When Michael Tyler’s oldest son Sascha was 5, he came home from school crying.
Someone had called him a name, and while Sascha didn’t understand the name, he knew it was bad because of the way everyone around him had reacted.
Tyler, who is Black, thought he was prepared for everything his mixed-race son would ask him. Until that moment.
He scoured children’s books for one he could read to a 5-year-old to explain about skin color and why some people think it matters. He read 347 children’s books before he ended up writing his own.
“What I found in these books was this: many of them operate on a certain paradigm, they like to take inanimate objects and give them a persona and have them convey a concept,” Tyler says. “The way I looked at it is that a child’s perception is quite literal, it’s not conceptual at that age, so the concept of that book is something that adults feel good administering to their children, but it’s lost on them because on Saturday morning, giant pictures of Kool-Aid talk to them, toothbrushes talk to them, so this doesn’t mean anything to them, other than something else is talking to them.”
That the book has found new life in 2020 in the wake of the death in Minneapolis of George Floyd and #BlackLivesMatters protests is a testament to how parents want to educate their children, Tyler says.
“There are enough people in this country right now who really want a change,” he says. “They’re not just reacting to an unpleasantry, they really want a change.”
Autumn Campbell is the co-founder and lead facilitator at Justice Leaders Collaborative, an organization based in Dexter that teaches social justice education and provides coaching to individuals and organizations.
She and her husband, an elementary school teacher, have raised their now-17-year-old daughter to embrace anti-racist concepts.
“The current uprising and the current moment is giving us new language, and specifically white people and white parents of white children are asking a lot of questions,” Campbell says. “So I think that it’s a really important moment. I hope that the urgency of parents of white children doesn’t disappear.”
For parents who grew up being taught “tolerance and acceptance,” experts are now sharing advice about raising their children a new, different way, as anti-racists.
Acceptance vs. anti-racism
Here’s a closer look at the differences between what “tolerance and acceptance” teaches and what those who are anti-racism believe.
Acceptance teaches: Be comfortable in your skin
One of the most difficult points that parents face teaching their kids about racism is their own comfort limits with the race discussion. Some parents share young reader books about the Civil Rights Movement, and then stop the conversation.
“I think because race and racism are so complicated and for so many of us white people we have very little knowledge about the history of race and the history of racism and systems of oppression, it becomes very overwhelming and uncomfortable,” Campbell says.
“Then in that discomfort we tend to shy away from the important work of not only researching and reading and listening to people of color – and in this moment specifically Black people – about their lived experience and about race and racism. And I think that we think that discomfort is an indicator that we’re not ready to do the work. That discomfort for me is an indicator that is my learning edge. Instead of shying away from all that discomfort, I lean into it now.”
Anti-racism teaches: Being uncomfortable is how you learn
Push yourself as a learner beyond your own comfort zone.
Know and explain how your family is privileged by its skin color, home location or education. Read books and listen to speakers that challenge what you know. If your kids are tweens or teens, take this journey with them and have continuing conversations about what you’re learning and reading.
“As long as you’re not willing to say, ‘how am I affected by it, what is my contribution to it’ you’ll never get to the point that you’ll think of solutions for it,” Tyler says.
Acceptance teaches: Everyone is equal
Though the Declaration of Independence reads that “all men are created equal,” Thomas Jefferson wrote it at a time that he owned slaves and excluded women from the original document.
The problem with teaching children that “everyone is equal” is that they aren’t, experts say. While it’s comfortable to think that, “equality for all” misses the reality that equal isn’t “equal” for everyone. Children as young as 5 recognize fairness and when someone in their class is treated unfairly. Older kids can be introduced to the world history of laws that subjugated people based on their skin color or ethnicity.
“Some parents teach color blindness and we know that by teaching our white children not to see color, we’re teaching them not to see the full humanity of people of color and we’re instructing them to look away from the discrimination, the pain and the harm that people of color endure,” Campbell says.
Anti-racism teaches: Value each other’s differences
“When we don’t see and name race, we can’t see and name and dismantle racism,” Campbell says. “We’re then, in effect, teaching our white children to discredit people of color who share their lived experiences with race. When we teach our children that we’re “all equal,” we’re lying to them and this lying has perpetuated a culture of disbelief and shock and disassociation and that becomes an essential ingredient of maintaining racism.”
Acceptance teaches: Do as I say
Parents read board books to their kids about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and talk about the importance of the Civil Rights Movement to educate their children about race.
Then, they make non-verbal choices and gestures that have been, even unknowingly, racist.
“Children notice the world around them and our reactions to it all the time,” Campbell says. “So if we’re uncomfortable discussing racism and we remain silent, then our children are going to internalize our non-verbal messages.
“By not naming race, what we’re doing is we’re showing our children that we agree with racist jokes an uncle may make at a family dinner or a friend’s casual remark in a conversation, so I have to constantly befriend my discomfort.”
Anti-racism teaches: Do as I do
Ibram X. Kendi, in his book How to be an Antiracist, explains that “not racist” is not the opposite of “racism,” but “anti-racism” is the opposite of racism. By that measure, anti-racists actively work toward justice and equality.
“Being anti-racist is a lifetime commitment,” Campbell says. “It is who we show up to be every single day. It’s a commitment and a pursuit we make every single day.”
How we are reacting and responding to #BlackLivesMatter protests, helping our kids understand the movement and teaching them about the history of their neighborhoods, cities and towns is a start to showing them how to be anti-racist.
Acceptance teaches: I want to give my child a diverse culture in school
Often parents consider the idea of enrolling their child in a school with classmates of different backgrounds and cultures as anti-racist. In reality, it also leads to biased policies in assigning students to gifted classes and reducing resources to students of color.
Anti-racism teaches: Advocate for all children in the school
Encourage your child – regardless of age – to talk about their day in school. Help them notice things that they see are wrong and right, even if it is happening to other students. This is also a great opportunity to teach your children about standing up to bullies who pick on their friends and classmates.
“With my white daughter, she has a lot of unearned privilege,” Campbell says. “So it was imperative to me that she understood her privilege so that she could use her privilege to dismantle racist systems while being in deep relationship with her own internalized bias. It’s not just saying you have bias and white people are racist, it was pulling her along further, about empowering her to fight against racism and that was key for her to feel that engagement so that she could feel that she could show up in a different way and because she had the privilege of being white. Instead of sitting in guilt and shame about it, she could use that privilege to be a real agent of change within her sphere of influence.”
Advocating for your kid’s classmates gives children an opportunity to see how adults work through problems together. It’s OK for them to see that sometimes adults get it wrong. It also models standing up for everyone.
Acceptance teaches: Read from authors we know and trust
It’s easy to read books and follow ideology from sources we’ve seen on television or listen to podcasts that promote our own opinions.
Trustworthiness of bestselling authors is why we are comfortable believing in them.
“Parents need to do their own work,” Campbell says. “They have to not just read the books and then not be vulnerable with themselves.”
Anti-racism teaches: Diversify your media diet to include more voices
Listen to podcasts from speakers you wouldn’t normally listen to and go beyond the typical book lists to seek out authors of diverse backgrounds. Visit with your local librarians to take a deeper dive into books and articles.
Campbell says she made a conscious effort for two years to read and listen to only diverse authors and speakers, including Black, Native American, from India, China, Japan and Latinx countries.
“I commit a lot of time to excavate and interrogate my own personal biases,” she says. “I read a lot about and listen to podcasts about racism by people of color every single day. Specifically right now about anti-Blackness by Black leaders and women who are great leaders and activists.”
Acceptance teaches: Teach them as much as you know about racism
Think of the Black History Month stories your children are taught. Are they writing the same papers and reading the same books about King, Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman?
Campbell says her family supplemented the education by learning outside of the classroom about different leaders through age-appropriate books.
“Instead there were thousands and thousands of people that have been uprising since the beginning of time,” Campbell says.
Anti-racism teaches: Learn more, and keep learning more
A Ride to Remember by Amy Nathan and Sharon Langley is a children’s book that tells kids the story of a protest at an amusement park in Baltimore in 1963. With bright pictures of carousels and people singing, it is a first-person tale that allows parents to ask questions like “what did you think of that” and lets kids know that children were involved in the Civil Rights Movement, too.
Seek out to learn about more events in the Civil Rights Movement and in the history of the #BlackLivesMatter movement through age-appropriate books and stories.
Acceptance teaches: Come with good intentions
To mean well is to have good intentions. While we are learning about race and anti-racism, we will still say or do things that have good intentions, but poor outcomes.
Tyler read Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the story about someone who was different and is ostracized for his difference until that difference has a utility: to save Christmas. He read a lot of stories with that premise in his search for a book for his son. While the intent was to teach tolerance of others, instead it taught something else.
“I didn’t want to teach my child, and I don’t think any educator wants to teach their child, that the benefit to a group is predicated on their utility to that group,” he says. “Because the ultimate infestation of that is slavery. Slaves were never valued as human beings; they were only valued for what their work was worth.”
Anti-racism teaches: Know your impact
“We so very often talk about being mindful of our intent and our impact, while attending to our privilege,” Campbell says. “Also don’t freeze people in time, including ourselves. Give ourselves the grace and compassion to know better and to do better, and do the same with other people around us.”
Learning the impact after the intention is vital to growth, as important as apologizing.
While the intent may not have been to hurt someone with words or actions while learning anti-racism, teach kids to apologize and promise to learn from their mistakes to do better.
Keep the conversation going
There are age-appropriate ways to continue teaching kids about racism. Our experts recommended these tips:
Talk to your local librarian for books you can read and for books you can read to your kids about anti-racism. With teens and tweens, read with them so that you can talk together.
Have discussions as a family about current events, what your children are learning and seeing at school and how it makes them feel.
Look for family-friendly protests, donate time or money to organizations that are promoting anti-racism and changing policies that are racist.
Learn your local history
What do you know about the current and historical racial makeup of your town? If not much, seek out sources to learn with your children.
Shop diverse stores and locations
While shopping local, find Black-owned stores and restaurants, attend culturally diverse fairs and festivals and go to diverse history museums.
Diversify your family’s media
Read books about kids with diverse backgrounds and abilities. Read books and listen to podcasts from authors and personalities who are Black, Latinx, Asian or Aboriginal.