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talking to our kids about race

Talking to Kids About Race: The Value of Openness

February 26, 2016

When I was in fourth grade at our local public school, I became close friends with a girl, [1]Evie, who happened to be African American. Her mother worked at the school and her younger sister also attended the school. Evie and I had great fun together and I, eventually, asked my parents if she could come to our house after school while her mother was finishing up her work. Our parents talked and my mother returned to me with the sad answer that no, Evie would not be allowed to come to our house. When I asked why, I eventually understood, though I can’t remember if my mother said it outright, that Evie’s mother didn’t want her in our home, either because of a class issue or a race issue. Evie and I were permitted to have playdates at the school instead but I was always angry that I was never able to share my own world with my friend.

As a parent, I still question the choice that Evie’s mother made and I wonder if Evie’s mother ever talked with her about race and class issues.

With our kids, my husband and I deliberately talk about race and inequality issues so that it is not an uncomfortable topic for the kids to bring up when they have questions. Being New Yorkers, they are surrounded by people of multiple colors: among their friends, our family, their teachers and caregivers. The first time that either of my children mentioned their own observation of the difference was with regards to their nanny who they said had “brown skin”.

Later on, when my son started reading, he read about such figures as Harriet Tubman, Jackie Robinson and Ralph Bunche from the ValueTales series that he inherited from my husband. These books, blessedly, didn’t dance around the inequality of African Americans in America but celebrated their wonderful qualities that helped them survive and excel. We talked with him openly about slavery and how African Americans had to struggle and, sometimes still have to struggle, to be treated equally. Because my son was still young when we started having these conversations, maybe five, I tried to use as many familiar connections as possible to his own life. We have a photo of my son climbing on an honorary and symbolic structure of the Underground Railroad from my last reunion at Oberlin College, the first college to let in African Americans and women and an active participant in the Underground Railroad. It felt powerful to me to finally explain to him what that was; that it wasn’t just a piece of subway rail that happened to be sticking out of the ground. I have also shown him a picture from 2008 where, as a baby, he was strapped to me when I voted for the first African American president.

Perhaps as a result of these honest conversations or by coincidence, our kids have both been drawn to peers of color as their friends, something that my husband and I are quite fascinated by. We discuss the backgrounds of their friends’ families, have attended Diwali celebrations and have had a Hannukkah party where everyone was multicultural.

There are so many mixed children in this generation, particularly in New York, it seems impossible not to acknowledge it. But race is an issue that can be very uncomfortable to discuss partly because it points out differences and partly because we have to acknowledge a shameful past (and present). I do not muddy the truth for my own children and tell them that there is full equality in the United States. We have talked about how women are frequently paid less and people of color are often paid less as well. These are simple situations of unfairness that they can understand.

For us, the most important thing that our kids walk away with knowing is that people are welcome in our house, regardless of their race or class, as long as they are nice people. Evie was a nice person and she was my friend. She would still be welcome in my house.

 

Oberlin College Underground Railroad climb elana-300x225

Elana Gartner is a freelance writer and an award-winning playwright. Other articles of hers can be found at Kveller.com, A Child Grows in Brooklyn, Mom365.com, Park Slope Stoop and other publications. She founded the EMG Playwriting Workshop which fosters a supportive community for NYC playwrights. More about her playwriting is available at: http://www.elanagartner.com. Elana lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband, son and daughter. 

[1] Names have been changed for the purpose of the article.