Current protests for racial justice emerge from the unique history of Black people in this country. Unlike any other groups that experience discrimination in the United States today, Blacks were brought to this land as slaves long before the United States was a country. The inequality of Black people was enshrined in our Constitution. Racism was built into the economic, social, political, and cultural structures of the country from the beginning. Amendments to the Constitution and changes in many federal and state laws have leveled the playing field to a degree. However, significant inequities remain in healthcare, the justice system, education, hiring practices, and financial opportunities—just to name a few. Racism within our society is painfully obvious. For those of us who are white, the privileges of being white continue to advantage us in obvious and subtle ways whether we are conscious of them or not.
This state of ongoing racism was punctuated by the video from Minneapolis of the chilling death of George Floyd. Mr. Floyd lay on the ground for nearly 9 minutes with a police officer casually kneeling on his neck, hands in his pockets, until Mr. Floyd died. The video of the murder led to an eruption of people of all races protesting the treatment of Blacks in our justice system.
How do we approach the topic of racism with our children? For each family there is a fundamental question: what values do we want to embody as adults and pass on to our children? It is important for white parents to realize that their children get messages about race from their parents’ verbal and non-verbal communications. The questions parents would be wise to ask themselves are: what are the values we most want to impart to our children in regard to their relationships with others and the fundamental equality and rights of others? What step is our child ready for? What experiences have they had with children of other races? What experiences have we had with people of other races? If we are not active in multi-racial social, religious, or business groups, are we willing to change that?
Our world suffers from many forms of strong and often brutal discrimination and oppression against people for many reasons: their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or physical and mental attributes and abilities. As families we can educate ourselves and expose our children to the many ways people of every background have contributed to the world. Without limiting the importance of this wide view, it is critical to recognize that as a country we are experiencing a unique moment in our history. Right now, racial injustice experienced by Blacks on a daily basis is being recognized and challenged by vast numbers of people of every race and economic level. Given this reality, this is a time when it is particularly important to emphasize Black history—the profound contributions Blacks have made to this country through the centuries and the profound injustices Blacks have suffered in the past and continue to suffer today. It is important not to dilute this historical moment by insisting we always speak of the legitimate grievances of all groups who experience injustice. This argument mutes the call for racial justice for Black Americans. People who currently have the power to make changes to our political, legal, economic and cultural systems can use this argument to avoid the pressures of the present moment to do something beyond window dressing to address the racism in their own institutions. Given the diversity of those participating in the current protest movement, it is clear that many people recognize that this is the moment to insist on greater justice for Blacks.
For white families who are committed to addressing racism, it is important to consider the books we read and the movies and television we watch. Do we take advantage of the excellent historical books and programs that deepen our understanding of the history of race in our country? What do we, and our children, hear from our friends? If they make racist comments or jokes do we laugh along, remain silent, or do we speak up? The silence of parents carries a strong message to children that the parents agree with what is being said. If the comments cannot be addressed in the moment, parents can talk with their children after the encounter and explain why they disagree with what was being said or done. Such conversations are also important when a family is watching a television program or movie that includes racist words and actions. The racism may be integral to the story, but we need to discuss what we are watching to help our children understand why racist behavior is destructive. If racism is being celebrated, it is helpful to stop watching and explain to our children why we are uninterested in that type of entertainment.
This seems to be a special moment in our history when we might be able to make some significant progress toward greater justice as a country. Involving children in this movement is important. I recently participated in a discussion on The TODAY Show during which families who are protesting with their children were interviewed. The white parents said it was important for their children to learn that they can use their voices and power to speak up on behalf of others. The white children had Black friends, and they wanted their friends to be treated fairly. Many of the children in the Black families made their own signs. They were empowered by being part of history and standing up for themselves.
Black children can be empowered to know that Black, white, Latino, and Asian Americans are all protesting the profound injustice on which our country is founded. They are not alone, despite the counter protests by white nationalists who attack their humanity and equality. It gives them a source of strength at the same time they are being repeatedly traumatized by news clips of unarmed Black men being murdered by white policemen.
For white children, participating in the protest can give them a chance to learn more about the history of this country. It’s such a delicate issue, because they can see on social media claims that white culture is better and the protests are illegitimate. White parents can help their children begin to understand that sadly, white supremacy has been part of the fabric of this country throughout our history. As the historian Jon Meacham points out, white supremacy surges and recedes in strength as a recurring theme in the United States. For the past few years, it has reemerged and taken advantage of social media to try to spread its message of hate. It will not end with the changing of laws as important as that is. Ultimately it requires a profound change in our hearts and minds. Our children can be part of that ongoing change to make a future better for everyone.
Life lessons can evolve out of this protest movement. As white people, we have the opportunity to learn in far greater detail that Black people almost always experience their daily lives in ways that we do not understand. Can we really imagine what it is like to be followed around in a store to make sure we are not stealing anything? We may have a doctorate from Princeton and teach at Harvard, but if we are Black, the color of our skin may lead us to be treated differently regardless of our education, financial standing, accomplishments, clothing, and proper behavior. White people do not have that experience and often deny that Blacks are actually treated differently unless there is a “good reason.” This subtle and not-so-subtle racism is rampant and impossible to eliminate through laws. It requires whites to be willing to learn about themselves in ways that are painful. Are we willing to do that?
This is our country…for all of us. We are all connected. Dehumanization and maltreatment of any of us affects all of us. Each of us needs to speak up for justice.
My hope is that these reflections can be part of an ongoing conversation that will lead all of us to do what we can to make our country a more just society. There will be many forces that try to stop the current movement from leading to any significant change. However, if all of us who are committed to justice refuse to go silent, we can speak and act in ways that will eventually make a real difference. The protest marches are important for sustaining pressure on public leaders. However, there are many ways we can contribute to this movement beyond participating in a march. We can make sure our voices are heard and our dollars are spent in ways that support the call to justice. Let’s be resilient and courageous as we work to make a more just world.
*** A special thank you to my friend and colleague, Dr. Janet Weathers, with whom I collaborated in the writing of this article.