Last week, a Snapchat video was made public, where White students from a middle school in Virginia held down African-American students in sexually explicit positions while making racist remarks.
Naturally, parents were appalled. Social media responses of “This is not who we are” and “I can’t believe this is happening in 2017” abounded. But the truth is that as a nation, this is who we are. This stuff happens in 2017, and it will continue to happen until we take responsibility.
Trying to figure out how something like this could happen in “our own backyard,” people were quick to throw blame. One comment read, “The kids are not the problem, their parents are the problem!” And another, “The kids learn this stuff at home!”
Sure, kids learn a lot from what they hear and observe. But we are missing the point.
Children also learn from what they are NOT hearing.
Most White parents don’t talk to their kids about race
Why? First of all, our parents didn’t talk to us about race.
Second, unless you are part of a racial minority, the topic of race just doesn’t come up naturally.
The same happens with any other minority group.
My daughter has two dads. Naturally, we bought picture books with two-dad families since before she was born. One of her friends in preschool had just a mom. This mom was intentional in connecting with us because she wanted her daughter to see different kinds of families. But if your child grows up in a mom/dad household, she won’t naturally learn about non-traditional families until she meets one.
In his book “White Like Me,” Tim Wise explains how many white children encounter race for the first time. For context, remember that most White parents were not taught about race by their own parents. As a result, talking about race still feels very uncomfortable. To avoid saying anything wrong, they often choose not to say anything at all.
And then the child sees a person of color at the store… and makes a comment! Loudly.
You know what most of us do when our kids make embarrassing comments in public. We tell them to be quiet or to lower their voice. Our embarrassment takes over. Maybe we were taught that “it is not nice to say those things,” so we feel that a stern look will teach our kid the same.
When children talk about race, people of all colors and shapes (at least in the US) clamp up. Why? Because we have a code that says what’s “appropriate” and what’s not. And when kids speak up, without understanding this race-conversation-appropriateness-code, parents are scared. What are they going to say? What will that say about them?
And that’s when it happens – and the parent goes, “Shhhhhh, that’s not nice.”
And the child then learns that it’s not OK to talk about race. Or see race. Or that there’s something inherently bad about race.
My daughter did it too
My daughter and I had dinner at a hot-dog place the other day. As we walked out, she stopped and smirked at someone. I turned and noticed a young black man with a big afro and a pick in his hair. The gentleman looked back at her and smiled. She pointed at his hair and looked at me.
This could have been one of those moments. These situations always catch us off guard, so I took a breath and tried to slow myself down. He had no idea why this little White girl was singling him out. I went down to her eye level and said, “Hey, honey, pointing at other people makes them uncomfortable. What are you trying to show me?” She responded, “He forgot to pull his comb out of his hair!”
That was not what I expected her to say. I hadn’t even noticed. I took a breath, trying to explain, “Oh, it’s a hairstyle. You see, black hair is able to hold it, so if you pay attention, you’ll see that people do it all the time.”
I wasn’t sure if the young man heard our conversation, so I told her, “I worry he might be embarrassed because we are staring at him.” I suggested to tell him that she was intrigued by his comb. A social butterfly, she went and told him, “I love the comb in your hair.”
Next time, here’s what you can do
Instead of running from the embarrassment, slow yourself down and clarify. Then, make sure your child understands that the reason we avoid comments like these is to shield the other person from feeling judged. When you tell your child that “it is not nice” to comment on something they see, then the focus is on your child, instead of the effect their behavior has on the other person. And, when you don’t discuss this with her, she may conclude that there is something inherently wrong with what she saw -and that it must not be spoken of.
Your child is not the first to bring up race (or other differences) inappropriately. She is still learning! Most people will appreciate that you educated her instead of just hushing things away.
Let’s open up the conversation
Our kids have much to learn. We can’t teach them everything. And it’s impossible to understand the struggle of each minority group. But we can allow open conversation, even about uncomfortable topics.
When I think of the kids from that middle school in Virginia, I don’t know what their home life is like. But I’m fairly certain that they don’t engage in dinner conversations about race. I wonder if they talk about the generational impact of segregation. Do their parents talk to them about how it must feel for a person from a minority to be singled out? Do they know that these Black kids do talk about race at home? Or, maybe these particular African-American parents didn’t talk to their kids about it either, in an attempt to finally move past the issues (it’s been such a long time coming).
Sometimes we hope that if we don’t talk about it, it isn’t real.
Countless parents tell me their child “doesn’t see race.” But kids do. And when we don’t talk to them about it, they learn it somewhere else. Or, they stay in the dark. Then, one day, they “joke around” in the locker room… and land on national TV.
Let’s get uncomfortable.
Because from what we saw at this middle school in Virginia, kids definitely see race.