Your 7 year old child who is white hesitates to shake someone’s hand who is African-American. Your first grader tells another student she’s “a lesbian with her sister.” You were there. You weren’t there. You are the most open, anti-racist, multicultural person you know. Where did your child get this from?
I’ve seen stories about these moments (remember the children’s summer camp that was asked to leave the Country Club pool last summer). These articles rightly so express the pain of the child/parent, who is black, and astonishment, denial and/or defensiveness of the offender or offender’s parents who are white.
But what seems missing is the doorway to learning that this opens for the white child. Without discussion, what the white child may glean is A) they’ve talked about race, B.) all the adults have freaked out, and, C) by the transitive theory in math, where if A=B and B=C then A=C…then talking about race freaks people out so don’t ever do it again.
And that, my friend, is the perfect formula for passing unconscious bias, prejudice, and funky racial dynamics onto the next generation.
Just as we would help our children learn to read, write, add and subtract, we need to teach them intercultural competence. It’s generally not taught in school, and it’s something we might want to frame in the home anyway, right up there with morals and beliefs.
So we have to talk, even when it’s hard.
In the hand shaking incident referenced above, it was MY reaction that was wrong…the more Dillon refused to shake hands the more anxious and insistent I got. I got nervous thinking “he’s going to think Dillon’s resisting because he’s black.” He didn’t, but I think our mutual friend who introduced us did.
The better answer (now with the luxury of months to think about it) might have been “Sorry, he has a touchy germ issue—it goes over really well when he shouts ‘No!’ at the sweet Jewish ladies who try to hand him cookies at synagogue on Saturdays!” In fact at the time he wouldn’t even eat sandwiches if I had touched them.
On the lesbian name calling (yes, that was my son, too). It was more practical…and brief–we haven’t even explained heterosexual relationships yet, let alone homosexual ones– 1.) You generally don’t have a relationship with someone in your own family whether you like boys or girls (a la the Sister reference); and some people are lesbians, and that’s okay, it’s just a natural way of being, so you wouldn’t want to use that as though it was an insult, because there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just different.
Most of these discussions are hard because they have to do more with our own “hang-ups.” I’m hyper-aware of racial inequities, privilege and unconscious bias, but as an adult tend to lean toward “politically correct,” gender/race neutral language (aka euphemisms)—which doesn’t work with children who need simple, specific, actionable language.
All I know is when his class discussed war and the military in Social Studies and the topic of homosexuals in the military came up, Dillon said all of the other children giggled at the word homosexual. He was the one who pointed out that the US policy was discriminatory. You go, Dillon!
Will I get it wrong? Probably. Will I have a chance to notice that and try again? As long as I’m a mom.
What has your child said that mortified you? What did you do?
Photo credit: Stuff White People Do