Growing up in an affluent, mostly white town, my exposure as a child to folks that were different me was limited. Truly, the culture of my hometown, which is about 30 miles north of Chicago, was largely homogenous in racial makeup.
One of the first times I became aware of the class and white privilege that I experienced was in my 5th grade classroom. I was eleven. A cop, local to the towns north of Chicago, came to speak to our class about the dangers of drug use. However, the lesson turned away from drug awareness and prevention when us students began to ask the cop about his experience with law enforcement in the field surrounding drugs. Our naive brains were quite far removed from the realities of neighborhood violence and drug abuse; when questioning the cop, we wanted answers that would fit the simplistic mold in our own minds of stereotypical villain versus hero, adventurous action-packed crime fighting. It was all so far removed from our experience growing up in a privileged, protected community.
The officer provided anecdotes of his experience that deviated sharply from our expectations. Instead of speaking about his own work in the field and fulfilling our far-removed ideas of grandeur, he pointed out that we, as students, had very different realities than the people he worked with in other towns around us. The officer talked about the daily life of children living in towns not even a 20 minute drive away from our town; he spoke about gun violence and a lack of security, school systems that were not nearly as strong as our own, and the economic insecurity faced by so many families. The officer also made the point that there was a noticeable difference in the racial makeup of our town, compared to the towns that he worked in; he connected our whiteness to the sense of prosperity in the town, and the economic and wellbeing insecurities faced by folks in other towns to their being people of color.
I felt foolish, embarrassed, and shameful of my hometown. For a while, when I met folks that weren’t from my town through travel sports or school events, I’d lie about where I live. What I realize now is that the time I spent with the officer in my 5th grade classroom was one of the first times I realized how my racial identity had impacted my life; how my whiteness and privilege as an upper middle class student were connected; how I couldn’t change certain parts of myself, which I would realize later as identities; and lastly, and perhaps most significantly, how I didn’t have to work for any of the privileges I received because of my social location.
More importantly, the experience I had with the officer was one of the first times I had seen how racial hierarchies and racial oppression in the United States tangibly impact folks of color on the ground. Prior to this experience, I had a very simplified idea of racism: of course it was bad, I knew that, but I didn’t realize how deeply complicated and widespread its’ impact is. I certainly did not have a conception of how my own existence as a white person perpetuated racist systems.
In the past nine years, I have been lucky enough to find myself in the company of people, largely within academic settings, willing to dig into the complexities of race and race relations in the United States. The homogenous nature of my upbringing has not defined my perspectives on race and class difference and inequity in this country.
Here’s the important thing: I am still definitely learning how to build empathy and engage in meaningful anti-oppression work. I am still learning how to check my own deeply ingrained perceptions of white people and people of color. I am still learning how to understand how systems of oppression manifest all the time. I am still learning how to carry the responsibility of white privilege in a way that opposes racist discourses.
I am grateful for the folks that have worked with me, in my own journey with racial justice work; the educators, mentors, and employers that have committed the time to engaging with young people, like myself, in pursuit of building a more just and equitable world are some of the most important people I know. I only wish that these conversations had started earlier, before my work here at the Peace & Justice Center, before my time in college and high school, before that one eye-opening conversation with the police officer in middle school.
While my parents promoted ideas of equality and anti-racism in my own liberal home, as a child, I was never really spoken to about the realities of race and racism in a meaningful way. Like so many other parents, mine allowed prevailing culture or other sources of influence to inform how my sister and I understood race relations.
Young people especially young children, are essentially sponges as they begin to understand their place in the world and their perceptions of concepts and people around them. Kids are constantly picking up information, developing ideas that will inform who they are as adults. This is why it is so essential that parents, guardians, and educators of all kinds begin to have discussions about race and the impacts of racism with kids of all racial and ethnic identities, at an early age.
By starting age-appropriate conversations about race with kids, adults, guardians, and educators can accomplish a multiple of positive goals. First, conversations about race can help children avoid “color-blindness” – an idea that disregards the racial and ethnic characteristics that may make one human appear different from another – and instead help children move beyond viewing race as a dichotomizing difference between racial groups. It’s is an innate human tendency to understand the world through a lens of grouping: children often take on the tendency of separating “us” and “them” at an early age in order to understand their surroundings. By introducing racial awareness early in kids’ lives, they will be more prone to recognize and identify other individuals based on characteristics besides race or ethnic background; their tendency to group will be focused on other things such as who likes to draw, play sports, practice musical instruments, or other sharable activities. By introducing kids to racial concepts, they will actually see beyond race and perceive others in a deeper, more humanized way.
Another benefit of talking to kids about race and the impacts of racism is that through proper education and awareness raising about systems of oppression and profound racism at work in our country, we can teach our kids to recognize racist incidences and ideas when they see them, confront said ideas, and avoid complicit racism. Silence perpetuates violence, hate, and bigotry. On the contrary, education informs, empowers, and disrupts. When kids are educated about racism, they will be more prone to be critical of daily interactions, challenge a situation in which racism arises, and use their voices to change the dialogue for better.
Additionally, talking to kids about racism is a way to teach children affirmation of lived experiences and acknowledgement of the personhood of people who’ve been oppressed for centuries. On the contrary, racial ignorance actively erases personal and group history, and allows systems of oppression to continue because there is no one challenging what has happened in the past. Truly, history is the greatest teacher. By maintaining silence and ignorance around race, the tendency arises to ignore and even deny a person’s experience of race, racism, and bigotry. However, continuing conversations about how different racial groups have interacted and experienced history over time can help future generations learn from the past and respond to the present experience of many.
What the core of these ideas boil down to is actually really simple: talking with kids about race builds awareness and empathy in our nation’s children and actively fights discourses of racism. By opting for silence, “color-blindness,” or allowing kids to build their understanding of race through a plethora of outside sources, we allow complacency in our children and a separation to form between how they view racist systems and their role in said systems. But through early and continued education we can teach children to identify their own levels of privilege, think critically about their environments, and build compassion for the folks that are burdened with the weight of America’s racial hierarchies. We can provide for them the tools to avoid seeing others exclusively based on race, while still realizing how race deeply impacts the world around them.
If talking to your kid or other kids in your life about race and the impacts of racism scares you, put yourself in the shoes of a child and take on a learner’s perspective. Racial justice work and advocacy are an ever-evolving processes of learning, growth, and self reflection. You may not feel like you have the answers or explanations to provide for your child, but you do have a brain willing and ready to engage. Start your own research, seek out workshops and resources like the PJC’s “How to Talk With Kids about Racism,” and better equip yourself and your children to meaningful fight racial oppression.
PJC Racial Justice Intern