I work at a second-chance high school in South Dallas where students who have dropped out of school get another shot at earning a high school diploma. Eighteen of the 25 students currently enrolled are black. And aside from helping these kids master the basics to graduate, we’ve already spent the better part of this year talking about racial strife and the tragedies we’ve witnessed in Charlotte, Tulsa, Baton Rouge and Dallas, among others. The kids all have the same questions: “Will I be targeted?” “Am I safe?” Honestly, I don’t quite know what to tell them. How do we help them rise above the harmful perceptions about race?
My own biracial children have started asking more questions now that my youngest started kindergarten, and I struggle with how to approach the subject of race, mostly because it’s been a nonissue in our house until now.
Race is an abstract concept for children to grasp and can prove to be tricky waters for parents to navigate. Richard Proctor, a black police officer in Mesquite, and his white wife, Shannon, a middle school teacher, instill in their three children — ages 16, 12 and 9 — that the color of their skin really doesn’t matter.
“Richard tells them to say that they’re the human race when asked to define their race,” Shannon says.
In the wake of months riddled with anger, angst and outrage, building a bridge across the seemingly increasing racial divide in our country so that children may cross unscathed seems more important than ever.
Jim Harlow, a licensed family counselor in Dallas, believes there are no one-size-fits-all answers to children’s difficult questions. Above all, he says, kids need to know they’re safe. “Our children need to know they can rest in the safety and security of their family relationships,” Harlow says. So slow down, and create a safe place for them to voice concerns about things they’ve heard or images they’ve seen on TV. With younger kids, try talking about the difficult subject during playtime or family meals, he suggests. Use simple language and ask kids how they feel.
Pastor Quentin Draper, who leads a largely black congregation at Spirit and Truth Church in Dallas, has two daughters — Chloe, 11, and Rebecca, 2 — with whom he uses everyday scenarios as teaching moments, even silly disagreements among sisters, “When my children are busy explaining why they did what they did, defending their actions or trying to blame it on their sister, I often tell them to stop talking, hear me and obey,” he explains. “I teach my children there is a time to explain and a time to simply obey and comply. That pattern is the same on the street.”
Compliance is key, yes, but so is listening to your children, Harlow notes.
Forney mom Renata Ross does a lot of listening, trying to answer her two young black sons’ questions and teach them important lessons without feeding their fear and stripping them of their innocence. Unfortunately, in today’s world, her little ones may have to fear more than spiders and the dark.
“It’s important to validate kids’ fears,” says Brittany Robinson, a licensed professional counselor intern in Arlington and Fort Worth. “You can’t sugarcoat fears they have based on skin color. You have to be honest with them — and with yourself as a parent.”
So parents can’t tell their young black sons not to worry. Because in some instances, they might have to.
Ross definitely understands that. She knows that she has to teach her sons so much more than simply to behave, and that no amount of personal kindness, manners or talents will protect them from potentially being profiled later on in life.
“How do I teach them that, even when they don’t know it, people may be afraid of them because they are black, and they are boys?” Ross asks.
Growing up, she was conditioned to fear authority, especially police. If she encountered a cop, she was told to keep answers to questions simple and not to move. “I’m teaching my sons the same things today,” she says. But now, the stakes are higher and those lessons could mean the difference between life and death.
As they get older and transition from adorable black boys into strong black men, Ross knows that she may need to go beyond telling her boys to respect authority. She’ll likely have to tell them to keep their hands where they are visible, not to wear their hoodies up over their face or cut across the neighbor’s yard at night. She may have to tell them to be cautious of who they spend their time with and how they’re perceived in a group.
It’s a difficult balance of helping black children be proud of who they are and helping them understand that not everyone might see them the way their parents do.
As I attempt to teach my students to navigate the world ahead of them and strive to help them become responsible members of the community, I wish people would judge them only by the content of their characters. But sadly, that’s not going to be the case. I know that there will be times when assessments of my students’ worth will be made and predictions of their character will be assumed all based on their black skin.
I wish it were more like the Sunday School song “Jesus Loves Little Children”: “…Red, brown, yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight…” If it were only that simple.