How to talk with children about complex things like systemic racism, societal inequity, and teaching a culture of compassion.
New York Times columnist Charles Blow
Systemic racism. Societal inequity. Separation from humanity and all things in nature.
At a time when people around the world were just starting to see the light in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, another pandemic has come crashing down. This pandemic, however, is not a virus. It is the systemic racism and cultural mistrust, prevalent in our culture today.
Protests, anger and violence erupted in American cities after the senseless killing of George Floyd, a black man, killed in police custody. The occurrence exposed hard truths about our cultural biases, disconnection from our own humanity, and a collective society of unintended ignorance, racism, inequality, and injustice.
As a family clothing brand that has kindness, compassion, acceptance of all, and moving towards positive change at our core, we feel a responsibility to move the conversation forward.
As we all continue to take this moment to look inwardly, to listen and learn, we feel this is a time to address how to change societal, racially biased attitudes to help ourselves and our children move past those biases with proven methods founded through science. We hope to add perspective to current and future generations to better empathize with our fellow man, and bring change to the world.
RAISING RACE CONSCIOUS AND COMPASSIONATE CHILDREN
The most prevalent and dangerous racial prejudice is often unconscious. Whatever race you are and the beliefs you have, are often not “taught” but absorbed from your family, your community - their value systems and cultural upbringings. The cycle, if never addressed, is picked up by future generations and becomes “just how you are”. And if not consciously addressed, there is no catalyst to change.
Children learn patterns — and everything from where they live, to their neighborhoods, jobs or roles at the doctor’s office, at school, at the grocery store; and so on — and try to assign “rules” to explain what they see. Many adults’, raised with the same patterns, don’t question them, and the prolific “American Dream” narrative that everyone can achieve anything they want through hard work, results in children assuming that what they see, hear, and conclude, is “normal”.
“Politeness” is often equated with silence. To say “That’s not nice” or “We don’t talk about people,” when a child asks a question about someone’s skin color — often teaches children that they are never supposed to talk about race, leaving them to draw conclusions on their own. So despite good intentions, when we fail to talk openly with our children about racial inequity and racial biases, often because we, ourselves, don’t recognize them.
So, what should you do? How do we talk with children about complex things like systemic racism and societal inequity? The particulars will vary by your child’s age, racial identity, and social context (and I’ve included links to resources that speak to specific situations at the end of this article), but there are several things all adults can do.
RACE AWARENESS & INTENTION-BASED ADULT EDUCATION
You can’t fix a problem unless you can admit you have one. Awareness - to become conscious of something - is the first step. Adults have to fully understand and recognize in themselves. It’s about getting curious about beliefs, behaviors, and language you may have been taught or use, that may be perceived by others as hurtful.
It’s uncomfortable to think you may have racial biases. But even more uncomfortable is to realize you do, and unconsciously teach them to your children.
We recommend becoming aware, then setting an intention to listen, learn, and change. What has been a systemic problem for hundreds of years, will not change overnight. But if we, as a society, have intentional awareness to want to change, we can heal old wounds and move forward.
The first step to addressing change is to be aware something needs to change. The second step is to get curious. Just as we teach our children to get curious, and want to learn new things, we must want to learn ourselves.
Once you start asking questions with an open mind, answers will come, and our job is to be open. To pause before answering with a preconceived thought. To wait - for seconds, hours, days - with an open mind so that new, and varied voices can be heard.
Always seek to understand rather than be understood. Hearing new ideas, other people’s values, noticing differences, and adapting it to your own situation, is how new concepts are learned and old beliefs that do not serve you, can be noticed and changed.
SET THE INTENTION OF COMPASSION
Start with the intention of compassion. Racism was created and passed on along with disconnection of our humanity from nature. In a world that is run by technology, filled with pollution, and a society that values excess, over abundance, and wealth - our connection with nature, people, and our own emotions has been lost.
And even still, with the outbreak of COVID-19, the social distancing and mask wearing threatens to disconnect us even more.
What will begin the change to end racism, is COMPASSION. Compassion for ourselves, for our families, our neighbors, our community, the environment, and for all races, genders, and all living things.Set the intention of compassion - with open awareness, focused attention, and an intent to end racial bias.
HELP CHILDREN UNDERSTAND CHANGE IS CONTINUAL
When we teach kids about racial injustice, we often teach people like Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and other civil rights heroes worked hard to fix things, and that we are lucky the world isn’t like it used to be. The implication to ourselves and to our children is that racial inequities have been “fixed” by these leaders.
How can we help children understand how racialized inequities can still remain even after laws have been changed and progress has been made?
Try using a “multicultural teaching approach”.
Multiculturalism doesn't mean just teaching children about different races. Adding a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. to the literature anthology and offering parental instructions in Spanish—both good ideas in their own right—simply do not go far enough anymore.
Teaching multiculturally makes a distinction as the aim of studying human cultures in all their diversity is to understand what it is to be human.
Teaching with this aim cultivates a culture that celebrates diversity and supports mutual acceptance and respect for understanding ALL human differences. It provides children with a global perspective of the world and seeks to eliminate racial, ethnic, cultural, and gender stereotypes.
This connection to each other as humans, and to nature, is at the core of understanding the deeper message of COMPASSION.
BE THE CHANGE YOU WANT TO SEE
We all know that children do as they see you do, not as you say. This means, in terms of teaching children about racial injustice and promoting racial equality, we must model those behaviors in our own lives.
From what we consume in the media, to who we are around - all of it forms a “bubble” around your life. And while that term may seem negative and restrictive, it is our job as parents to expose our children to the world as a whole. To talk about other cultures, to teach our children about things that we, ourselves may not be exposed to often, as well.
When a child notices other races or witnesses an injustice to another, it’s not ok to silence them or shame them for calling it out or embarrassing you with a comment about someone’s race. A better tactic is to again, seek to understand. Look at the world through their curious lens, and listen to the questions they have.
It’s OK to not have all of the answers all of the time; if they bring a question to you about race, racism or racialized inequities that you are not sure how to answer, tell them you think it is an excellent question and something you can research together to learn.
Children are sponges looking to learn. Being open and thoughtful to address difficult issues, is how we all learn and grow together
ENCOURAGE HIGHER DIMENSIONS OF THINKING
Children often learn through transductive reasoning. In other words, they make a connection between unrelated instances - like seeing someone’s skin color is the same, so they think everyone with that skin color has the same behaviors.
It is important to encourage higher dimensional thinking in children to disrupt this process. While some may think it’s too complex for a child to learn, it is merely teaching them about multiple attributes of a person at once.
When children see multiple perspectives, they then can make connections about differences in people, situations, and things, and this helps to curtail cultural bias.
GETTING COMFORTABLE WITH DISCOMFORT
There is no one way or list of “quick tips” to teach about the complex topic of racism and racial injustice. But it is our responsibility as parents and connected humans to want to do our part to listen, learn, and then decide for ourselves what makes the most sense for you and your family. Above all, it is important to have the intention for change and then take the responsibility to act.
With a world already dealing with climate change, deforestation, pollution, ozone depletion, and a floating continent of plastic and toxic waste in the ocean - we, as a society - need to change the way we live.
It starts with getting comfortable with all things that are UNcomfortable. Facing difficult issues, having difficult conversations, and making difficult choices and changes.
To us, it starts with knowing the role we have and want to have in the world. It’s our job - our purpose - to make each other and the world better because we are in it. And that starts with each of us.