Maplewood Opinion Schools / Kids South Orange Towns

Opinion: Why White Parents Must Teach Their Children About Racism

Lisa Duggan is a resident of South Orange. The opinions expressed here are hers alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Village Green or its editors.

We’ve been talking to our kids about race for a long time in our racially and culturally diverse little enclave of South Orange/Maplewood (SOMA). But have we been saying enough?

When I read about the two recent incidents of students in our District posting racially insensitive and anti-Semitic images on social media, I immediately thought back to 2011, when under the guidance of the Community Coalition on Race (CCR), a few parents and I helped to organize a discussion called Talking to Our Kids About Race.  The idea for the program was prompted, in part, by a Newsweek article we had been discussing called, Even Babies Discriminate,” by Po Bronson and Ashley Merriman.

The article, citing a 2006 University of Texas study, asserted that babies as young as six months old note racial differences when viewing faces. The article also laid to waste the popular notion that it was possible, and commendable, to raise kids to be “color blind.”

It was found, in fact, that parents who did not acknowledge skin color in an effort to deemphasize difference and emphasize equality, accomplished precisely the opposite: their children concluded that talking about skin color and racial differences was “bad” and therefore the underlying differences themselves were bad, too.

Our group that had come together to discuss the article was “very SOMA.”  We were members of a defunct book club that had collapsed under the weight of too many members with too little time to read. We also had in common elementary school-aged kids scattered amongst SOMA’s district and a deep desire to talk about the realities of raising them in our intentionally integrated towns.

Most of us were transplants from Brooklyn, New York City or Jersey City, and we had all moved to SOMA for the beautiful homes, quick commute and observable diversity we had come to expect in a neighborhood, which included many LGBT couples and families as well as families of color and families of disparate religious backgrounds.  Two of the moms in our group were spouses in interracial and inter-faith marriages (one African-American mom, one Jewish mom) raising biracial babies; one woman was the white, Jewish, adoptive mom to a little boy from Ecuador and, me — a typical 1970’s era Euro-mutt, pale as can be, raising one pink little girl.

It was in this small-group discussion that I first learned the phrase “preparation for bias:” the name for the talk or series of talks that parents of color have with their children, to prepare them for and hopefully protect them from the negative assumptions our society holds for them — an institutional racism that is often expressed as mistrust, fear or harassment through language, micro-aggressions, or, more demonstrably, through violence.

Our featured speaker for the Talking to Our Kids About Race discussion was Professor Diane Hughes, a professor of Applied Psychology in the Steinhardt School of Culture, Development, and Education at NYU, whose work is focused on the “intersections of race, ethnicity, and culture, as they influence family.” Dr. Hughes affirmed and expanded upon the findings cited in the article.

What we learned in 2011 confirmed what we ourselves were experiencing: living in a racially integrated, multi-cultural community such as ours does not guarantee that our kids will be culturally aware or sensitive people.

Those lessons from 2011 are fresh in my mind after reading reports of kids in our district who created and used culturally insensitive images and language in two different schools.  The incidents and their aftermath are being widely referred to as a “teachable moment”, and I agree — but for whom?

These words and images were created by kids, who do and say stupid and cruel things, and while they must and should bear the consequences of their actions, we as parents must bear the responsibility along with them.  We cannot escape or whitewash the hateful history of this country or world, nor should we. If Jewish parents and parents of color share the burden of preparing their children for bias, then it is my responsibility to teach my white daughter about this same hateful history, and the very real harm that words and images can inflict in the present. There is a critical need for a more realistic teaching of our past in order to ground our building of a better, truly equitable future for all of us.

If we, as white parents, wait to talk to our kids about hate speech until after they’ve used or shared it, we’ve waited too long.  Along with teaching my daughter about slavery and Jim Crow, Hitler’s rise and the Holocaust, as well as our history of misogyny and cruelty to LGBT people, there is a list of words and names she’s not permitted to use. These names are loaded with a history of violence and intimidation and I have been explicit in my instruction about not using them. I’ve told her that even their casual use is not permitted, because the effect on those they have been used against is not, and has never been, casual.

Frankly, I wasn’t entirely happy with the initial response by our District to these incidents. I wish there had been a more swift and clear condemnation of the creation, use and sharing of biased language and images by students, and instruction for reporting these to teachers and administrators safely and anonymously. But I am encouraged by their announcement to collaborate with our local rabbis, the CCR and the American Defense League going forward.

I also don’t know the names of the children involved in these two incidents, nor should I.  They are minors and both our moral and legal code is right to protect their identities, as evidenced by threats some of these kids now are reported to be receiving.

But I do know whose kids they are.  They are mine and they are yours.

It is true.  We are standing in a teachable moment.  And we, as parents, are their teachers.  If we are to ever truly live in the type of community that we like to say and think SOMA is, it is our obligation as parents – each and every one of us – to teach them well.

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