Parenting as Justice Work

A few days ago, my six-year-old had been playing a video game, and told me the characters said they wanted to make the world a better place. Then my son said “It seems like that’s what everyone is trying to do – everyone wants to make the world a better place.”

He said this a few days after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA. And I thought to myself “But the challenge is that some people’s view of what would be ‘better’ is very different from other people’s views.”

As we’ve seen this week, some people’s view of a better America is one where everyone is of European descent and where all others have “gone back to where they came from” or have “learned their place.” It’s a view based on hate / prejudice, or driven by fear, or a desire to protect those who are “like me” from those who are different.

My view is of a more just and equitable society, filled with diverse traditions and perspectives, where all members of the society have equal rights and equal protections. My view acknowledges that we are a long ways from that right now, as the marginalized members of our society who may most need the protections are instead the least likely to be well served by our institutions and policies.

What do I, as an individual, do to help work toward my view of a better world? How do I, as a parent, talk to my child about my vision of a better world? What do I, as a parent educator, say to the parents in my classes to encourage them to articulate their own view of a better world and to talk to their children about that? How do I, as a member of a faith community and other communities, work together with others to speak aloud our vision for a better world, knowing that the more voices are united, the more powerful the message is?

Talk about (and embrace) differences

I’ve written three posts in the past, which articulate many thoughts on these topics: Talking to Toddlers About Race; Teaching about Differences and Appreciation of Diversity;  Look Mom! That lady only has one leg! All of these address the fact that children notice differences! (As early as six months, children can classify faces by race and by gender. Source.) They also notice how we respond to them. So, when your preschooler shouts out “Look! That kid has a weird red spot on their cheek!” or “Is that a man or a woman?” or “Why is she wearing that weird robe that covers her all up?” or whatever… think about how to respond. If you “shushhhh” your child, you teach them that the thing they have observed is a shameful thing we don’t talk about in public. If you try to ignore the difference or say “but we’re all the same!” you confuse your child and miss a teaching opportunity.

Here’s another perspective:

“[Being “colorblind”] is not realistic. I’m an African-American woman. … When I walk into a room and I am the only black woman, it’s obvious. There’s no benefit in pretending. …  however, [we don’t] need to act awkward around each other. If we’ve embraced the fact that God has created us as equals, there’s no need or reason for that awkwardness. If someone who is culturally or ethnically different from you comes around, it is unrealistic, unhelpful and possibly unloving to pretend that you don’t notice. So, when your child says, “Mommy why is that woman wearing a dot on her forehead?” Instead of asking them to be quiet out of embarrassment, the colorsmart approach is to take that question as an opportunity to positively explain her different, unique culture. (source)

Here’s another thought:

“I’m going to teach my daughter the truth about race — that our brains are wired to notice looks first. … It’s okay to notice skin color. What’s not okay is to pretend color doesn’t exist. It’s the way you acknowledge color, and how you react, that makes you embrace race, hide from it, or run from it. … it’s [our] job to move beyond primal instinct in order to truly accept everyone — no matter what color or culture they may be. … Step out from behind the curtain of color-blindness, and embrace how not everyone is the same.”   (source)

Or, as one of my friends says to her five-year-old: “everyone’s different, and that’s awesome!”

And it’s not enough to say this with your words… your actions also matter. Children pick up and interpret subtle messages from their environment. So, if all the people you hang out with look and talk a lot like you, your child may interpret that they’re only supposed to hang around people who look and talk like them. (Source)

If we don’t talk about race , religion, abilities and other differences, then our child will come up with their own guesses and interpretations. It is better to talk about it openly so they know our views.

Talk about Inequities

As we talk about differences, and embrace differences, we may also naturally talk about equality – how in the United States, we are supposed to all have equal rights, equal protection, and equal responsibilities. I absolutely want to talk to my child about how things should be. But, I can’t leave it at that… I also have to talk about the fact that things in our country are not truly equal.

“If you tell your kid his entire life that all people, regardless of the color of their skin, are exactly the same, then when your white kid is a white grown up and he sees a disproportionate percentage of the people living in poverty have a different skin color than he does, he’s going to assume it’s because there’s something wrong with them. He will blame the people, not the flawed system. If we’re all the same, those people with brown skin can just work hard and be successful, right? …

By teaching your kids not to see color, you’re teaching them that the black men gunned down by white cops must have been criminals, they must’ve been bad guys, they must’ve deserved it.

By teaching your kids not to see color, you are teaching them that systemic racism does not exist… you are teaching them to be complicit in a culture of racism and fear.

Colorblind is not the answer. Skin color exists. Race exists. Racism exists. To ignore it and pretend it doesn’t is not just the wrong way, but is exacerbating the problem. Ignoring race, being colorblind, teaches kids that there’s nothing to talk about, nothing to discuss. White parents need to ENCOURAGE their kids to talk about race, ask questions, learn. Feed the discussion, not the ignorance.

Teach your kids to celebrate differences. Teach your kids that skin color IS important. Teach your kids that race exists, but bigotry shouldn’t. Teach them that our differences make us amazing. Don’t ignore, embrace.”  (Source)

Talk about Privilege

If I acknowledge that it is harder to be black, or Jewish, or gay in our society, I must also acknowledge that it is easier to be white, Christian, or straight. There is inherent privilege in these identities. “Privilege is the “up-side” of oppression and discrimination. It is about unearned advantage, which can also be described as exemption from discrimination.” Source

Privilege can be mis-interpreted.

“… privilege does not mean that their lives will be easy or that everything is “handed” to them. People tend to think of privilege in terms of super rich people who don’t have to work for anything. It’s hard to see that we are privileged when we are struggling to make ends meet. The fact is that privilege isn’t so much about what is handed to you, it’s about what isn’t even accessible to others. White privilege doesn’t mean that someone gives you a job for no reason, but it might mean that your resume is instantly taken more seriously because your name is John and not Jamal.” Source

I believe that I am a good person, and that I am smart, and that I work hard. So it is easy to believe that I have earned all the things I have in life. But I must also acknowledge that many things were easier for me to earn when I am white, 4th or 5th generation American, of Christian heritage, middle class, straight, cisgender, well-educated, and had a calm childhood with few things that could be considered adverse childhood experiences. (Read more about me and my identity here.)

What are some of the ways I’ve experienced privilege? In a classic essay on Unpacking the Privilege Knapsack, Peggy McIntosh lists some examples of the privileges I’ve experienced:

  • I can turn on the TV or open the paper, and see people of my race widely represented.
  • I can go shopping… mostly assured I will not be followed or harassed.
  • I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these things to the bad morals, the poverty of the illiteracy of my race.
  • I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
  • I can be pretty sure that if I ask to speak to “the person in charge”, I will be facing a person of my race.
  • I can be pretty sure that if I need medical or legal help, my race will not work against me.

My kids will also experience these benefits.

“A white kid growing up in a middle-class family an hour outside Seattle like my kids can work hard and become anything they want to be. A black kid growing up in a poor family in Baltimore could work just as hard as my white kids and not end up in the same place. Do some of those kids “beat the odds” and become super successful? Absolutely. But the fact that there are “odds” to beat is exactly the point of white privilege.” Source

So, what can I do? I’m still going to encourage my kids to be good people and to work hard. When they succeed at something, I’ll still celebrate and tell them they earned it. But when they earn access to some option just because of their privileged status, I will also point that out to them. I’ll ask them to question whether everyone truly had equal access. I’ll ask them to notice when other people do not have the same access as they do, and to question why that is the case.

Use Your Privilege

“Privilege means that you owe a debt. You were born with [privilege]. You didn’t ask for it. And you didn’t pay for it either. No one is blaming you for having it. You are lovely, human, and amazing. Being a citizen of a society requires work from everyone within that society. It is up to you whether you choose to acknowledge the work that is yours to do. It is up to you whether you choose to pay this debt and how you choose to do so.”  Source

That might mean speaking up for a person who is being poorly treated at a business due to their marginalized status, or it might mean speaking at a town hall where your voice may be heard better than the voices of those who are often silenced, it might be standing up for someone who is being bullied, or walking alongside marginalized people as they rally for their rights.  There are lots of things we can do as individual adults, and as our kids see us taking action, they learn from our example what our values are.

We can also encourage our children to use their privileges. A mother of a black son (who will transition from “an adorable black boy to a strong black man”) writes:

“We talk to our son about safety issues. We talk to him about being respectful of police (and anyone in authority), about keeping his hands where they are visible, about not wearing his hood up over his face or sneaking through the neighbor’s backyard during hide-and-seek or when taking a shortcut home from school. … Some people are going to see him as a “thug” before they ever know his name, his story, his gifts and talents.” Source

I’ve got an adorable white boy, who’s likely to transition to a scrawny geeky white man. I don’t have to have these same conversations with him. But I can talk to him about racism (and other -isms) and help him understand how to use his privilege to protect others. As the mother of the black son writes:

“So white parents, please talk to your kids about racism. If they see my son being bullied or called racist names, they need to stand with him. They need to understand how threatening that is and not just something to be laughed off. If your child is with my child playing soccer at the park and the police drive by, tell your child to stay—just stay right there with my son. Be a witness. In that situation, be extra polite, extra respectful. Don’t run and don’t leave my son by himself. If they are with my son, this is not the time to try out any new risky behaviors. Whatever trouble they get into, he will likely not be judged by the same standard you are. Be understanding that he can’t make the same mistakes you can.

Be conscious of what media messages your kids are getting about race. Engage in tough conversations about what you’re hearing in the news. Don’t shy away from this just because you can. He can’t. We can’t. I have hope that when white parents start talking about these issues with our white kids, that’s when change starts.” Source

When do we start?

We start talking about differences as early as our kids start noticing them. That’s as young as 6 months for race and gender! They start to crystallize beliefs about group identities as by the time they reach preschool. (Source) We can help to shape their initial attitudes on all these things, but not if we don’t start talking about it till they’re 6 or 7 years old. That’s too late to start.

So, from very early on, do step 1: talk about (and embrace) differences.

The other steps are more sophisticated, and require a more advanced cognitive level to understand. As rough estimates: when your kids start talking about what’s fair and what’s unfair is a good time to start talking about equality and step 2 – talking about inequities. This would typically be around age 4 – 6. You can talk about recognizing and using privilege as they get into later elementary school, or before then if you note that they are starting to make assumptions about “____ got that because he deserved it and ____ didn’t get it because she’s not good enough” or any other judgments that imply a developing bias.

Resources for learning more:

To learn more about these topics, click on any of the links above to find lots of great articles.

Also check out resources from the Southern Poverty Law Center. For adults, Ten Ways to Fight Hate. For kids (and educators), the resources on Teaching Tolerance.

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