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The Mamafesto: Talking with kids about racism and social justice

Avital Norman Nathman is a freelance writer whose work places a feminist lens on a variety of topics, including motherhood, maternal health, gender, and reproductive rights. Her work has been featured in Bitch magazine, Cosmopolitan.com,...

The importance of discussing race and racism with your children

My feminism is intersectional. It has to be. We don't live in a bubble where oppression based on sex and gender isn't closely intertwined with race, class, age, sexuality or ability. And so part of my parenting involves teaching my son about all forms of inequality, including race and racism.

The last few weeks have shown that our justice system clearly places a different value on the lives of people of color versus white people. An unarmed teenager's death will be swept away after a grand jury decided not to indict the policeman who shot him. Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was gunned down by police for having a toy gun out in a park (in an open carry state). And last week, another grand jury decided not to indict the officer in Eric Garner's death — one that was captured on video and showed the unarmed man gasping for life, as he called out 11 times, "I can't breathe."

My 8-year-old son is perceptive. He hears my husband and me talking about these events. He listens to the morning radio show each day on the way to school, and last night he asked me why police officers are killing people when their job is supposed to be protecting people. He doesn't understand why these men can't be at least held accountable in a court of law for their actions.

So, I explain. I must explain, because if white parents aren't having these difficult, but necessary, conversations with their white children, these racist and violent acts will continue to occur. There is no whitewashing or discussion of being "color blind" here. We do not erase other people's identities like that. Color does matter in so many ways. My son knows we live in a world where people are still treated as less than because of their differences, the only question he can't answer is why. We talk about history, about slavery, about people thinking they're better than others just based on skin color. We talk about how that history has created systems of oppression at many different levels. We talk about the macro and the micro — how racism can occur in more personal ways and in larger, more systemic ways that need our help to change.

There's no sugarcoating this or easy way around it. I think of my friends of color who need to talk to their children about what to avoid doing so they won't be unfairly targeted by law enforcement, and realize I need to explain that to my son as well. He needs to understand how privilege works and his role in it. And he needs to understand how to spot and call out racism. He needs to understand that once he starts driving, the chances of him being pulled over are much lower than that of his black friend. He needs to understand that while he can walk into a store and not be followed around by a manager, some of his friends won't have that same "luxury."

It's tough here, in our progressive, liberal bubble we call home. Kids of all colors and cultures play together, making it even more difficult to understand how others can be so evil and cruel. But, it is because of our comfortable community that I need to work even harder to teach my son about the injustice that occurs on a daily basis, and how systematic racism is real, powerful and deadly.

More on parenting and race

How to talk to your kids about racism
Teaching kids to respect differences in others
Teaching kids about racial and cultural diversity

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