The Race Conversation with Kids

On Wednesday while at the Oregon Zoo with my kids, a little boy saw my son, Finley, in his wheelchair and said loudly—as kids do—“Mom, look at that kid in the wheelchair. I feel so bad for him.”

I have to be honest, these moments are exhausting and frustrating. Educating people around me about disability and how to be a true ally to the disabled community (not a person who pities and calls it kindness) is something I am sick of doing. And I also have to be honest that people of color are forced to have these types of conversations far more often than I do. 

And so yesterday, and in the aftermath of Charlottsville, I had to ask myself, what have I done as a white mother to educate my kids about race? Have I shirked those conversations because they are uncomfortable? Do I avoid pointing out racism and bigotry in our country because I think my kids are “color blind”? Or maybe avoiding those conversations will allow them to grow up without that narrative in their head. Looking around at our nation now I have to assume this method of parenting is not working.

Kids are brutally honest and wicked smart. And the mother of that kid at the zoo found out the hard way what it means to educate your kid about people who are different. I have a hard time believing that someone in Portland in 2017 at the zoo has never seen a child in a wheelchair before. No doubt at one point that really nice mother steered that child away from the conversation thinking that was the kind thing to do. Well-intentioned avoidance of hard topics because they do not adversely affect you IS PRIVILEGE.

My white privilege has enabled me to avoid having the tough conversations that my friends of color have with their kids weekly, maybe even daily. I don’t know.

In the car with my kids that day I told them about Charlottesville. I told them what white supremacy is. I told them what happened to Heather Heyer. I told them that white privilege allows us to act like those things didn’t happen, but they did. And I told my kids that without question, if they hear racist talk or jokes at school or anywhere I expect them to shut that shit down. Walking away is not an option. Silence is acceptance. I don’t care what social price you pay—you will shut it down. Because why should we as white people be able to walk away from the hatred and bigotry with no scars? Why should we be able to avoid those hard conversations that our friends of color are forced to engage their babies with? Can you wrap your head around it? Try. I also told them not to be embarrassed or ashamed of being white. We are proud of who we are, as long as we’re doing the right thing.

You can call me a snowflake all you want. But my kid will stand up for what’s right and know that I expect no less.

That mother at the zoo spent several minutes after my initial statement to her son telling me what a nice, empathetic boy he is. And honestly, I don’t doubt it. That kid genuinely felt bad for Finley. And therein lies the problem. When pity is confused for kindness, when apathy is confused for politeness we tell ourselves a false story that we are being NICE. Screw nice. Get real.

What we know about kids is that they draw their own conclusions about the world around them with the information they have. So you have to consider—what information are you providing? Are you acting like the issues of racism aren’t there? They will learn their truth with or without you.

White parents. Able-bodied parents. Parents with straight kids. ALL parents. We owe it to the world around us to teach our kids before this cruel world teaches them. We owe it to our neighbors to imbue our kids with the expectation that simple truths like all men are created equal, mean something to us. And that we expect them to take on part of the burden for our friends in marginalized groups.

We will take that burden on as much as possible. That is something we can do and it is our job.

This post was greatly inspired by the amazing work of Sam Sanders and his podcast, “It’s Been a Minute,” which brought me to tears in the last 10 minutes as I heard a developmental psychologist explain how parents NEED to teach their kids these things. The whole hour is worth your time, but the last 10 minutes are a gold mine.

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Hi, I'm Shannon. I like to write about tough girls and tough things because I find strength to be an interesting and inspirational topic. My husband, Vic is my favorite person and my children, Emerson and Finley are right up there too. I am a disability mother and advocate. A woman-loving, lean-in type. And a fitness coach and cheerleader.

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