I have found that many Unitarian Universalist parents are very proud of how open and honest they are when they talk to their children. However, the eagerness for clear and explicit conversation comes to a screeching halt with regard to race. No, not for every parent, but for an overwhelming majority of white parents, even those who consider themselves informed and concerned about all things social justice.
The white parents who tend to have those conversations are the ones with children of color. They understand that their children are going to be treated differently than their white peers and so they talk about race, because they have to. White parents of white children have the privilege of opting out of the discussion and I am here to ask that you not opt out. I will use my own life as an example of when, how and why it is important to talk about race.
I grew up in New Jersey, on the border of Newark. My friends were mostly Black and Latino. We were the only Egyptian family. My own experience growing up in a neighborhood with racial/ethnic diversity opened my eyes to how racism affects people of color.
By contrast, my children are the products of a multicultural marriage. My children appear white; in fact, my daughter is a blond. My son has brown hair and eyes and his skin is white. I describe them because in the world they are treated like white children. Unless they tell people, no one knows they are half Egyptian.
When my daughter was a sophomore in high school, one day she came home from school and said a guest speaker had lectured about racism. She said that she chooses not to pick a race for herself. We are all the same, after all.
This was jarring for me. I thought that I had always talked openly to my children about racism in this country, but if my daughter was deciding to “opt out” of race, then I had missed something big. Here was my teachable moment. I sat her down and talked to her about the privilege of her position and the fact that people of color wear that identity on their skin; we never get to opt out. We talked about how Trayvon Martin was targeted by a man who made assumptions just based on his skin color. I brought up statistics about how men of color are more likely to be suspected, arrested, and jailed for crimes that white men are not even noticed for doing. It was a difficult conversation because my daughter’s frame of reference is so much different than mine. She has not grown up with brown skin. While she has friends of color, most of her friends are white. This is not a good or bad thing, it just is.
My son’s middle school has 1,400 students and is very diverse. My son has observed that all the kids in the advanced placement program are white or Asian; the kids who are black or Latino are not in advanced classes. He has also noticed that the black children in his school are more likely to get punished for the same infractions he has witnessed white kids do and not get in trouble. So I have had in depth conversations with my son about race.
Children notice when racism happens, when things are not fair for everyone. It is up to parents to draw out children’s observations and help children process. Some people who don’t initiate the conversation may be under the impression that their child is not yet aware of racism; they may be hoping to protect their child. I would suggest that in the age of the Internet, our children are exposed to more than we may be comfortable with. That is all the more reason to initiate the conversation.
- If you are white, live in an area that is homogeneous, and have little opportunity to interact with people of color, I would suggest you visit the Teaching Tolerance website for stories you and your family can read and reflect on together.
- Find opportunities to listen together to news stories about racial disparities and tensions. Talk with children to help them understand and process incidents, including related protests, public debates and the veracity and fairness of the media coverage itself.
- Familiarize yourself, on the Standing on the Side of Love website, with ways our Unitarian Universalist movement supports the Black Lives Matter movement. Tell children how our religious leaders and communities have been protesting and working toward transformation.
- Most importantly, talk about what it means to be an ally. Being a white ally means educating yourself about how black people in this country have been and continue to be treated. While the issues are systemic and complex, one step toward transformation is starting the conversation.