by Sharon H. Chang
On Thursday morning, July 14, I had the honor of talking on-air with Minelle Mahtani -- author of Mixed Race Amnesia and host of Sense of Place at Roundhouse Radio -- about race, tragedy, parenting and our kids. Of course we did this show to engage with a string of recent tragic shootings that have left many reeling: the mass shooting of queer people of color (predominantly Latinx) at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, FL, which resulted in 49 deaths; the highly publicized police shootings which killed two Black men - Alton Sterling and Philando Castile - in Baton Rouge and Minnesota, respectively; and the subsequent mass shooting of police officers in Dallas, TX, at a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest, which resulted in 5 officer deaths. And sadly much more has happened since.
Minelle and I took questions via email, tweet and call-in. Parents and teachers asked, how do we broach this incredibly painful subject of racism and escalating violence with children? It is more and more obvious that we have to as our children pick up and absorb the increasing myriad of racialized messages being delivered by society about these tragedies. We’re seeing, hearing, observing our kids using race and racist words and ideas, and they’re also starting to ask us really tough questions. What is our response? How do we know what’s age appropriate? When do we start? What if we frighten our kids or leave them depressed with hopelessness? How do we find time and space to even begin said conversations when we don’t have a lot of time and space ourselves?
I have spent the last couple years doing race workshops with parents, educators, administrators and schools (and many years before that working with children). Questions are often very similar to those above. If I’m honest - I’m exhausted. And I’m worried. Because there’s so much trepidation, tiptoeing and uncertainty from parents/caregivers/adults. Also because while I’ve certainly experienced many beautiful moments of parent investment over the years, I’ve simultaneously experienced an equal amount of pushback, avoidance, denial and paralysis. This is beyond concerning because as tragedy after tragedy unfolds I see plainly the urgency to educate and engage with youth as part of transforming society for the better. Our children need to talk to us NOW and yet I see so many (way too many) parents stickily caught in webbings of hesitation, fear, and feedback loop.
Don’t mince words. Don’t be afraid.
Don’t think they can’t take it. They can.
My answer now is simple. Tell your children the truth. And tell it to yourselves too. Don’t mince words. Don’t be afraid. Don’t think they can’t take it. They can. Talk to them about guns (rifles, bombs, riot gear, drones, militarized vehicles, etc.). Talk to them about people dying from being shot. Talk to them about war. Talk to them about unfairness. Talk to them about anti-Black and Brown racism, anti-Indigeneity, xenophobia, anti-Muslim hate, white supremacy. Unpack these pervasive oversimplified “good guy” versus “bad guy” dichotomies that they see endlessly in their cartoons, books, TV shows, movies. Talk about institutions like government and police. Talk about protest. Don’t lie. Be honest. Tell them many people are not safe (including maybe them) but we gain nothing from living in fear. Don’t stop at the point of hopelessness. Push through it to inspiration. Talk about being scared and sad, but being STRONG. Talk about taking action as transformation and energy, not being cryo-frozen in fright.
Parents. Quite frankly we don’t have time to get mired down in guilt paralysis, confusion, complacency or whatever it is. People are dying, communities are in strife, the need is dire. The time, to overuse a well-used adage, is now. You know it. I know it. We see it every day on the news. It's okay to feel anxious but don't let that be the end. Don’t worry about making mistakes. It’s okay to make mistakes. Admit you make mistakes! Don’t worry about the “age appropriate” thing, aka paralysis (again). You know your children, you’ve figured out age appropriateness in so many other ways, you’ll know what to do. Just start the conversation. Brainstorm with your kids. Notice things together. Talk about your privileges and oppressions. Talk about others privileges and oppressions. Get tired together. Get pissed together. Rage together. Cry together. Feel together. Learn history together. Try new things together. Act together.
You know, so many parents want me to give them a script of exactly what to say, word for word. I’ve been asked more times than I can count. But I refuse. Because there is no one size fits all and every family will have different conversations based on their makeup, context, space, place, time. But also maybe more importantly because you need to have agency, creativity and empowerment in this. How to begin? Just open your mouth and let a sentence, a word, a sound, fall out. Just start. Repeat - JUST START. Then start again. And again. And again. And see where it goes. It’s going to be messy, of course. Sometimes it’ll feel great and productive. Sometimes it’ll feel awful. But the more you try the better at it you’ll get. Also you’ll be surprised how much your children have to teach you if you let them. And at the end of the day? These painful but special interactions are the ones your kids are probably going to remember for the rest of their lives.
My frank advice? Is frankly this...
Don’t. Be. Afraid. Of. The. Truth.
For more, please listen to “How to Talk to Your Kids About Race” Sense of Place ROUNDHOUSE RADIO 98.3
AND to see Minelle and I talk more on this in the flesh with other fierce collaborators, come to “Raising Mixed Race at Elliott Bay” this Wednesday, July 20, 7:00p, Seattle WA