Friday, January 27, 2012

Is Racism too Stressful to Talk About?

Hello Meltingpot Readers,

My son is in the fifth grade. Recently they had to take those fill-in-the-bubble tests that supposedly test achievement. As part of the test, the kids have to fill in a bubble that describes their racial background. The teacher sent a note home saying that that requirement instigated a very thoughtful conversation about race and racism in the classroom. The take-away from the discussion, however, was that the kids believed it was just plain racist and always wrong to even talk about race. Yikes!

Faster than you can say NAACP, I was composing an email to the teacher, offering my services to come and lead a workshop to the fifth grade about how to talk about race with ease and comfort. But before I hit send, I remembered a recent study I read about on that suggested children need to be shielded from stress and strife as much as possible. Here's an excerpt from the article that gave me pause.

"... adolescence in particular is a vulnerable time for kids because that is when they are starting to isolate themselves from the family, meaning they have fewer supports available to them. Sinha says we need to give children time to develop their stress systems, which will provide them with the tools to deal with adversity as they become older. But if too much adversity comes at an early age, those tools will remain stunted and not fully available to them, perhaps throughout their lives."

If there's one thing I know to be stressful, it's the concept of race and racism. It stresses me out when I allow myself to think about all of the injustice in this world that comes at the hands of a racist system. On the other hand, I know that my parents did an excellent job shielding me from the ugliness of racism for almost my entire childhood and I feel I am the confident Black woman I am today because of it. My only gripe is that in "shielding" me from racism, they also shielded me from feeling any pride in my African-American heritage. I grew up feeling like I didn't belong to any particular ethnic group. I had to teach myself what it meant to be Black, a lesson I didn't start to learn until I was 18.

So, back to my own kids. Of course I want to teach them to feel proud of their heritage, both Black and Spanish. And until now, I kind of thought it was okay to give them a hearty dose of honesty when it came to the painful history and lingering injustice that permeates a colored person's life. But now I'm not so sure. I don't want to do what my parents did and act like race isn't an issue, but I also don't want to burden them with the sins of the past.

Here's what's on my agenda for this weekend. We're going to see Red Tails (the movie about the Tuskegee Airmen) and our read-aloud book is about the young Harriet Tubman. This is just coincidence but is it too much? What do you think, dear readers? How do you teach your children about race, without adding stress? I'm so listening.



Rose Anne said...

Let me know how that goes.
My 10 year oldbeautiful brown child, we live in a pretty small area and the diversity is limited."better than it was 30 plus years ago when I first lived here! I want son to be proud of who he is!
Rose Anne

Anonymous said...

yes! We talked to our daughter about race and racism. Her biggest hero is Martin Luther King Jr. She has really been interested in stories about overcoming segregation in this country.

Natasha said...

Yes, we talk about race and racism. Race a lot. Every week. Sometimes every day. But it's like taking about gender or age. It just comes up--in the description of a new friend, in who was on the opposing hockey team (and about why hockey is such a White sport), the racial identity of a singer we've heard but not seen or an artist whose work we've seen, why the traditional world map illustration exaggerates the size of Europe and under-emphasizes the size of Africa. My children notice and comment (usually appropriately) about the racial diversity or lack there of in different settings, including the elementary schools we recently visited. They know about slavery, Civil Rights, the current conditions in certain countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. We are re-discussing the intersection of Cherokee and European history as well as the current day situation for Native Americans. My children know why I gave away the really cute Mini Boden hand-me-down shirt that has a monkey and a banana on it. We've looked at the American Girl Doll website and decided NOT to purchase dolls from them because our family and friends are not represented (and we've talked about why beautiful brown dolls are harder to come by). Those are just a few things I can think of off the top of my head. I know you've probably read the book Nurture Shock, but the chapter on talking to kids about race was so good. I don't tell my brown kids they have to work harder than my tan kids to achieve the same goals, but I do make across the board decisions for my kids--sometimes based on race and how visible our family is. Like, we don't go out of the house with unbrushed hair, in clothes with stains or holes, with dirty faces or nails, with dry skin or snotty noses. Ever. Around here that is a MUCH higher standard than most families, but it is important to me. My kids are physically putting their best foot forward (whether they want to or not :) I just went to an all-day conference on talking about race in our local schools. It was fascinating, and reconfirmed for me how crucial it is as a parent and an educator to talk about race with kids. And racism. It's part of my kids' lives, and we talk about everything here.

Sharontina Brightman said...

Well, although I'm not a parent...this made me think back to how I was introduced to "race" and what it supposedly met, along with some of the struggles and adversity African Americans faced and are still facing. In the 90s, it seems that there was more of an effort to teach on the topic and in my elementary school, they found every way possible to teach us about it and not overwhelm us with the stresses that you mentioned.
I remember in music class, probably in the 2nd grade, there were songs we had to memorize and would sing at the beginning of every class that told the story of various civil rights leaders which provided a fun way to introduce us to such heavy topics. Those are my first memories of learning of these people, and what followed was small doses here and there that went deeper into why they were fighting this fight for our rights.
I don't ever rememeber having a single conversation about race with my grandmother besides the time a caucasian man called my brother and I "niggers" as we were crossing the street, even then all she said was "Oh, he's just racist...people are mean." Having the conversation early is definitely important because I recall being traumatized by that for months, I was truly hurt.
I honestly think that there is no way to get the full truth about our history and explain the social construction of race without the stress that comes along with it. I learned some REAL truth about just how race has been socially constructed by society and why it is still accepted in a class I took last semester, and as an adult it stressed me, so I can only imagine what that would be like for a kid. Of course with this it's all about moderation and introducing it gradually. I think that your plan to see Red Tails and the reading of Harriet Tubman is a great idea because it will allow them to learn and make their own inferences from what they see, and then you will be there to answer the questions they may have which will definitely lessen the level of stress(if any) that they may feel. (side note: When I learned the story of Harriet Tubman, it actually made me feel proud and empowered, I saw her as a hero!)

Good luck,

soy yo said...

I think talking about it is important and it would reduce the stress in the long run, if not sooner. To me keeping something hush hush sounds more stressful.

With my son, we don't talk about race all the time, but we do talk about it.

Tameka said...

I think employing the "show vs. tell" method is a great one. Going to see films and reading stories that feature people of color are great ways of instilling pride in one's race and culture.

Unfortunately my mother grew up in the segregated south so she was carrying a lot of painful feelings and memories from that time which she tried to pass on to me. I don't think she meant any harm, but that was the only way she could release her anger. I on the other hand rebelled (thank goodness) and adopted my own views of race and how to get along in a multicultural society.

Marble said...

I am a person who comes from a mixed race background. I think it's important for children to learn about race and racism at an early age. Shielding it from them just indulges ignorance and that's not healthy for anyone. I think your initial idea about the workshop would probably be more helpful and insightful than a PG-13 movie for a 5th grader. Kids understand a lot more than we give them credit for. If they embrace the idea of racial harmony at an early age it will stick with them. I hope the teacher embraces your idea and the entire class can benefit from the discussion.

JBH said...

Interesting question.

When my son had to fill in the bubble - as a mixed-race Asian American who has light skin and blue eyes AND who happened to be born and raised in Japan until he was 7 - he marked "Asian"...until the assistant teacher corrected him. That was in the 3rd grade:-) But it was a good opportunity to have a conversation with my son (even though the ass't teacher was embarrassed and called me personally to apologize, not knowing my Asian genes).

My question: is talking openly about race the same as "adversity" which you quoted? I think that open conversation is important.

As much as kids may not want to talk about race ("it's racist to acknowledge different races"), they will (someday) encounter older folks who may treat them differently because of the color of their skin. Better to talk about it now, instead of wondering why Mom or Dad never told me about discrimination.

LT said...

Thank you all for your thoughtful responses. I think the consensus here is that talking about race and racism to our children is important and shouldn't be hidden. I've gathered from you all that talking about race doesn't have to be ugly and difficult and thus not necessarily stressful. Moreover, I agree with many of you here in that it would probably be far more stressful for our kids to be caught off guard by the ugly sting of racism.

You guys are the best!!!

Anonymous said...

Can you do a post on how to explain the Trayvon Martin "incident" to children? I think I need to but am not sure how to go about it. Racism may be stressful to talk about but it's even more stressful to experience and I don't want my nephew blind sighted, just not sure where to start or stop

viagra online said...

Racism is boring enough to make me sleep. I prefer other themes.