Over the past several months the images on TV and the headlines of the newspaper seem like a “deja vous” moment and a flashback to the 60’s. Images of violent protests in the streets flash across the screen. Newspaper headlines blast accusations of racial prejudice, profiling and injustice. As a teenager growing up in Washington D.C. in the 60’s, I saw Resurrection City, the marches, the protests and the riots after Martin Luther King’s death. We lived under Marshal Law with machine guns and tanks on every corner for two weeks. Racial tensions were high and conversations about the issues were common in classrooms, churches, on college campuses and around the dinner table.As the 1970’s came to an end we felt like progress had been made. Busing ended desegregation of the schools, people now drank from any water fountain they pleased and sat wherever they wanted on the bus. Children of all colors played sports together and people of color held top jobs in prestigious companies. Headlines of racial tension became less frequent and there was a collective sigh of relief that we had finally arrived.
So what has happened? One of the pieces to this complex puzzle is the fact that we have stopped having the conversation with our children. Over the past two decades racial issues are not at the forefront of conversations in classrooms, college campuses, teacher education programs, churches and homes. We have made the assumption that the racial tensions of previous generations are over.
The truth is we have to have the conversation about racial issues with each generation. Our brains are wired for survival. Whenever we encounter something novel or different our brain goes on alert. So when a young Caucasian child or a black child encounters someone with a different skin color the experience doesn’t match the children’s mental template of what is “normal.” Fear is the brain’s automatic reaction. Unless children have adults present in their lives who are aware of the issues and invite open conversation about likeness and differences among people this initial fear response can morph into lifelong prejudice.
I sometimes hear adults say they are, “color blind” with regard to race. I understand the intent of their comment but the fact is that children are not colorblind. As they are trying to figure out how the world works they are noticing likenesses and differences among people and objects. They notice skin color, texture of hair and differences in personal features. I once had a little boy say to me, “My mama said you are a white lady. You aren’t white…you’re tan.” Other children joined the conversation and another said, “Somebody called me a black boy. I’m not black. I’m brown!”
Children need to grow up knowing that we are all “fearfully and wonderfully made.” They need to see important adults model respect for those who are of different races and cultures. We need to invite their questions and be willing to talk about differences openly. There are many books on the market that can spark meaningful conversations with our children and some simple activities that they will enjoy.
Books to Read
I Love My Hair by Natasha Tarpley
The Colors of Us
He’s Got the Whole World in His Hand
1. Purchase multicultural paints and figure out what color matches the child’s skin tone and the skin of other family members. Make self and family portraits.
2. Purchase multicultural crayons and draw friends and family.
3. Talk about all the ways that people are alike and different. We all have the same need for love, food, shelter and clothing. We are all different in appearances, abilities and interests.
4. Participate in community festivals that celebrate different ethnicities reflected in your community.