It’s been hard to sleep this past week. Each night, I stand in the doorway of my son’s bedroom and watch his chest rise and fall, listening to his gentle breath. He is asleep because he feels safe. He believes that I can protect him from all harm. He is wrong.
I am a Black woman, mother to a Black son and an educator who is privileged to impact the lives of future leaders. In each of these roles, one thing has become crystal clear: We must educate ourselves and have difficult conversations about racism with our children.
Here is my reality: For my son Jackson, who is 10, it doesn’t matter what I have done to create privilege in our life. This boy who brings so much joy with his smile and laughter, with his words and antics, will soon cause people to cross the street or grab their purses closer as he walks by. He will be followed in a store. He will be labeled a threat just for being alive. The puffy Afro that makes him seem almost as tall as me will make him look older, and thus, more threatening.
In the past week, he and I have talked a lot about racism. We have spoken about it before — when people wouldn’t stop touching his hair in third grade, when we watch TV shows and see people being treated unfairly, and when unjust things happen in the world. We have talked about violence against Black people — men and women — and in the past week, we talked about it all again.
When I shared that protests were happening because Black people were recently killed and that some people were taking their anger out on property, he nodded his head. Without prompting, he made the analogy to being bullied at school. He said, “When you try to be nice to the bully, then try to ignore it, then you ask for help from a teacher, then try to get your friends to watch your back, and it still happens, you sometimes feel like the only thing you can do is punch the bully.”
Kids get it. As the Head of School for an all-girls middle school in Seattle, I am encouraged every day by talking with girls about racism and how to combat it. Despite the stereotype of adolescents and teenagers as “mean girls,” I find they have a lot more courage, intuition and empathy than most adults.
But even for children, fighting racism is not easy, and if you have never experienced systemic racism, it can be difficult to recognize. This can leave people feeling helpless. Many parents and students, particularly white people, have asked me in the past week: “What can I do?” Here are three things I recommend:
Start where you are: Changing systems and figuring out your role — and the role of your children — can seem overwhelming. But things will only change if we all make an effort. Take a deep breath and start where you are with what you can do. Get up each morning and ask: “What can I learn today? Whom can I support? How can I use my privilege and power to amplify the voices of black people?”
Listen, talk, repeat: We frequently have conversations about race at our school, sometimes skillfully and sometimes not, but the important thing is that we keep listening, talking and trying to be part of the solution. Have the courage to engage in hard conversations knowing that you may make mistakes along the way; this engagement is the foundation for understanding and long-term change. If you don’t know how to start a conversation, there are great resources from organizations like the Center for Racial Justice and Teaching Tolerance, and news outlets like USA Today and King5 TV.
Try to understand anger: Black people in this nation are hurting and angry. Those are hard emotions to witness. It is easy to share happiness with a friend or console them when they bear a deep sadness. Anger, on the other hand, is ugly and hot, and our response is often to withdraw or go into problem-solver mode. But anger is not a problem to fix; it’s a wound that needs to be uncovered, aired and understood. It takes courage to sit with someone who is angry, but it provides perspective on how we got to this difficult place — and how, together, we can move toward justice.
Racism permeates every institution in our country, but it does not have to stay that way. My students make me hopeful that my grandchildren will have a different experience growing up Black in this country. They give me hope that my son will have allies fighting for his humanity right now.