During my second year of teaching, during what was meant to be a fun game of vocabulary review with students running up to the board to write the correct word, I was thrust into an uncomfortable situation.
As one student was running to the board, another student threw pennies on the ground and laughed, “Don’t you want to pick these up first?”
As the running boy was about to bend down to participate in the culturally insensitive “joke,” I somehow managed to collect myself enough to stop the review game and tell the penny thrower why that was unacceptable behavior. Inside, I wanted to throw up or scream.
A few hours later, I felt even sicker to my stomach. I called the mother of the penny thrower, and the first words out of her mouth were, “Are you Jewish?” Basically, she was implying that the only reason I was offended by and reprimanding her son for such behavior was that I myself was Jewish. It didn’t cross her mind, or maybe it didn’t matter, just how much this “joke” could seep into the developing minds of adolescents, whether or not they were Jewish.
And at that moment, I realized how much power parents wield over their children.
She didn’t apologize, nor did her son. I can still see the pained eyes of a quiet Jewish student in the seconds between the pennies dropping and my voice gathering strength to intervene. That intervention remains one of my most teachable moments.
Right now is one of our most teachable moments as parents. We must intervene, with our words and our actions, in how we discuss and address racism.
You’ve been home with your children since March. You’ve always been their teacher in life, but you’ve now experienced being their classroom teacher as well.
Racism continues to exist in our country. That is an indisputable fact. We cannot continue to pretend that it is a thing of the past, nor can we dismiss our responsibility in attempting to dismantle it.
The way we enter into race conversations as parents varies greatly, but I’d hope by this point that you’ve had some conversations. And I hope that one of them has to do with the fact that racism still exists today.
If you haven’t yet had such conversations, I would suggest starting with viewing the Sesame Street/CNN Town Hall that originally aired on June 6. (Or rewatch it!)
Sit beside your kids and let their emotions, questions, and reactions lead your response. Meet them where they are and learn together.
Here are some sound bites from some of the Fairfield County Mom contributors’ kids:
“I feel mad! Some black people died because of some white people, and it’s not fair. Everyone should have a long life – we should die because of being old.” (Cecelia, age 7)
“This doesn’t happen in THIS country right now. This is old stuff from my Harriet Tubman book… Racism is treating someone different for how they look but isn’t that illegal?” (Maddy, age 7)
“I hope a police officer doesn’t kill Daddy because of the color of his skin.” (Miles, age 5)
“I thought police officers were good? Why do some do bad things?” (Emmy, age 5)
“We need to stand up for what’s right. We need to be helpful to everyone. Black people need real freedom, like the freedom white people have.” (Abbie, age 7)
“I just don’t know why the other birds made fun of Big Bird. We all look different.” (Charlie, age 5)
“I learned that racism is the worst kind of mean, and I can help by saying stop and telling a grown-up like you.” (Myles, age 6)
“Why can’t we all just do what we know is right, instead of what we want for ourselves?” (Michael, age 8)
Sesame Street was just a starting place for my family. We’ve since purchased and unpacked Woke: A Young Poet’s Call to Justice by Mahogany L. Browne with Elizabeth Acevedo and Olivia Gatwood and Antiracist Baby by Ibram X. Kendi. Additionally, we’ve been picking up dozens of diverse and anti-racism books now that our library has gone curbside. Several of the titles we’ve borrowed come recommended by Here Wee Read, a great website run by a CT mom of 2!
I’d argue no age is too young to enter into race-based conversations.
My youngest, not quite 2, couldn’t focus on the Town Hall, but she has gravitated toward Antiracist Baby. She is particularly fascinated by the picture of a broken ladder that a Black character is trying to climb.
She sees something is wrong. And I tell her how “it’s not right that it’s broken. We all need to find ways to help fix that ladder.” Parenting is hard work. Fighting racism is even harder work. But it is our job to do both.
How have you engaged with this work?