There is an avalanche of resources flooding the Internet and the market to learn and teach about racism and anti-racism, especially to children. For many white and non-Black parents and caregivers, the past few days following the uprisings have meant that there is a surge of individual and collective white guilt which spurs action to make their children socially aware or “woke” as quickly as possible. And as is often the case, the violence of the continuing murders, and the ways the uprisings have been projected in the media, we feel the burning desire to change the world in whatever way possible. By “we”, I include myself as an East Indian immigrant to the US, and an educator who also benefits from racist systems in the US. In this moment of awakening for us what is the best way forward to ensure that this is not momentary? How do we make sure that white and non-Black people can take action and can hold ourselves accountable even after the cycle of news passes and the uprisings come to a halt? How do we channel this burning to have maximum impact, in the long run? Let’s take a pause.
As many parents are feeling, their primary urge is to educate their children, and have race conversations as early as possible, especially if they have not done so before. What we need to understand here is this is not just a teachable moment for children, but a learning moment for parents as well. Let’s also reflect on why and how much we are focusing our actions in raising “good white and non-Black children”, versus looking inward and the gaps in our own minds. We cannot hide behind reading the “100 best books list” or the “10 best podcasts” to our children and exonerate ourselves. We need to recognize that we are hearing stories that whiteness wants to hear in this moment with a lot of leeway to get back into our white comfort with doing the bare, performative minimum. We have to hold ourselves accountable with actions to dismantle white supremacy and racism beyond teaching our children about racism.
If as parents we have dropped the ball on talking about race and racism with young children and adults, let’s reflect on why we let the ball drop, in building relationships, role-modeling what speaking up looks like, standing up looks like, asking questions look like. What we are talking about cannot be taught only by books. And relying on a few books will only tell part of the story. We need the characters of these books to come alive for children to experience genuine friendships, to know their whole stories. The whole story, that is taught, seen, and experienced through multiple books and experiences. For that to happen, we need to ask ourselves first, do we have friends of color? Where do they live? How many People of Color work where we work? What positions do they hold? How many people of color are part of our PTOs? And for that to happen, we need to pause and take stock of where we are at and where our children are at and genuinely commit to doing the work so we are receiving and practicing it at a pace that enables us to make a long-term impact. This is not a teachable or a learning moment, but a journey. Because we need for white folks to be still standing one month from now, one year from now, a decade from now, as the work we are talking about is breaking a system that is the foundation of this country.
So let us start where you are at. Can you revisit the books you were taught and the books your children have currently to look at race? Among the books featuring humans in your child’s library collection, what percentage of books are the “woke” books? And how does race play out in these “woke” books? How does race occur in the “non-woke” books? Is whiteness the default? How do gender, disabilities, immigration status, religion, hair, ethnicities, etc., intersect in the characters in those books? How can you ask children questions and provide them with the tools to navigate a world where whiteness is the default and they can move from being “color silent” to race conscious? For that to happen as much as we need “woke books” to raise their social consciousness, we need to build our children’s critical thinking abilities to ask the right questions. It is raising them to have the ability to think for themselves rather than being presented with what to think. As outside of whatever cocoons we create for our children, they continue to navigate this world of racist messages both overtly and covertly.
If you jump directly into books that talk about racism without the necessary conversations about race and other differences, racist and other stereotypes may be reinforced even when the import of the book is quite different. Without scaffolding and framing conversations, it risks children taking away a single story or stereotype of a group of people without seeing them as a whole. As author Chimamanda Adichie says, stories can be used to empower and humanize and to disempower and malign. Quoting Chinua Achebe, “what we need is a balance of stories”.
And equally important is highlighting the similarities of experiences, of family celebrations, birthdays, traditions, companionship, leadership, joy, excellence and resilience. Both these conversations need to go together. Pain, anguish, feeling of getting left out and being powerless to change their reality are emotions children can relate to. Connecting with the similarity in emotions one feels needs to be underscored with: the experiences of racism are not and never will be the same as any of your experiences as a white person.
Again, Black people and children need to be presented as the sum total of their many parts that make them whole. They are not just abject victims having no agency to change and in need of white saviors. This country came this far thanks to the blood, sweat and tears of African Americans and each and every stride in civil rights were made under Black leadership. So let’s present a balance of stories to our children and hold ourselves accountable as we move forward together to dismantle and rebuild it from the ground up.
Divya Anand, Ph.D. is the founder and director of Gaia Connections, a social justice consultancy based in Medford, MA, and is a senior faculty at Cambridge College, MA. She is part of the local advocacy group Color Coalition Collective, a local advocacy group for African American Black Indigenous People of Color, based in Medford, MA.