Unteaching Racism

A few years ago, the ESL teacher at my school cleaned out her library and gave me a bunch of her books. They were all children’s books that her high school students, although they were English Language Learners, refused to read because they looked like children’s books. Since these books had been bought for a high school audience, they explored very intense topics: The Holocaust, The Great Migration, racism in the South, racism in the world of music, race riots, and other historically accurate and painful topics. These were Alexandra’s favorite books for a long while.

At first I was scared to read them to her–to delve into such intense topics–and I even contemplated shelving the books until she was older, but I didn’t. This is life, I thought. This is our world. This is the world I chose to have children in; I brought her here. I need to educate her fully and early on the good and the bad in history, in people, and in life.

As a parent, I have no problem talking to my kids about the beautiful and the ugly, about love and hurt, about life and death. I am not one of those parents who shields my kids from the truth. I might even verge on telling them a bit *too* much at times, but I can honestly say that I never, ever lie to my kids and I am proud of that.

Back when we were reading these books constantly, a lot of questions came up about race/racism. Why did the Black people want to move to the North? Why did the White man try to hit the little Black boy with the car? Why could Marion not sing in the place where White people sang? Why did the people with stars get taken away? And I would answer her questions basically and honestly. She literally cried about people with brown skin going to jail when reading Jacob Lawrence’s The Great Migration. She worried that her friend from afterschool, Malachi, was going to jail because he was Black.  She concluded one night, “Mommy, White people are not nice. If you see a White person, you should walk the other way!” to which I asked her, “Alexandra, what color are you?” and she shrugged.

Imagine not knowing your race. How might that affect your view of life?

But that naivete is gone, my friends. She is five and a half, in her second year of public school. It is one year later.

Back in November I had to scramble daycare together for Election Day after Hurricane Sandy.  My generous friend Amy suggested that her nanny to watch our four kids (two of hers, two of mine); the kids would have a day-long playdate and the nanny could make some extra cash. I told Alexandra the plan while she was in the bathtub. I was sitting on the toilet giving her a bath and talking to her.

“Alexandra, tomorrow Sammy and Sadie’s babysitter is going to watch you and Nico,” I explained.


“Did your hear me? I just want you to understand what’s happening,” I continued.

“Mommy….Does she have brown skin?” Alexandra asked quietly.

I was completely perplexed.

“Yes,” I responded carefully. “She has brown skin. Why?”


“Because I am scared of people with brown skin,” she stated, very matter-of-factly.

I practically felll off the toilet in shock.

“Really? Are you scared of Annika and Mariah and Isaiah?” I asked calmly. (These are her biracial cousins)

“No…” she responded quietly but not confidently.

“Then why are you afraid of people with brown skin?” I prodded.


She clearly could not articulate why she felt that way, but it is clear that she did feel that way. She started to squirm around in the bathtub, as if under a microscope, and she was under scrutiny–by me. I was trying not to exude the deep discomfort, sadness, and disappointment that I felt that those words had even come out of her mouth, but it seemed as a deflated feeling was seeping out of my pores. I felt heavy and guilty, like I had failed as a parent. And not in the same way I criticize my parenting when my kids don’t say “Please” or “Thank you” enough, but a deep, sad failure.

I thought about this conversation of ours on MLK Day yesterday as we talked with our kids about MLK, President Obama’s inauguration, why we did the One Million Mom march for gun control in the freezing weather over the Brooklyn Bridge. I thought about how racism is so deeply ingrained in our American culture that even with an immediate family who works consciously and diligently to subvert  racism that some racist ideas might seep into our children when they are not with us. I am not sure how/why/where Alexandra learned that she should feel scared of people with brown skin, but I am fairly confident that it is not an idea she gleaned from us, her parents. At least I hope it’s not.

When I was pregnant with Alexandra, my friend Tonio told me that the biggest act of social justice you could engage in your lifetime is to raise socially aware and active children, children who will engage in justice work to make this world better. Alexandra’s name means “defender of humanity” for a reason; Nico’s (Nicholas) means “celebration of the people” for a reason. We have thought and talked and thought and talked about this as parents. I imagined that fostering a home environment would be enough, and I didn’t realize I’d have to wage war with the outside world already.

But wage war I must.

Damn. Double damn.

[I have loved teaching The Great Migration as a historical event through Jacob Lawrence’s paintings. A great website is here: http://www.phillipscollection.org/migration_series/flash/experience.cfm  The students are very intrigued by the images and the paintings are easily differentiated between images that require a lot of inference and those that are more straightforward. The children’s book is a great resource for the classroom, too, and it’s inexpensive: http://www.amazon.com/Great-Migration-American-Story/dp/0064434281. I used the images when teaching Fences by August Wilson most recently.]jacob lawrence noose

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