As parents and caregivers, we sometimes have to hold difficult conversations with children. I have had a few of those while raising my daughter. One that I will never forget happened in January, 1998. My daughter was seven and a serious book lover. Though she could read for herself now, she still looked forward to a nightly bedtime story, as did I. As a busy working mom, I cherished that nightly ritual of mother-daughter time.
For African American History Month, her school library had displayed a number of books for checkout. She brought one home on the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As she nestled into her bed, I turned pages describing civil rights rallies that ended with police turning hoses and dogs on peaceful demonstrators. She turned to me, her sweet, brown eyes round with fear. “I thought the police officer was our friend?”
I froze. I did not remember ever talking to my child about the police, yet, I knew that in school and from television shows, she had absorbed the standard civics message that the police officer is there to keep you safe. How could she reconcile that message with this new knowledge?
I took a breath. I took my time. I knew that this was a “teachable moment.” What would I teach her?
I worried about stealing my daughter’s innocence. But, as Mark Morrison-Reed made clear in his presentation at the 2014 Liberal Religious Educators Association's Professional Day, black parents have to choose between protecting innocence and protecting lives.
I explained that just as there were people who do good things and people who do bad things everywhere, there were some police who do good things and some who do bad. Most police officers, I assured her, do good things and protect us. But during that time in history, many people felt threatened by the demonstrators, and people sometimes do the wrong thing when they feel threatened. It was wrong of those police officers to attack the protestors.
I had the luxury of couching the police attacks in the past. Today, we do not have that luxury.
We know that the violent interactions between black people and the police in the headlines today are not new. Social media; 24-hour news channels; widespread use of camera phones, body cams, and dashboard cams; and a public more aware of these events are bringing them to our attention in a way that has never happened before. Our children may hear about and even see these attacks and deaths. It is still true that some cops do good things and some bad. I believe it is still true that the vast majority of police officers put their lives on the line to keep all Americans safe. What is coming to light is that police violence against blacks is not always fueled by fear. Sometimes, the fuel is simply hate, and hate-plus-power is a dangerous combination.
When my daughter was just a litle older, I talked to her about hate: "Some people hate black people," I said. "They think black people are different from white people, not as good as white people. Maybe they were raised to believe that. People who think this way are racist. But I know it is wrong to think this way. I know it is not true that black people are not as good as white people, or not as smart, or in any way not deserving of the same respect and rights as all people. Racism and racial hatred is always wrong. When we see racism, whether against us or someone else, we need to say it is wrong, even if the police or the government are the ones being racist. If we suspect that a black person has been mistreated because of racism, we need to say it is wrong.”
As my daughter grew, we had many conversations about standing up against oppression of all people. We need to have these talks. Our country’s relationship with black people is unique. If lumped together into a conversation about how “all lives matter,” that unique aspect of American life and culture is obscured, harder to recognize, easier to ignore. My black ancestors did not come willingly to this country in search of a better life: They were forced here, in chains, to work night and day in subhuman conditions for a better life for other people. Our nation has never adequately acknowledged or recovered from this foundational act. Older children need to know about our country’s history with slavery and be shown how to recognize oppressions black people still face today. They need to know we do not live in a post-racial society, and that the playing field is not level and never has been. As a black woman, I can testify that my race affects almost every aspect of my life in America. If our children are going to be effective towards further dismantling racism in our world, they need to know what they are up against.
What are you saying to your children in your home, your congregation, or community about racism against black people? Would you be willing to share it, in the comments below?
One of the jobs of a faith community is to support each other in hard times. What support do you need to help young people understand the need for the Black Lives Matter campaign? Do not let the fear of saying the wrong thing keep you silent. As Martin Luther King said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good [people] do nothing.”
The Institute for Humane Education has a short list of children’s book about race and racism.
One organization, Do Justice, a Christian social justice group, has a series of blog posts about talking to children about Dylan Rule's shooting attack at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC. This post is from a black mother. While she writes from a Christian perspective, we as Unitarian Universalists have a theology of love and justice that is just as strong, so please do not let the theology stop you from hearing the stories told here.
The Anti-Defamation League has a blog post about Charleston.
Here is a PowerPoint from the presentation by Rev. Morrison Reed for LREDA' in 2014.
This mother’s approach might feel too bold for you, but I’m including it because there are a couple of good resources mentioned and this approach might work for older children.
A blog post from the Dayton Children’s Hospital may be a bit light on advice, but it includes links to other useful resources.