How should I talk to my white son about racism?

How should I talk to my white son about racism? This is a question I am struggling with. My son is eight. We’ve always talked about equality and fairness. We celebrate people who promote equality for all. We read the words of Dr. King, watch videos of his speeches, and bake “equality cupcakes” each year on Martin Luther King Day. I look back now and can’t help but think how woefully inadequate all of this has been. How do I explain what happened to Tamir Rice, Botham Jean, Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery (and that list could go on and on and on and on)? And what happened to George Floyd—how the HELL do I explain that?

As much as I wish I could shelter my son from all that is bad in this world, George Floyd’s murder and the mounting protests made it clear that we needed to have a deeper conversation about racism. So how do I go about explaining 401 years of systemic racial oppression in our country to an eight year old white child in an age appropriate manner? I’m going to be brutally honest here—I’ll be damned if I know. Best part? I’m a history teacher who actually gets paid to do that for a living. Because I didn’t know the right words to say, I found myself avoiding the conversation. CNN teamed up with Sesame Street to host a virtual racism town hall last week (https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/06/app-news-section/cnn-sesame-street-race-town-hall-app-june-6-2020-app/index.html) and it gave us a place to start.

Before we watched the racism town hall, in simple terms I tried to explain what happened to George Floyd, the connection to racism, and that people were protesting across the country. My son had LOTS of questions about how George Floyd died and I tried my best to answer them without giving him details that he really didn’t need to know. I thought that would be the hardest part. Well, it wasn’t. Confused and disappointed, my son said “I thought racism ended with Martin Luther King.” I had no choice but to admit “Sweetheart, racism still exists today.” “Maybe people are just confused about what happened,” he said. I explained there was a video. “Are you sure it isn’t an old video from the segregation days a long time ago and people are confused and think it’s from today?” he asked. “I’m sure it’s not an old video,” I told him. The look on his face made me fear his innocence was dissipating by the second. I felt like I had failed my son. In promoting the ideal of equality, I left him completely unprepared to deal with the reality of racism. I could hear the fear in his voice when my son asked if what happened to George Floyd could happen to his teacher. My son adores his teacher. His teacher is kind, patient, supportive, humorous, unconditionally accepting, positive, friendly…all of the things you would hope for in a teacher. He also happens to be an African American man. Why hadn’t I anticipated that question? Crap! I can’t speak for my son, but I guess I’ve never given his teacher’s race a second thought. As if to soothe himself (and fill the void of my incompetent speechlessness), my son quickly answered his own question by stating “That could NEVER happen to him because cops wouldn’t be able to see into his car windows when he’s driving.” Then with a shaky voice he asked “Right?” I looked into his big, brown eyes filled with tears and uncertainty and I did something I hadn’t done before…I lied to my child. “Right,” I said “that could never happen to him.” The thought of anything else made me sick to my stomach and I didn’t want my son to worry about his beloved teacher.

Together we watched the racism town hall, which was excellent by the way. Practical advice was offered to children and parents, but more importantly, lots of good questions were asked…many of which don’t have good answers yet. My son asked lots of questions of his own. He also told me he isn’t racist and asked if he should feel bad because he is white. The weight of four centuries of racial injustice shouldn’t be carried by a sweet, eight year old white boy. Yet, I know we will need to talk about privilege at some point too. I certainly understand this isn’t going to be a once and done conversation about racism. I have no doubt that we will have ongoing conversations for many years to come. In response to his question, I told my son that everyone should feel proud of who they are and that it is our job to try to understand and stand up for one another—no matter what our skin color is. I know that may be an incomplete, inadequate response, but it is a start. When is comes to discussing racism with my son, I can’t promise I understand everything or that I will say everything right. What I can promise is that I will try my best, learn as much as I can, and keep the conversation going.

After talking, my son and I decided to make something tangible to show our support for racial equality. We used a burning tool to sear the words “EQUALITY,” “JUSTICE,” and “ALL” into a wooden block. If only that could magically sear those words into reality. For now, they sit in our living room as a reminder of what we value, what we will have hard conversations about, and what we will stand up for.

Photo credit, L.B.

Published by LeeAnn Browett

LeeAnn is a teacher who lives in Connecticut with her husband and two children. Her passions are education, history, politics, theater, and music.

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