Words do matter. Whether spoken, formally written, texted, artistically displayed, emailed, sung, or dialogued — words matter. Words comprise our language, our primary means of communicating, communicating joy, love, sadness, loss, despair, hope/hopelessness, defense, anger, frustration — and, yes, indescribable fear and anguish.
“I can’t breathe.”
“Please, please, please.”
This one sentence has communicated to the world an identification, a relatability, that so many of us did not realize we possessed with one another across racial, geographical, economic, religious, educational, gender, and political lines. We also now understand more than ever before that where, when, how, and why we use words, group them together, do matter. How our words resonate and “soak into” the minds and experiences of others do matter. As parents, ours is a very daunting and sometimes, even, onerous responsibility to take children and ourselves into language/words that they’d rather not traverse. For some parents, regardless of ethnicity, the predilection is to wait for such serious conversations.
That was then. Now, parents and children have seen and heard George Floyd’s being killed. Now, we are once more hearing the echoes of others whose similar killings have necessitated our re-reading and re-seeing and re-hearing again names of those similarly lost: Treyvon Martin, Eric Garner, Botham Jean,Pamela Turner, Michael Brown, Ahmaud Arbury, whom Rev. Sharpton cited, and so many others.What has been equally phenomenal and overwhelming to parents has been the scope and depth of the nation’s conscious awakening and more importantly, its acknowledgement of the inequity, brutality, fear, and violence in the United States of America—a scope and depth that also include individuals whom parents actually “know” but never knew about their day to day life-challenges.
What follows are recommendation for parents on how to have hard, uncomfortable conversations, how to prepare children for a world made more aware of racism, how to help children express their views/perspectives safely, and how to navigate and reflect on social media platforms they use.
- Having hard, uncomfortable conversations
Before engaging with children in any conversations on race and racism, parents first tune their examination inward. Parents must first recognize their own predilections and biases. Reflect on what you do and do not know about race and racism. Think about how you feel and react to difference. Ask yourself the following:
1. Do you see color before you see the person?
2. Do you make assumptions about ethnicities based on stereotypes before even one words is uttered?
3. How often have you had a conversation with a person of color that was not based on stereotypes such as sports?
4. Have you ever asked a Black person if she or he knew a person, and that person is Black, as well?
5. Have you had conversations with or have been with colleagues, friends, or family when conversations about racial stereotypes, racial slurs, or “jokes” have occurred, and you said nothing? Or, even participated?
Before parents can engage in any hard conversations with children, all parents, regardless of color, must examine deeply within themselves to understand more clearly how race and racism have rooted themselves so firmly into the very fabric of how Americans make and understand meaning. Often, to their surprise, parents with whom we work find their own notions about race and racism emanate generations far, far back. Unlike today’s generation of children, Gen Z’s parents acknowledge that their “understanding” of race and racism was hewn by familial adults who shut out any inquiry and conversation from them—back in the day when “children were seen but not heard."
To capture and make meaning of this historic moment — a moment that is both tragic and hopeful — parents must lovingly and diligently face the challenge of confronting these issues and their histories. Overshadowing children’s need to inquire and evolve into their own persons with voice, choice, and perspective puts them more at risk.
Children — young and mature — look to their parents and family for clarity and guidance. Protecting and nurturing them in this time necessarily entails parents’ being honest and clear, and even, if applicable, admitting their own biases, misunderstandings, misconceptions.
- Preparing children recognize and understand racism
Racism has existed in the Unites States for over 400 years: racism targeted at many ethnicities. Familiarizing children with the country’s racialist history is important in that while enslaved Africans was indeed a reality (over four million slaves by the beginning of the Civil War), immigrants, too, experienced “bouts” of racism as they entered the country. Their whiteness for a time was not enough to shield them: Italians, Irish, Latinos, for example. Unlike these White immigrants who melted into the fabric of the United States, descendants of both enslaved and free Blacks have never melted into the fabric of the country—always remaining Other.
My father used to school me in understanding that “I had to be ten times better prepared and smarter than the white person.” By the time I was ten, my father had died. And our life included white people. But his along with my mother’s continued admonition was and remains an integral part of the foundation of who I am. And I was not the only Black child whose parents made this statement a mantra.
With the history of racism, parents can scaffold contemporary events that are continuing to unfold in front of children on an ever-increasing media platform. Re-viewing video of marches from the Civil Rights movement alongside video and images from protests, such as Lafayette Park. And yes, the violence that ensued in some places must also be a part of the conversations, for parents must share the total picture.
Allow children to ask questions. Allow yourself to hear and listen to your children's take and understanding of race and racism. Be prepared to respond to their hard questions and allow them to use current events to think through and process.
- Guiding and preparing children for self-expression — verbal and nonverbal
Gen Z is a generation that is not only vocal, but they are also active. They want to participate in change — become agents of change.
Listen to children’s ideas and to their thoughts about what and how they want to participate and voice their perspectives. This country was founded on participation and speech, and while Black people, women, and children were not included in this initial scope, that was then; this is now. To evolve into “good” citizens, children must feel and now they have “skin in the game.” They must not feel that no one is listening to them. Protests, banners, podcasts, digital journals, blogs, so many possibilities with this generation. Allow them to see, inquire, and then soar.
Trust them to engage; listen to them and respond to their blending what is happening to them right now with what they are reading.Remember: Theirs is now a world where they are now witnesses to a nation in turmoil, where people from all (walks of life, race, gender, and ethnicity) are exercising their right to protest, to question, and to say enough.
- Navigating and helping children with their social platforms
One critical lesson everyone is learning in real-time is “FINGERS OFF KEYS.” GenZ embraces social media, and sometimes they must remember that a post can literally come back to haunt them and you.
Language has always mattered, especially in the United States of America. Our use of language, however, has not always reflected nor included any person beyond those who crafted the words with the men who looked like them, thereby creating a semblance-language of freedom. Parents now stand with their children at a crossroad, a critical and historical crossroad that will define for generations to come the character and face and fate for the country in which we live; a United States of America in which they will continue to live, and, hopefully, thrive.
For all Americans, it is worth remembering Dr. Martin Luther King’s powerful words at Riverside Church in New York City on 4 April 1967: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.” His words provided guidance then and can surely strengthen us now as help our children face their new now.