Last spring, I was chatting on the sidelines of my son M’s soccer game with his friend Ethan’s mother, Cindy*, who, like me, is White. I had previously invited Ethan to participate in a Justice Squad pilot with M and some of their mutual friends, but Cindy had declined, claiming that Ethan was overcommitted and Zoomed-out. But that April day on the soccer sidelines, Cindy revealed an additional motive.
“Ethan’s teacher has been talking about racism a lot,” she shared.
Remote school had given Cindy a close-up view of Ethan’s first grade class. She told me that the kids had learned about Ruby Bridges, who, at age 6, had faced down an angry White mob every morning for months, as the first Black child to integrate her New Orleans elementary school. Ethan’s teacher had also read aloud Something Happened In Our Town, which addresses a police shooting in contemporary America.
“I don’t know,” Cindy fretted. “I think that all this is making Ethan and the other kids feel bad about themselves.”
“Really?” I replied. “I don’t see a lot of that with the kids in Justice Squad. We make sure to pair learning about racism with taking action for racial justice. Has Ethan’s teacher made any opportunities for the kids to take action?”
Cindy recollected that Ethan had made a Black Lives Matter sign and the class had also written letters condemning racism.
Our conversation petered out, and we returned to watching the soccer game.
I wasn’t surprised by Cindy’s concern. Parents want to protect their kids. We worry about their fragile bodies and their innocent minds, and we try our best to shield them from harm. We fear that the truth about racism will cause them pain.
Often, our concern comes from our own experience of losing our racial innocence. For some of us, in particular White people and some non-Black people of color, the last few years have included a lot of uncomfortable learning about the true history of racism in this country. Discovering the truth about racism and White supremacy brings up unpleasant feelings, including confusion, sadness, anger, and helplessness. For those of us with racial privilege, there can also be a lot of guilt and shame.
Naturally, if we associate race talk with painful emotions, we may feel an impulse to protect our kids from experiencing those same emotions. In particular, we may be reluctant to expose them to something that might cause them shame about who they are. However, our worries about our children’s feelings are often overblown. Let me return to my story to illustrate.
Perhaps ten minutes passed before Cindy turned back to me. “I’ve been thinking about what you said. You know what? I don’t know that Ethan is feeling bad about being White. That might just be me.”
Cindy’s revelation was huge. She recognized that her son had been participating in conversations about race and racism without feeling guilt or shame. She had been projecting her own feelings onto Ethan with no evidence that he felt the same way.
In my experience as a racial justice educator, I have seen very few instances of guilt or shame among White children. So why don’t children like Ethan react the same way as their parents? I attribute this to a few factors.
Our children are not as fragile as we think they are. When racial justice education is approached with care and expertise, it can be a positive, and even empowering experience for children.
White parents, how have your kids engaged with the topic of racism? Have they asked questions? Did they wonder how to fix it? Children’s desire to take action creates a real opportunity for all of us. If we heed our children’s call to take action, we may be able to overcome our own guilt and shame, as we commit to working towards racial justice together.
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*Names have been changed to preserve anonymity.