The family had been talking about Black History Month over dinner on a recent February weeknight, and Kirstin Cassell, a clinical social worker in Greensboro, North Carolina, had asked her children what their classrooms were doing to celebrate. But it wasn’t until later, after the plates were cleared away and the younger children had wandered off, that Cassell’s 12-year-old son admitted he was bothered by something at school.
“I’ve noticed something,” he began, and then told his mom that there were black boys in his class who were consistently getting in trouble with the teacher for goofing around. This troubled him, he said, “because they’re not doing any behaviors that are any different than what I do.”
In that moment, Cassell says now, several thoughts raced through her mind: that she’d always known her oldest child could be silly in class and that she had wondered whether he might get away with it because he was white. That her 8-year-old son, who is black and adopted from Ethiopia, might find himself in that same classroom in a few years. That she was proud of her seventh-grader for identifying the problem. And that she wasn’t sure how to fix it.
“So I told him: You’re right, and that’s not fair, and we have to figure out what we’re going to do about that,” she recalls.
It was a scene that would not have played out in her own childhood home. Like many white Americans who grew up in the wake of the civil rights movement, Cassell, 40, was raised with the ideology of “colorblindness.”
But in recent years – with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, as social justice activism has crossed into the mainstream and discussions about race have dominated both national headlines and the vitriolic political landscape – more attention has been focused on the role that white people must play in addressing racism, and more parents like Cassell are trying to learn how to speak to their children about the realities of the world they live in.
“My kids bring it up,” Cassell says. “My youngest has talked about the fact that he is not the same color as we are ever since he knew his colors.”
It’s natural for kids to notice differences between people they meet, says Beverly Daniel Tatum, president emerita of Spelman College in Atlanta and the author of “‘Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?’ and Other Conversations about Race.” But the key moment, she says, is what follows – when a child turns to an adult for guidance about what those differences mean.
Tatum often talks about the day her 3-year-old son came home from nursery school and asked, “Tommy says my skin is brown because I drank chocolate milk; is that true?”
“Tommy’s not being mean or insulting; he’s just trying to figure something out,” Tatum says. “So in my response to my son, I said, ‘No, your skin is not brown because you drank chocolate milk. Your skin is brown because it has something in it called melanin. Everyone has some, even Tommy has some, but in your school, you are the kid with the most.’”
She’d answered her son’s question, she says, but she was left with one of her own: “Now, who is setting Tommy straight? What conversation is happening at his house?”
The theoretical scenario goes something like this: A small white child is accompanying a parent at the grocery store when he notices someone who doesn’t look like people he’s seen before. So he turns to his parent and says, perhaps a bit too loudly, “Why is that person so dark?”
In this situation, a parent’s first instinct is usually a mortified shhhh – “not an explanation,” Tatum says. “The child makes an observation, the parent silences the child in a hurried way, and what that says is, ‘You’re not supposed to notice, and also there’s probably something wrong with what you’ve just called out.’”
A better response?
“You could say, ‘People come in different colors – like how you have blond hair and dad has brown hair,’” Tatum says. “It doesn’t have to be a big deal.”
For Brigitte Vittrup, an associate professor of early childhood development and education at Texas Woman’s University, this sort of encounter didn’t happen at a grocery store but at a friend’s home, when Vittrup, who is white, and her husband, who is black, dropped off their dog before leaving town for vacation.
“My friend’s son, who was 6 at the time, was looking back and forth between us,” Vittrup recalls, “and he makes this statement like: You are white, and he is a dark brown man, so why did you marry a dark brown man?”
Vittrup says her friend was horrified: “She was afraid that it was offensive to us. But at the time I just said, ‘Well, you know, he’s a really nice man and I love him, we love each other, so we got married.’ And the kid was like, ‘Oh, OK!’ and went off to play with the puppy.” She laughs.
Vittrup has found herself telling this story more often lately. When she first started researching the racial socialization of children many years ago, “I wasn’t getting contacted by a lot of people,” she says. “But then all of a sudden, about three years ago – when the election started heating up – I started getting calls more and more from people who wanted me to come talk about it.”
Melissa Giraud and her partner, Andrew Grant-Thomas, co-founders of the child-focused racial justice organization EmbraceRace, also noticed a similar shift around that time. Giraud, who is biracial, and Grant-Thomas, who is black, launched their organization in March 2016.
“There were white families involved from the get-go with us,” Giraud says. “But after Trump got elected, the numbers really went up.”
Grant-Thomas believes the election was a wake-up call for many white parents who were not previously attuned to the enduring legacy of American racism. “A lot of white parents who were themselves brought up in colorblind homes are now parents, and they’re saying, ‘Wow, that did not work,’” he says. “We had a friend, a white middle-aged friend with three kids at home, who said … ‘I want to help my kids not be ignorant in the ways that I was, and I don’t know how to do it.’”
For white parents who want to educate themselves, a wealth of resources have sprung up to guide them: grass-roots organizations such as Showing Up for Racial Justice, community groups, a multitude of books and blogs and podcasts focused on how to talk to kids about race. But the first and biggest hurdle is often getting over one’s own lingering discomfort, Vittrup says.
“What some parents have told me is that they’re not used to talking about race,” Vittrup says. “They didn’t grow up in families that talked about it, and they aren’t comfortable with it.”
Tibby Wroten, 35, a librarian and mother of two in Sacramento, California, doesn’t remember being told specifically not to acknowledge racial differences - “but I know I internalized those messages,” she says. “I was raised to believe you don’t mention this stuff.”
She didn’t want to repeat that lesson with her own white children. So when she joined a protest led by the Sacramento chapter of Black Lives Matter, she brought her 7-year-old daughter along, handed her a sign that said, “White Silence is Violence,” and explained what it meant.
“She’ll say, ‘Oh, I see that woman is wearing a hijab,’ or ‘That little boy has brown skin,’” Wroten says of her daughter. “She just makes observations, because we’ve talked about the fact that it is OK that someone has brown skin or somebody is wearing a hijab, and it is OK to notice that about them.”
That sort of awareness lays a foundation for more-complicated conversations that come as children grow older, says Sachi Feris, founder of the blog Raising Race Conscious Children.
“It’s not just one talk. It’s not ‘The Talk.’ It’s the practice of race consciousness on a daily basis,” she says. For instance: “We can’t walk into a store that is selling all white baby dolls and say nothing. Silence is itself sending a message, and that message is not the one that I want. I don’t want my white children to grow up thinking that white is better.”
But some still cling to the colorblind ideal; consider former Starbucks chief executive and presidential candidate Howard Schultz, who recently made headlines after he declared: “I didn’t see color as a young boy, and I honestly don’t see color now.”
Tatum says she’s heard similar comments from white parents – in one case, someone boasting that a little girl had pointed out a friend on a playground without any mention of the friend’s race or skin color, “even though the most obvious thing about her was that she’s the only black girl on the playground,” Tatum says. “The parents might say that the fact that their daughter didn’t mention it means she’s colorblind. But it tells me that their daughter is color-silenced. It’s not that she didn’t notice, but that she somehow learned she’s not supposed to mention it. And saying, ‘She’s the black girl on the swing set’ – there’s nothing wrong with that.”
She laughs a little as she recalls speaking with people who would anxiously whisper the word black as though it were a word they weren’t supposed to say.
“If you tell a black person you don’t see that they’re black, you’re saying you don’t notice a big piece of their life experience,” she says, “and no one wants to be overlooked in that way.”
Feris has often heard from white parents who want to talk about race but worry about saying something wrong or offensive. And she usually assures them that, yes, that probably will happen at some point.
“We are going to mess up when we do this work; we are humans and we have to be at peace with that,” she says. “And then we can have another conversation, because that’s the wonderful thing about parenting: It continues.”
Cassell is still figuring out how to resolve the situation in her son’s class. She asked him whether he had talked to his friends of color about it – “But they’re middle school boys, so he was like, ‘No, not really’” – and she has spoken with the school principal. She plans to keep talking to the school administration, and to keep talking to her kids.
“Racism exists because white people started it – not me personally, but that’s the legacy that’s been left,” she says. “I want to be part of fixing it, which means speaking up, even when it’s uncomfortable.”
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