As a white woman growing up in a predominantly white town and attending a predominantly white school, all the education I received about racism came from secondary sources. My white teachers taught my white classmates and I about racism, and why it was bad. We learned about slavery, the civil rights movement, we read books by African-American authors. As a person with absolutely no frame of reference, I probably would’ve told you that I had a good education about the evils of racism and why it’s bad to be racist.
However, my world was rocked when I was about 12 years old. A friend and I were having a discussion about boys, and I don’t know how we got on the topic, but she told me that her father said if she ever dated a black man, he would “beat the sh*t out of her.” I was shocked. I was shocked that someone’s father would threaten such a thing. But the most shocking thing to me? Realizing that someone I knew was racist.
My parents had talked to me about racism. My school had talked to me about racism. But no one had ever told me that racism still existed. Racism was very bad, but it was a thing that happened a long time ago. If racism existed, it was a thing that happened somewhere else, like the rural south. It didn’t happen in my midwestern suburb. The civil rights movement had “fixed” racism, so I didn’t have to worry about it anymore. Yay America!
Except that wasn’t the case at all. And it’s still not the case. Racism is a real thing that still exists in our country. All over the place. And we’re doing our children a disservice if we don’t address it.
Yesterday, I took my five-year-old with me to vote. I explained why we vote, and how we vote, and then I explained why voting was so important. I told him that many people in other countries don’t have this freedom, and that for a long time many people in our own country couldn’t vote because of unfair laws. My son agree with me that it was wrong to tell people that they couldn’t vote because of their gender or skin color, and that it was a good thing that this is no longer the case.
I looked at his innocent little face, and I’ll be honest — I didn’t want to take the conversation any further. I didn’t want to crush his sunny and optimistic view of the world. No one wants to tell their child that there are people in the world who are mean and cruel and hateful. But it’s important for my white, male son to not only understand that racism is bad, but to also understand that racism still happens. I used to think that being intentional about creating a diverse environment for my child was enough. Recent events in our nation have been a sad reminder that it’s not enough. I have to do more.
So I talked to my son about racism, as much as a white mom can instruct her five-year-old son on a topic with which she has zero personal experience. I asked what he thought about treating people poorly based on their skin color, and I asked him what he thinks God thinks about that kind of perspective. We had good discussion, he listened to me for as long as I could expect from a kid his age, and then he asked if we could go get ice cream.
I’ll be the first to admit that I have no idea what I’m doing. How do I teach him about something I don’t fully understand myself? But I do know that you can’t try to change what you don’t know exists. So that’s where we’re going to start.