A few years ago, some academics did a study of racial attitudes in small children. They wanted to find out whether generic assurances that everyone’s the same on the inside — the standard white liberal catechism of racial good feeling — actually make a difference in whether kids turn into bigots.
Telling your kid that everyone’s the same, that nobody’s better than anyone else, that everybody’s friends with everybody, accomplishes nothing. You can say that kind of stuff all day and all night — and believe me, white liberal parents do — but if that’s all you do, when a researcher sits your kid down and asks your kid whether black people are as nice or as smart or as pretty or as good as white people, they’re going to get answers that are going to make you cringe.
Because there’s bigotry floating around in the air in our society. Not anywhere near as much as there used to be, but a lot. And your kid is going to pick that up. And if that’s all your kid picks up, it’s going to stick.
So if you’re a white parent who wants your kid to not turn into a casually creepy bigot at the age of six, you need to talk about race. You need to tell your kid about racism. You need to be the first to explain racism to your kid, before that bigotry floating around in the air has a chance to land on them.
You need to say that some horrible people think that black people aren’t as nice, as smart, as pretty, as good as white people. You need to say that those people are horrible, and that they’re wrong. You need to say that people like those people — white people like those people — used to be in charge in a lot of places, but that nice, smart, good people (some, but not all, of them pretty) fought against them in the courts and on the streets and changed the rules so that the horrible people wouldn’t always win.
You need to tell them about Dr. King and Rosa Parks and Ella Baker, and you need to tell them about Bill Moore and Viola Liuzzo and Chaney and Schwerner and Goodman. You need to tell them about Frederick Douglass and John Brown and Sojurner Truth and Denmark Vesey.
On our way to Niagara Falls a few summers ago, I took my kids to Harriet Tubman’s house in Auburn NY to learn about the Underground Railroad, and to Frederick Douglass’s grave. Two years later I took them to John Brown’s homestead.
I don’t want my kids to be bigots.
I don’t want my kids to be bigots, and that’s not all. I want my kids to be fighting against the bigots. And I don’t just want them fighting, I want them winning. And so I started arming them for that fight before they were out of preschool. Because that’s what you need to do.
Those of you reading this who are parents, talk to your kids. Those of you who are going to be parents, start thinking now about how you’re going to talk to your kids, when they get here. Those of you who are siblings, talk to your brothers and sisters. Those of you who are children, talk to your parents. Talk to your friends. Talk to your teachers. Talk to your professors.
Talk. Talk. Tell them what you know. Tell them what you believe. Tell them what you’ve learned.
Don’t let them walk around not knowing.