Recently, I hosted a Raising Race Conscious Children webinar in my home for the first time. Five of my dear female friends, 4 white and 1 Asian, joined me. These women come from different parts of my life, and I was moved by their willingness to be vulnerable in front of people they didn’t know very well. We engaged in rich conversation as we reflected on our upbringings, shared questionable comments friends and family have made, and mostly, discussed how we parent our children when it comes to issues around race.
One of the strategies discussed in the webinar is called “complicate it”; meaning, when we as parents encounter a racist or questionable message in a book or a TV show, we raise our voices and let our children know we don’t like it and why. We complicate the messages that reinforce white supremacy, heteronormalcy and so forth. As a group, we were concerned about this strategy because we all agreed we wanted to preserve our children’s innocence and sense of wonder. After my friends left, however, I found myself questioning if consciously or unconsciously sheltering my children from racial injustice, or any of the other maladies of our country, doesn’t really preserve their innocence but rather preserves their privilege.
It would be easy for me to avoid pointing out inequity with my children because they most likely won’t experience any systemic injustice due to their race and socioeconomic status. It would be easy for me to put off conversations about racial injustice and use my kids’ ages as an excuse. Young children don’t experience discrimination, so I have time to have these discussions, right? Sadly, wrong. Systemic injustices are happening in our nation’s schools and they are happening when children enter preschool.
When I think of school, I think of a place where children are nurtured so they can develop into their best selves, but this isn’t the reality for many students. Schools have drastically changed their discipline policies in the past 30 years in an attempt to combat violent crime and the school to prison pipeline was born. Black children are suspended or expelled at three times the rate of their white counterparts during their school tenure. Zero tolerance programs for weapons and drugs (which sounds reasonable, but students have been suspended for making a gun shape with their fingers), broken-window policies (the idea that you punish small infractions to prevent larger infractions from occurring) and the employment of School Resource Officers (police officers who work in schools) are all contributing factors to the school to prison pipeline phenomenon.
This is not simply an issue for our high school students. Only 18% of the students enrolled in preschool in the United States are black, yet they make up 50% of students who receive more than one out of school suspension. Yes, preschool students are being suspended. Let that soak in for a minute. While the desire to shield my young children from the parts of life that are unfair might come from a good place, the research shows that this thinking is misguided. Children as young as three will fall victim to systemic, racial injustice within our schools. My children may bear witness to these injustices soon.
Only a few days after I hosted the RRCC webinar and was reflecting on this idea of innocence versus privilege, the horrific video of a black, female high school student being assaulted by a School Resource Officer in South Carolina emerged. The moment I watched that young girl be brutally tossed to the ground in front of her classmates, teacher, and administrator, any question I had on whether I should complicate the often hidden but pervasive messages of white supremacy for my children disappeared. I have the choice to shelter my children from issues around race as a white parent, but people of color, specifically people with black and brown skin, do not share this luxury. Their children are under attack. I know this to be true after listening to my neighbors share how their children are racially profiled via neighborhood list serves. I know this to be true after reading the research about the school to prison pipeline. I know this to be true after watching the assault in the name of discipline against the student in South Carolina.
My children are 3-years-old and 1-year-old respectively, so they are not developmentally ready to learn about state violence and no, I would never show them the footage out of South Carolina or any other act of violence. I recognize I need to be careful how I message we are lucky; that we have privilege in this world. After watching the video of the teenager, after reading comments that this child had it coming to her, after realizing that the entire system failed this child, and is failing countless others, I see so clearly how preserving my children’s innocence might serve as a mask for preserving their privilege.
I am going to “complicate it” for my children. I am going to question media that perpetuate systemic racism and bias. I’m going to name race openly and explicitly. I am also going to allow them to be children and relish in the natural wonder that surrounds them each and every day. The two concepts do not have to be mutually exclusive. I don’t think that if I’m honest about the injustices in the world I’m somehow denying my kids access to a wonderful childhood. By giving them the opportunity to question inequality and inequity, I’m hopefully helping them become compassionate and caring little humans. Yes, I want to preserve aspects of my children’s innocence, but I want to push back against their privilege. The best way to start is to acknowledge that it’s there in the first place.
What’s your take? Do you fear that exposing your children to their privilege or the injustices in the world will somehow deny them their childhood? I’d love to hear from you.