My son’s friend was over at our house playing about a month ago. Unprompted he stopped the game they had created, walked over to me and said “You know, some people treat me bad because of the color of my skin” (he’s African American). It knocked the wind out of me to hear this 8-year old child say these words. I said, “I’m so sorry, dear. You don’t deserve that. Have people in our neighborhood treated you that way?” He said yes, but they didn’t live close by and then went back to playing. I wanted to run out and find the people who were treating this child that way. I felt helpless. I wanted to fix it but knew it was a much bigger problem than our neighborhood. After I’d had some time to sit with what he said, I stopped him on his way home. I told him that we love having him come over to play and he is welcome any time, and if any one treats him badly again because of his skin color, to let the closest trusted adult know and to remember that he is valued and loved.
After he left I asked my son if he had heard what his friend said. He hadn’t so I talked with him about it and we discussed ways that he could support his friends of color if he heard anyone saying something mean about them because of their skin color or if they told him about something that had happened. We agreed that he would speak up and say something like “that’s not right/nice/cool”, check in with that friend to see if they were okay and ask how he could help, and let the closest trusted adult know.
That was over a month ago but it has stuck with me. Now the events in Charlottesville have happened where hate came out hoods-off to the streets. How can I help change the hearts and minds of those spewing hate and committing violence, or even those who stay silent and let it happen? African Americans have been facing this hatred for so long. As a white ally, it is my responsibility to talk to other white people about ending racism in all its forms and to listen to and support people of color in my community.
Being that I am the parent of two white boys, it is also my responsibility, and the responsibility of other parents of white children, to teach them to treat all humans with dignity and respect, no matter their skin color, gender, religion, sexual orientation, ability, socio-economic status, or other identities. I have been doing this with my two kids since they could speak, but mostly in theory or “what if” scenarios. I see now more than ever that it’s important that my kids are ready and able to speak out against injustice when they see it, and support their friends and peers.
They’ll be starting school soon. I’ve seen a couple confederate flags in the neighborhood. Will the children of the families with those flags, or others who aren’t as obvious about it, treat their peers of colors with the same hatred that we just saw in the streets of Charlottesville? Will the school administration and/or teachers say something at the beginning of class reminding all students to treat each other with respect? My son has had some wonderful teachers so I don’t doubt their commitment to supporting all the students. However, I’ll be searching for ways, such as joining the PTA and volunteering, that I can get involved and help create a supportive learning environment for all our kids.
So, for those of you who like lists, here are a few things you can do as the parent of white children:
- Talk with your kids about racism. Tell them what it is. Tell them why it’s wrong. Brainstorm ideas with them of what they can do if they see it.
- Lead by example. Check your own privilege and make sure you’re treating everyone with dignity and respect. Kids are like sponges and they learn from everything you do, whether you want them to or not.
- Get involved in your community. Whether it’s the PTA, neighborhood civic league, or local group of like-minded activists working to make your community a more inclusive and harmonious place. Tell your kids about what you’re doing. They’ll remember that when they grow up and be more inclined to get active themselves.
- Talk with your friends, family, and acquaintances and let them know where you stand. If they post hateful things on social media, don’t just unfollow them, tell them what you think and feel about their post. Try to help them see the error of their ways. It won’t be easy and it may not work (nobody likes to be told they’re wrong). But as white allies, it is our job to talk with other white people and help them open their eyes and hearts. Doing what is right is more important that maintaining a relationship with someone who spews hate. Let them know that if this is how they feel and they can’t or won’t be reasoned with, that you no longer want them in your life. This will be hard, but not as hard as a person of color has it when they are met with racist comments, actions or violence because of their skin. This will send them the message that you’re serious and hopefully help them question their hatred and come around. Let them know that you care for them, but will not stand for their hatred. Again, it may not work with everybody, but it’s better to surround yourself and your community with supportive and inclusive people to help create a better world for all. Your kids will learn to do the same.
- Practice self-care. It is important that we speak out against injustice. We can’t do a good job of that if we don’t take care of ourselves. You will get frustrated and overwhelmed by this work because it’s not going to be easy. Some people may even respond to you with violence. It is important to vent with like-minded white friends (don’t put all your hurt feeling on your friends of color, they have enough to deal with) and empathize and brainstorm what you can do moving forward to better create change. It is also important to keep safe, but remember that as white people, that is a privilege that our friends of color don’t always have. We can step out of the protest march when we need to and be fine. But African Americans can’t change their skin color and will always be seen as a target by racists. They can’t get away from that until we change our country. Until then, take care of yourself and stay safe, but also check your privilege. Also, self-care for activists of color will be different than yours and you shouldn’t try to impose your practices on them. That would be making the problem worse.
- Talk with and listen to people of color in your community. Look for opportunities to support them and call out injustice alongside them, but be careful not to overshadow or silence them. Use your resources and abilities to highlight their voices and give credit where credit is due. They are the ones directly affected by racism. We can, and should, talk to our white friends, family and neighbors who are being racist or complicit and possibly get them to listen to reason. Again, this is a way to lead by example for your kids.
- The time is now. Our country has hit another high point of crisis of race relations. Don’t wait until something happens in your front yard. Get involved. Speak up. Sitting back and doing nothing but being shocked and appalled is being complicit. Show your kids how it’s done.
- You’re probably going to stumble or even fall flat on your face when trying to be a good ally, but it’s important to pick yourself back up and keep going. The fight has been long and hard before our generation arrived. Progress has been made, but we still have a long way to go. Your pride may take some hits, but process it and keep the long-term goal in mind. Don’t get defensive. Listen if people of color or other white allies call you out. Learn from your mistakes and move forward. Let your kids see you make mistakes and learn and grow from them.
These are a few of the many things you could do to participate in the work of social justice. Just be sure that you are talking with your kids about these issues and how you’re responding to them. This will teach them resiliency, problem-solving, and respect for others. No one is perfect, but by showing them that you are committed to doing what is right and fair, they will learn to do the same. Remember that you’re raising the next generation and what they learn as a child will stay with them through adulthood and effect what we are able to accomplish as a nation. You may not live to see us get to a point of equality and respect for all, but maybe your kids will.