Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Let's All Say Emancipation Proclamation! Adventures in Transracial Parenting

This President's Day will mark a change in our parenting, I think.  I know that's not something most people would say.  But this Monday (or sometime around there), we will be deliberately talking to our kids about race.  I wouldn't say that we've ignored race in the past.  There have been lots of discussions about chocolate skin and peach skin.  But we have let that be child initiated, never something we deliberately pointed out or called their attention to.  (Other than maybe pointing out someone on tv who was chocolate.)

But this February, we're headed full force into parenting kids of a different color and tackling the topic of slavery.  I know-you're probably thinking "With your 5 year olds?"  It sounds almost inappropriate.  But hear me out.

We definitely recognize that we as parents shape our kids views about race and their views regarding racism.  We also recognize that by making every unfair or questionable incident about racism, that this is akin to crying wolf.  That this crying wolf means true episodes of racism get ignored because we are always playing the race card.  We also recognize that being overly sensitive about race issues may create in our children a cynical, jaded perspective that doubts the goodness of others and does not give others grace when we are unsure of their motives.

But we are also aware that we are not parenting kids who are white.   At some point in time, we will be having hard conversations with our kids about race because of the actions of others, news stories, and their own curiousities.  As someone else has said, race is a little like s*x.  There are lots of things you don't want your child learning from others and lots of things you'd like to be the first to explain.

Slavery is one of those things. I've known for awhile that we would have to discuss it with our kids.  As  former first grade teacher, I have covered the topic of slavery as part of our curriculum.  It's pretty hard to explain Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. without giving a very basic introduction into our country's racial history.

And in doing so, I'm pretty sure I watched two black students learn about the idea while sitting in a class full of mostly white and Hispanic kids, without the comforting words of a parent to help sort out the questions and confusion.  I just watched the wheels turn as their little brains made the connections.  "Black people were not treated well."  "People said mean things to black people because their skin was black."  "Black people were made to be slaves?  I'm not even sure I understand what that means but it doesn't sound good."  "I'm black."  How I wished I could have spoken with the parents to make sure their child was processing all of this well.  But race is already a difficult issue.  Add that it feels a bit like questioning their parenting, and there just didn't seem to be a good way to say "I am wondering if you've covered black history with your child because we talked about it at school today and she seemed pretty shocked."

I recently read a post on Rage Against the Minivan that reminded me that we need to start tackling some of these hard topics, before our kids hit school and have friends and teachers introduce them to things like slavery, abuse, and civil rights.  So this President's Day, we'll wade into some pretty deep waters.  We'll add some tools like short biographies on President Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. to our toolbox, remind our kids that not all white people treated black people badly, begin telling them about Haiti's history as the first black democracy that arose out of a slave revolt, and end by sharing that all races have the ability to be mean and hurtful to others because of skin color and that this is always wrong.   While normally we're not fans of pride as a behavior, I am hoping that come President's Day next near, my kids will perhaps smile smugly as they hold in a small but grand secret:  They already know just what the teacher is talking about.

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