Here at ParentsTogether, we have been moved by the killing of Michael Brown and the ensuing police violence in Ferguson to consider how we talk about race and injustice with our children.
Two of us have boys almost the same age (5 and 4), but Ailen Arreaza’s family is Latino, and Bethany Robertson’s is white. We were interested to learn how our conversations about Michael Brown differed, and perhaps to learn from each other’s approaches.
We asked our colleague, Darrell Scott, to interview us–raising up the issues that matter to him as a young, African American man. In the post below, we share our experiences.
As parents, we are always learning how to bring the values we hold as adults into the ways we raise our children. We hope other parents will share some of their parenting choices, especially around how they talk about tough topics such as inequality and institutionalized racism.
Darrell: When did you talk to your son about the murder of Michael Brown?
Ailen: I haven’t had a sit-down, heart-to-heart conversation about what happened in Ferguson with Lucas. To be honest, I’m not ready to expose him to such violence and injustice. In part because he is only five, but also because I like living with a little boy who is still full of unmarred wonder and hope. I’m not ready to tell him that he will be judged by the color of his skin and that his parents and uncles and cousins have had dozens of experiences in which they have felt discriminated against because of their appearance.
Bethany: My partner, Peter, and I talked with our son, Zachary, three days after Michael Brown was killed. Peter often shows Zach pictures of the day from the newspaper. That morning, Zachary saw the pictures of the police on the streets of Ferguson and he was intensely curious to know what was going on.
Darrell: How much did you tell him about Michael Brown’s death and the events that have followed?
Ailen: Lucas overheard me talking to my husband about Michael Brown’s death and asked what had happened. I made a quick comment about how a police officer made an assumption about a young man based on his appearance. I didn’t give him too many specifics and talked with him about how none of us should ever treat anyone differently because of how they look or what they’re wearing.
Bethany: At age four, it feels like Zachary is just on the cusp of understanding things like guns, violence, war, killing. As a parent, I’ve wanted to shield him from these hard topics. But I know that I can’t protect him forever, and given the number of recent killings of African Americans—Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Jonathan Ferrell in Charlotte, Renisha McBride in Detroit—it seemed like this was a moment that needed explaining.
So that morning, Peter and I told him that an African American teenager had been killed by a policeman. We said that African American men are often treated differently by the police because of the color of their skin. And then we explained those war-like pictures of the streets of Ferguson—we said that people were very angry with the police that a boy without a gun had been killed. And that they were even more angry about how the police often treat African Americans unfairly.
Darrell: What questions did your child have? What was most difficult for you about the conversation?
Ailen: For Lucas, it was hard to understand that a police officer would hurt someone. He is used to seeing the police as heroes in books and cartoons. I explained that police officers are people too and that we all make mistakes and judge others based on how they look.
Of course, I know that police officers consistently make these kinds of “mistakes” with persons of color, but I didn’t know how to explain that to my child while, at the same time, preserving his respect for the profession.
Bethany: Zachary had a lot of questions about why the police treat African Americans differently than white people. He knows about Martin Luther King, Jr., and has a big-picture sense of the civil rights movement. What really struck me was his comment – something like: “But didn’t Martin Luther King, Jr. already fix that?” He didn’t understand why African Americans would still be treated differently today – given all the struggles of the past.
In part, Zachary’s comment reflects his view of the world, which is either “back then” or “now,” with very little continuity between the two. But his response was a great reminder to me of the need to keep exposing him to the present-tense nature of inequality.
Darrell: All over the country, communities are coming together to hold vigils, protests, events, and more. Have you taken your son to any of these? Why or why not?
Ailen: I did not take Lucas to any of the vigils for Michael Brown in Charlotte. In the past, we have gone to vigils and marches for immigration reform. We have many friends who are undocumented and it’s important for me to stand in solidarity with them as a family. I’ve had conversations with Lucas about the injustice of our immigration system, but I haven’t been able to talk to him in depth about Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin. I think that it’s the element of violence that makes it difficult for me to approach the subject. And the fact that it could happen to him.
Bethany: This isn’t something we did—but honestly, we’re not the kind of family that would normally turn out for a rally. I understand the power of such actions to unite and mobilize, but as a parent, I think more about daily practices.
My approach has been to start with Zachary’s interests and what he sees around him. Right now – he wants to know about homelessness and why when new homes are built, we don’t give those homes first to the homeless. Last weekend, he held a lemonade stand and wanted to give the proceeds to homeless people in our neighborhood. That feels like the right place to start with someone his age.
I think what events like Michael Brown’s killing push me to do is to take our conversations about homelessness to the next level – to not shy away from topics such as the underlying racial issues that are so integral to who is poor in our country and why.
Darrell: What were your child’s views/feelings regarding the police before Michael Brown’s death? Do you think these views have changed?
Ailen: Lucas continues to see the police as heroes. I know that I will have to have a serious conversation with him about how to interact with police officers as he gets older. I know that, because he is brown and has wild curly hair, I will have to explain to him that he will have to play down his exuberance around the police. That he can’t ever run from them. That he must treat them with exceptional respect, even when he feels like they are mistreating him. That these things are crucial to his survival.
Bethany: Like a lot of boys his age, my son idolizes firefighters, and policemen are right up there as well. He hasn’t seen any TV or videos of the hyper-militarized violence that took place in Ferguson, so his view of the police hasn’t changed. As a parent, I still want him to trust the police, but I also want him to understand that they are human and make mistakes.
However, after reading many perspectives from African American moms in the aftermath of Michael Brown, like this one and this one, I have been struck by an entirely new layer of my own white privilege. The difference between being a white mother and a mother of color has taken on new clarity for me as I hear about parents teaching their child “hands up, don’t shoot.” I can’t imagine how frightening it must be as a parent to know that those who are sworn to protect could by your child’s worst enemy. But as part of a community of families, it seems critical to acknowledge these differences in our parenting experiences.
Darrell: Inequality, institutionalized racism, and police brutality are issues that might be hard to understand at such a young age. What are the themes you try to hone in on when talking about serious topics like these?
Ailen: Love. Our family is Christian and I talk to Lucas about the importance of loving his neighbor each day, no matter who he is, what he looks like or what he has done. In his letter from Birmingham jail, Dr. Martin Luther King said, “Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.” So, whenever I speak to Lucas about injustice in the world — whether it’s in Ferguson or Newtown or San Salvador, I try to do it from a place of love. Love, even for the “bad guys.”
Bethany: We look for entry points to these topics that make sense given our son’s age and interests. The first time we talked about civil rights was when we read Faith Ringgold’s fantastic book about the bus Rosa Parks rode—which made sense given that he was a two-year old obsessed with busses. Last summer, we went to see President Obama speak on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech.” This year, we read the Magic Tree House book about the civil war, and talked about slavery. It feels like as he grows older, we are ever more able to talk about present-day issues and events, such as Michael Brown and Ferguson.
But beyond ongoing exposure, we focus on how we act as a family—and how we expect Zachary to behave. That we are kind to all people, that violence is never, ever a solution. That we have to stand up if we see someone not being treated the right way. That all living things deserve compassion, that every person deserves dignity and respect.
Darrell: How early did you begin to have conversations with your son about the color of his skin and how it might affect the trajectory of his life?
Ailen: It’s funny (in a laugh-to-keep-from-crying way) because, while my husband and I are both Latino, my skin is much darker than his. When Lucas was born, I jokingly said that I wished he was darker so he would look more like me. As he has gotten older, I have felt relief about his lighter complexion. Although he will never be perceived as white, I think that having lighter skin will benefit him in life. It will make him seem less “aggressive” and “threatening” to others.
I haven’t had an in depth conversation about this with Lucas. I’ve explained that, sixty years ago, he would not have been able to go to school with his white classmates because of the color of his skin and I have talked to him about Dr. King and his fight for justice and equality, but I haven’t warned him yet about the very real possibility that he will face discrimination in his life.
Bethany: I have talked with my son about the color of his skin and the fact that some people treat others differently because of the color of their skin. The key lesson I try to share is that his job is to be kind to everyone no matter who they are. I haven’t talked with Zachary about his life trajectory in almost any sphere, race or otherwise. At age 4, most of our conversations are about the present moment – like eating a healthy dinner so he grows up healthy and strong.
Darrell: Has what happened in Ferguson affected how you raise your son and the values you instill within him?
Ailen: It has definitely served as another reminder of the injustices people of color face each day in this country. I want to have deeper conversations with my son about this — not just about how it might affect his life, but the lives of his African American friends and classmates as well.
Bethany: More than anything, Ferguson reminds me of my obligation as a parent to talk about race, and also oppression. I know I’ve been delaying those conversations so far, given Zachary’s age and own my desire to shield him from some hard truths.
But even at age 4, I’m trying to help him be aware of inequality; we talk about things like worker fairness, poverty, racial and gender discrimination. We also have a daily practice of gratitude in our family, and I use those moments as a way to highlight both all that we have while recognizing that so many others are not as fortunate.
As Zachary gets older, I want to talk with him about the causes of inequality, like race and gender. Hopefully, if he has an awareness of the existence and causes of inequality, he’ll have a foundation as he grows to understand the violent expressions of oppression—like slavery, rape, police violence, or torture. But at this age, what I want most is to set him on a path of becoming a kind and compassionate person.
Ailen & Bethany: After hearing each other’s responses, a few things stood out.
There’s no question that for Ailen and other parents of color, talking about race is not optional – it’s about giving kids survival tools. For us, this highlights the need for white parents to be allies, to recognize their privilege, and to talk with their children about race and its implications for our communities, even if it’s something white kids don’t experience every day.
We are also struck by our common desire to shield our young children from violence, killings, police brutality, and death. We realize that by nature of living in middle class communities, this is a choice we are able to make. We ache for the parents of little kids who cannot be shielded–who observe their fathers/uncles/brothers being targeted by police and others simply for the color of their skin.
Through this conversation, we’re left with more questions than answers, and welcome other parents to join the dialog. Tell us:
- How are you talking to your kids about Michael Brown and Ferguson?
- For parents who live in communities where this is a part of your daily reality, how have your conversations differed from ours?
- What advice would you give parents who want to engage their children on these issues?
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