This blog is authored by SEEC educator Dana Brightful.
One of the hardest things I’ve had to do was talk to my 4year-old about racism and what that looks like in the world. I didn’t think I would have to have this conversation at such a young age. Our family had always talked about physical features and celebrated my son’s beautiful brown skin, big brown eyes and curly brown hair. We made it a point to also let him know how loved he was by not just his immediate family but his SEEC family as well. His love for silly dance moves, jokes that didn’t quite make sense yet, learning, and all things Thomas made him one unique and special little human to his community. So when he looked up at me with sad brown eyes and said, “Why can’t we go to Baltimore to see Thomas again?” you can imagine that it broke my heart. How was I going to explain to my 4-year-old what had happened in Baltimore and the long history that preceded these events?
This question came during the riots in Baltimore after the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Freddie Gray. Citizens were outraged about the ongoing injustices African Americans face by the hands of the police and judicial system. How was I going to explain something so complex to my young child? As an educator I had approached these sort of difficult topics with my students before, but as a mom it was breaking my heart. I was not just sad for my child, but for the lives of the young men and women who have died as a result of these injustices. What was even more difficult was that I knew that this was the first of many conversations to come. Though it would look different over the years, the underlying theme would remain the same: some people do not value your body because of the color of your skin. But I took a moment to breathe and give myself pause so I could carefully consider how I introduced this concept to my 4-year-old.
I encourage adults who are faced with this challenge to pause and reflect and say to your child, “I need a moment to take some deep breaths before we talk about your question.” It does two things: it allows you to reflect on your emotions and think about how to proceed and it shows your child you are taking them seriously. I pulled him next to me and asked him to sit near me. He immediately climbed into my lap, which grounded me emotionally. I began with the facts: the people in Baltimore were upset and had been protesting so the Mayor shut everything down to minimize the amount of damage done to the city and to ensure that people remained safe. He remembered what protesting was (either from SEEC or talks at home) and asked why the people were doing it. I very simply stated, “Because they feel as if many young men and women aren’t being treated fairly based on the color of their skin.” I added, “ Sometimes people will not like you, or me, or daddy because our skin has more melanin making it appear browner in tone. Some people will not treat us kindly or fairly, which isn’t okay.” He then asked, “If all the people protesting were brown like us.” I told him, “No, which is a good thing. It’s important for the people who don’t like us to see that not everyone thinks like them. They need to understand that no matter what your skin color is, we all deserve to be treated like humans.” He then asked, “Were there people who died?” I was unsure exactly what he was referring to, so before answering I asked him for clarification, which is always a good thing to do so you are not assuming what your child is talking about. Often times children have ideas or thoughts in their head that we are not aware of unless we ask for clarification. He said, “Were there people who died and was that why the protesters were upset.” I immediately began to cry. It’s okay to cry and feel emotions in front of your child. It humanizes you and lets them know how you are feeling. Through tears I let him know that, “Yes people died and that these deaths were unnecessary.” Finally, I let him know that he shouldn’t feel afraid. I told him that part of my job as his mom was to protect him as much as possible and to always fight for him.
We ended this particular conversation with hugs. I made certain to reassure him that even if people don’t like him because of his skin, that his village (the people who love him and care for him) will fight for him because I didn’t want him feeling overwhelmed by the idea of people not liking him. I needed him to understand that while there may be people in the world who do not like him because of his skin color, that he shouldn’t worry because their are people who love him for the human being his is and that surpasses any dislike in the world. This talk happened nearly 5 years ago and we continue to discuss racial injustice and inequality. That conversation laid an important foundation for my son. It encouraged him to use his voice to be an advocate for himself and others. It also gave him the ability to recognize allies for our people. It’s a talk that will continue in our household and now includes my youngest son as well. While you may never have the same experience as me or my children, I hope that you understand that our feelings are the same as yours. We are sad, upset and, hurting but most of all, we are in awe of not just our city’s outpouring of love and advocacy, but the world’s. My sincere hope is that you read this and are able to take something away from it to help in your discussions with your own child. This is an ongoing journey for us all and one that will prove for be rewarding down the line.