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A Bit of Child-Appropriate Talk about Racism

A few weeks ago, my almost six-year-old daughter and I found ourselves unexpectedly driving from North Carolina to Alabama, with a few good stops along the way. Rather, I drove and she “navigated” by telling me to turn left every 90 seconds or so. We’d still be driving in a big square if it were up to her.

As it turns out, my Google Maps app wasn’t a whole lot more help than she was (and I give her more credit for trying). Even though I had the “highway” setting enabled, it insisted that I drive only on side roads. Given that I lack the ability to tell one Great Smokey Mountain from another, I had little choice but to continue down our slow, two-lane route.

It was a nice opportunity to breathe and to absorb the beauty surrounding us.

Besides, we got to see some things we’d have otherwise missed had we been on the highway: the Cat Museum, for one, and a roadside store entirely dedicated to “Hot Boiled Peanuts.” (We didn’t stop.)

Along with those things, we also saw a whole lot of confederate flags. After seeing enough of flags to pique her interest, my child asked what they were for.

I could’ve simply responded that people were using them to decorate their houses. That would be true. However, this was an opportunity to talk about another one of life’s “big issues.” She’s going to hear about the “big issue” of racism at some point, regardless.

I’d much rather she hear about racism from me than from friends at school. Or worse, from someone who either doesn’t know what’s appropriate for her age, or someone whose views don’t align with those that we’re trying to instill.

Using age-appropriate terms, I briefed her on the Civil War and what the two sides believed. I referenced one of her favorite picture books, I Walk With Vanessa (afflink), to help her connect the dots. (In the book, a little girl who’s new to a school is bullied by a boy of a different race. Fortunately, it has a happy ending of inclusion and acceptance. More than anything, it’s a children’s book about the power of kindness. It has no words whatsoever; the “reader” can use the appropriate narrative for his or her child—and that’s one of the reasons I recommend it.) 

Going on, I reminded my daughter that some people still wrongly believe that skin color is related to how important they are. Wanting to leave her feeling hopeful about the future (as I am), I spoke to her about people like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and others throughout our continued history, who’ve peacefully fought for equal rights.

That entire conversation lasted only a few minutes. I answered her questions. Then, days passed without further discussion about racism.

Then, life presented us with an opportunity.

We hadn’t planned to spend any time in Alabama besides flying back home from one of its airports. However, our flight was cancelled due to weather, so we ended up with a few unexpectedly free hours in Montgomery, the state’s capitol.

We parked near the first confederate White House and decided to walk the half mile to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s house (otherwise known as the Dexter Parsonage Museum), where we’d go inside and learn more about him and his important work.

Surprisingly, even though it was late afternoon on a beautiful day, the downtown Montgomery streets were completely empty. No one was outside. It was kind of weird.

We passed an alley, and out of seemingly nowhere, a black man who appeared to be homeless, appeared right behind us. The feeling of someone being so close, no matter who he was, initially startled me. I turned and nodded, “Hello.” He replied warmly, “Hello.”

To be clear, I don’t advocate talking to strangers if your “spidey senses” warn you not to.

Intuition is there for a reason. Trust it. In this case, however, my intuition told me we had absolutely nothing to fear (I’ve written before about how we’ve addressed homelessness). Besides, we were already there and so was he, so why not keep it positive? I realized my daughter was closely observing how I’d handle this stranger’s presence.

The man, who quickly proved to be kind and helpful, confirmed we were, indeed, walking the right direction towards our destination. He walked alongside us for about two blocks, making conversation and briefing us on this fascinating history of slavery in Montgomery. Then, as quickly as he’d appeared, he veered off. He offered in his most polite southern drawl, “Y’all be blessed.”

I felt that we had been.

Because we live in a large and diverse city, we have opportunities like this on a regular basis. The timing of this one, however, felt poignant because of where we were, what we’d recently discussed, and where we were going.

“Talking the talk” with kids about racism means also “walking the walk.”

Study and discuss the history of racism at an age-appropriate level. Start young, while kids are still forming their opinions about the world. Read books that include people of color. Widen your social circle, if necessary. Point out what we need to do to stop racism. And then, when the opportunity presents itself (as it undoubtedly will), let your response to others be your child’s best teacher.

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