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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Casteel

We Don't Just Sit By

I'm trying to model for Francis the right behaviors when it comes to racism, most importantly to listen to African American voices when it comes to racism. So enough from me about this. Here's Kareem Graham's article from the Chronicle.

White parents, talk to your kids about race

By Kareem Graham

Ahmaud Arbery. George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Three more unarmed black people murdered, victims of racist acts by civilians and law enforcement officials alike.

Their deaths are part of a familiar and horrific pattern of the callous destruction of black bodies in the U.S. Having video in many of these cases has created a new twist: It’s made this pattern undeniable to white Americans. As a result, many well-meaning white parents have asked how they can teach their children this is wrong. Many start with the belief that kids should be taught to be colorblind, and that everything would be OK if only everyone abided by the Golden Rule.

I’m not an expert, but I do have plenty of experience in talking to my own kids about race. That’s why I know this line of thinking — teaching children that kindness will solve racism — is appealing, but wrong. Kindness did not end slavery, produce the gains of the civil rights movement, or result in the election of our first black president in 2008. Kindness will not fix the racial wealth gap in this country, nor is it a strategy for achieving gender and racial equity in hiring and compensation.

I’d love to see white parents with school-aged children talk to their kids about race by, first, starting to talk about their own realities. Start by acknowledging your own ignorance, and fully accept that you are afforded the luxury of this ignorance because of your skin color. Tell your kids that structural racism is not their fault, but they benefit from it in countless ways. Their movements through life — through neighborhoods and boardrooms, through interactions with store clerks and law enforcement — will be free of the burdens and tensions that black people must swallow and endure daily.

As parents of white kids, resoundingly condemn police brutality, but stress that it represents just one extreme example of racism’s ugly consequences. Emphasize that to be effective, racism does not require visceral hate for (or even mild dislike of) black people. Instead, racism tends to operate more subtly, cropping up in everyday, seemingly mundane situations: gently putting its thumb on the scale to celebrate white ideas over black ideas, giving the benefit of the doubt to white storytellers over black storytellers, valuing white experiences over black ones.

Even (perhaps especially) with younger children, have open, clear conversations about skin color. For example, you could say something like: “People have different color skin because people have different amounts of a chemical called melanin in their skin. The color of someone’s skin tells you nothing about what kind of person they are. Unfortunately, people with darker skin are often treated badly because of their skin color. That is very wrong and unfair. We believe all people should be treated equally and with respect, and we want you to stand up for those values, too.”

These conversations should probably start before you feel entirely ready. Children develop strong notions about race and racial identity at an early age. I’ve had to try to rebuild my then 8-year-old son’s self-esteem after a little girl at summer camp told him, “All people with brown skin are slaves.” I’ve had to console my then 10-year-old daughter after her kind white friend told her that her brown skin wasn’t pretty.

Weigh your uneasiness about having these conversations against your uneasiness that you may raise children capable of saying such things to mine.

In a much better world, I could focus on instilling in my kids ideals that their white peers take for granted: that diligence and creativity are rewarded based on merit alone; that they are unique individuals with unlimited potential, whose thoughts and feelings matter as much as anyone else’s. But my wife and I are obliged to ready our kids for this imperfect world.

Teaching my kids only to be kind will not protect them from the micro- and macroaggressions that they experience regularly. To believe otherwise is not only misguided — it prolongs the march toward lasting justice, a march that will surely see more innocent black and brown lives taken along the way.

White parents need to do more than teach their kids about race, of course. They need to join the fight against voter suppression in communities of color and support candidates for office who will enact real criminal justice reform (and then hold them accountable).

But some of this important work goes on in the home, too. That’s where we can’t afford to have any parents falling victim to the alluring, false notion that kind acts among individuals will rid our nation of the scourge of police brutality and systemic racism. Kindness won’t protect your child’s black friend from the next Derek Chauvin or Amber Guyger.

Kareem Graham is a scientist who lives in Burlingame.

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