfort they experience in this is essential to their growth. To do this well, be prepared to manage your own somatic responses to any racial discomfort that might come up for you. As white Americans, we mostly do not have to endure racial discomfort. Therefore, we have not developed the muscle of managing our own reactivity to the discomfort that arises when we are not at the center or when we do not fully understand the cultural expressions around us. This is our work. To breathe, notice the discomfort, manage it ourselves, and move through it; to build that muscle and help our kids to build it too. This somatic piece is a crucial part to ending the white behaviors of feeling threatened by difference, calling the police because we suspect black bodies of something sinister, and acting out violence on black Americans--whether that violence is physical, emotional, or social.
If we simply want our kids to believe all people are equal we are missing the necessary ingredient to teach them about what's happening in our nation right now. We are missing the commitment to being anti-racist, which requires a deeper analysis of our history and an acknowledgement that white souls are marred by racism. We cannot be whole and our world will not be put right until black lives are valued as sacred. Dismantling racism within and around us is a lifelong journey, and I hope you and your family will join the struggle.