My 7-year-old was reading a book about Jackie Robinson last night. Robinson was born in 1919, and in 1947, he became the first African American to play for a Major League Baseball team. Take a second to think about the culture, especially race relations, during that time. As well as any children’s story can, the book details many experiences that Jackie Robinson endured in his life.
Not long after my son started the book, he put it down, looked at me, and without hesitation says, “I don’t want to live when Jackie Robinson lived. They wouldn’t have let ME be with YOU!”
What a realization for a little boy — to learn that “long, long ago” there was something wrong with a mom who looks like me having a kid who looks like him. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that while laws have changed, a lot is still the same.
We don’t avoid talking about race in our house.
In fact, we run full force into those conversations. It is a topic that comes up frequently since my husband and I had our first baby nearly 10 years ago.
And how can it not? We all look vastly different from one another. My husband is African American and has beautiful dark brown skin. I am Caucasian and fair. Our three children fall in between there but none of them has the same skin tone.
We spend a lot of time talking about the good. Oh yes, we talk about the history and successes of the African American community and the influence that African Americans have had on our country and the world. But mostly we talk about how it doesn’t matter what your skin looks like – the way you treat people is what matters the most.
At this point in our children’s lives, we haven’t brought ourselves to tell them that the world will be different for them, especially our two boys, simply because they have brown skin. We haven’t said they will have to be careful of their actions and words because they could be misinterpreted. We definitely haven’t said that their lives, even though they are just as precious and fragile as anyone else out there, are more at risk than their White friends.
I wish we didn’t have to have these heartbreaking conversations with our kids, but we do. We must. For their safety.
However, I have come to realize that I am not the change maker. I AM doing my part by teaching my children, but I and other parents of African American kids can’t do it alone.
I’m the first to admit that I’ve only recently been awoken to racial stereotyping and injustice. I met my husband in late 2002. Prior to that, I grew up in a middle- and upper-class community. I can honestly say that privilege and liberal parents can make one blissfully unaware of any racial problems. I now realize that wasn’t because it wasn’t happening; I was just too ignorant to know what was going on.
My history is important here because I am always shocked when my husband and kids and I have an experience that stems from prejudices. There is a (long) moment where I don’t understand what is going on and try to justify the occurrence as some sort of mistake or mix-up.
White friends, consider this. When was the last time a restaurant refused to serve you? It isn’t as in-your-face as you might think like you see in the movies. These days, the restaurant lets you walk in the door. They might even give you a table but they definitely don’t take your order. You watch servers take care of party after party with disbelief before your husband finally says that you need to go. Has that ever happened to you? How did it make you feel?
We had that experience less than a year ago… in 2019.
This is a fairly mundane example. No one was physically harmed. We simply left the restaurant and found another one. But not every person of color (POC) gets off with simply choosing a different restaurant and that is what’s terrifying.
Unfortunately, I can think of countless recent examples where things ended tragically. If you watch or read the news, so can you.
Growing up, I never imagined that I would have to ask my husband to put his sweatshirt hood down when he wants to run a quick errand after leaving the gym because I fear for his life.
White parents of white kids, here is where you come in.
I can talk to my kids until I am blue in the face about race relations, equality, and how to treat others. But it is not enough. I need you to do it, too. Talk to your kids about culture, tell them about our history as a country but most importantly, teach them to speak up when they see something is wrong. Teach them to rock the boat and have uncomfortable conversations. Then make sure that you are a strong role model by practicing what you preach.
We need to move from a culture of passive acceptance to one that challenges outdated and dangerous beliefs. White parents, it begins with us. You have the power to be the biggest influence in your children’s lives. I’m not expecting you to change the entire world, but you can shape your children’s world in a positive way and that would be a start.