Let's Talk About Race
What did your parents tell you about racism? What did you teach your children about racism? I asked some black friends and some white friends those two questions. Here are some answers and my thoughts.
A few nights ago, I was exploring about how I learned about racism. In my recollection, I realized that I never had an actual conversation with my parents about racism and what it meant and that it was a bad thing. I do remember, though, many conversations about the pride my sister and I should feel about being Armenian. They often discussed the contributions of Armenians to society and the importance of carrying our heritage into future generations. This same message was carried through in our all-Armenian, private elementary school. We were considered lucky, in our community, to attend a private school where all our classmates were Armenian, and we learned the Armenian language alongside every other subject. It was a true bilingual education. I'm very grateful for that experience. As a matter of fact, many of my close friends are ones I made during my years at that special private school. However, in our experience, assimilation and acculturation was frowned upon. This thinking was a result of years of oppressive attitudes towards Armenians and it was a generational resolution to preserve the Armenian heritage. Growing up, I do not remember being told explicitly that any specific group of people was considered beneath Armenians, however, there were implicit attitudes toward specific groups that were considered inferior. This introspection led me to wonder how my friends learned about racism.
I sent out text messages to some of my Black and White friends and asked them the same question: "What are three things your parents told you about racism? What are three things you told your children about racism?" The friends I asked come from all over the United States. There are some who are college-educated with advanced degrees, while some are high-school dropouts. Their ages range from early 20s to 60s. And their children range from infants to now grown adults who have children of their own. Some are parents to White children, some to Black children and some to Mixed children.
Here are their answers.
What my Black friends' parents told them about racism:
"People will call you N****r. You won't be treated fairly in life, so don't be expected to be treated fairly."
"Racism will never change. Racism is violent. Racism is security for the White man."
"My parents never spoke to me about it at all. I didn't discover racism until I was a lot older."
"Because you're Black, you have to work harder. Sometimes people are looking to get a reaction out of you. Don't give it to them. Racism is a real thing. Be aware and stand up for what is right. Help someone if you see it happening."
"Because of racism, in competition, education and employment you have to be better, not just as good as. Because of racism, be careful who you trust because there are covert racists. Racist mentalities have not evolved much since we were kids living through Jim Crow."
"Do whatever law enforcement tells you. Don't be a statistic. You have to be almost perfect to be considered even half as good."
"Be vigilant of places you go to or travel to, especially out of state. Don't draw attention to yourself. You will have to work twice as hard because you are Black."
"My parents didn't speak to me about racism. It was just known that it existed. They lived in the South through the Civil Rights Movements, but the discussion of racism skipped over us, because it was as if the work had been done, even though we all knew racism existed."
"This is a white man's country. White people can be your friends, but don't trust them. Racism exists in many forms."
What my White friends' parents told them about racism:
"I don't remember my parents talking about it with me. They valued other cultures since they were missionary kids in Africa and Cuba. When I had a crush on a Black boy in junior high, my dad admitted that it felt foreign to him, but he said the main thing was that he was a Christian. My parents told me why a racist joke was wrong, especially because God loves all people the same."
"Black people had their own schools and churches when we were little. Black people had to sit in the back of the bus. Martin Luther King made changes through protests."
"I don't remember talking about racism with my parents. I was very interested in Black history as a child."
"My parents really did not tell me anything. I can't remember a time they ever talked about race."
"I grew up in segregated areas of our city in the 50s and 60s. Our school was desegregated so Black and White students were in the same classes, but we were not friends outside of the classroom. Our parents didn't talk to us about racism other than to tell us to not use the "N" word. My dad moved us from one neighborhood to another and when he sold our house, he did so on his own, because he wanted to be in control of who bought the house. New laws were in place about Black people being able to buy and live houses anywhere. I do remember a very light-skinned, blonde, blue-eyed girl, being harassed by some of the Black kids who lived in the Black part of town."
"I don't remember my parents ever having a discussion about racism specifically. It came up in conversation. They did tell use to not judge people by their color, but by their action. They had a very diverse group of friends. We talked a lot about how racism influenced history. For example, how the Civil War was taught to my father in the South and how it was taught to my mother on the West Coast."
What my Black friends told their Black children about racism:
"Racism is White man's fear. Racism is violent and unjust. Racism is security for the White man."
"Don't expect white people to give you anything. You have to work harder and be better. Respect authority, but know your rights and know that you have a right to remain silent if you are arrested. Do not talk."
"I haven't talked to my daughter about racism yet. She is young and I don't want to break her innocence. I don't want her to develop a negative image of her friends. But I know the day will come, sooner, rather than later, that I have to have that discussion and it scares me."
"Some people will not like you just because of the color of your skin. Don't treat others differently because of the color of their skin or because they look different than you, even though you may not get the same respect."
"We have had some lengthy conversations about the Confederate flag, Jim Crow laws and the Civil Rights movement."
"I tell him that his skin color is not a mark against him, or an indictment. I tell him he was beautifully created by God and that he has nothing to fear because God will protect him.
What my friends told their Mixed Black/White children about racism:
"The world will always see you as Black, first. Be ready to not be accepted by either group. Choose the people you are around wisely because you will never be White enough. You have a better chance of acceptance among Black people."
"She needs to be aware that most of the people she would interact with wouldn't understand her because even though she is mixed, she would always be considered Black first, last and always. And never white."
"We talked about code switching. How she interacts with her White side of the family will be different from when she is with her Black side of the family."
What my friends told their White children about racism:
"I've talked and read books about segregation and slavery with them and tried to explain why people were protesting recently and what Black Lives Matter means."
"My daughter did a book report on Ruby Bridges and we discussed how Black people were treated unfairly. She was very upset when she saw West Side Story and didn't understand why the Puerto Ricans couldn't go to the police. She didn't understand the concept that a police officer can have prejudice. She's been in diverse communities all her life, especially with Black peers. We didn't have to discuss race with her because it was not an issue for her."
"Black and white people should be treated the same, but they aren't always. They should help those who are treated wrongly because of their skin color. Sometimes police don't treat Black people the right way."
"We have talked about notable figures in history that weren't White and how racism plays a part in how history is presented. We discussed the frustration people feel when they don't feel valued and why BET, Black awards shows, or Black graduation ceremonies take place so that the Black community can seek recognition they don't feel they get otherwise. And most recently, we talked about white privilege and what that means in terms of the enduring racism in our society."
"I don't recall having specific discussions with them about race. They all played sports and had diverse groups of friends around them. I did have a discussion with them about the need to respect law enforcement. I let them know that how they carried themselves could lead to struggles. One of my sons has had problems with law enforcement possibly due to his appearance. He was a skinny white kid, with multiple tattoos and a shaved head. Other times, he's been combative with police that resulted in him being hospitalized."
Before I begin my interpretation of these answers, I would like to make one thing clear. This is not a research-based experiment. There is no statistically significant or empirically-based hypothesis that can be drawn from these answers. However, there are some similarities and differences that I want to point out to all of you. The purpose of this is to make you think, reconsider, understand, get a new point of view, teach another, etc. I use what I know as a human, a parent, a psychologist to share my thoughts with you. These are my interpretations of how this "experiment" unfolded. I want to hear your thoughts about it, also.
Time and Length
I made a list of who I wanted to ask these questions based on who I felt would take the time to answer them. The only two criteria were willingness to answer and being either Black or White. One of the interesting things that I noticed was that my Black friends sent me their answers within a minute or two of receiving my questions. Of my White friends, many requested that I give them time to respond. Their answers were embedded in background stories that were necessary to understand their answers. I appreciate the time they took to answer me and were able to provide a framework for their answers. But this difference led me to more questions. Why do my Black friends have the ability to answer that question within seconds, while my White friends require time to provide the answer? Does this mean that my Black friends have had to answer this questions time and time again? Or have they had to think about the answers to those questions so often that they have become answers they don't even have to think about.
Nature of the Answers
I expected to see similarities and differences among answers. But I was so surprised to see that almost all of my Black friends were told and told their children that they would need to work harder in their life in order to be considered as good as White people. It was also interesting that many of my White friends explained that they didn't recall have explicit conversations with their parents about racism.
One of the most noticeable truths for me came in the difference between the nature of the discussions. For the most part, the discussion parents had with Black and Mixed children involved advice that was intended to make sure their children were not victimized. The discussions centered around awareness of surroundings, people and their attitudes. This was poignant because these discussions were happening with children. The expectation that these parents have or had of their black and mixed children required them to see themselves as potential victims. And in psychological terms, if a child to views themselves as a potential victim, it can lead to low self-esteem, trauma, low empathy skills, anxiety, depression, and a host of other detrimental mental health conditions.
On the other hand, White parents provided their children with facts about society. They explained the victimization of Black children. Each of these parents who answered me provided or were provided by their parents, explanations and advice of how to handle situations of inequity. However, in this discussion, the idea of victimization was not planted in the minds of their child. These children were empowered to do right when they witness wrong. This is absolutely essential in our world, yet it does not bear the same weight of victimization for the Black child. This disparity leads me to ask the question, how can we teach our Black or Mixed children about racism without victimizing them? Is that even a possibility? And also, how do we teach the potential victimization of Black individuals to White children so that they can develop the empathy necessary to eradicate racism?
Like I mentioned before, this "experiment" was one that was developed out of my own curiosity. I hand-picked people who I knew would probably be willing to answer me. An important factor in the differences of these answers came from the experiences each of them had in their own lives. Some grew up in the South during Jim Crow. Others lived in the Midwest. Some are still living in New York City. Many are from California. As a matter of fact, all of them currently live in California. I believe that these factors, as well as, personalities, family situations, economic considerations, religious backgrounds, all have an impact on how we see the world and the problems that dwell within it. The one thing every single person agreed on was that racism occurred when they were children and that it continues to occur today. They may each not agree on what needs to be done to solve it, but that belief also comes from their experiences. The most beautiful gift I received from this experience was to be able to understand the unique perspectives of some of my dearest friends. Such a simple question, "What are three things your parents told you about racism?" allowed me a glimpse into their world, into their childhood homes. Even though I sat with my jaw dropped when reading some of the answers, I also appreciate that I gave myself the opportunity to learn how they were shaped.
I would like to extend a special thank you to each person who was willing to help me with this discussion. You taught me so much more than what I originally thought I would be learning. Your answers helped me get closer to my goal of being unbiased. I also ask that you continue on your journey, not matter what color skin you have to work toward being unbiased. Ask those around you the questions I asked, "What are three things your parents told you about racism? What are three thing you told your children about racism?" When they answer, listen without judgement. Develop the empathy to understand their perspective. If correction is necessary, do so lovingly and with compassion. Help one another grow so that our goal of an Anti-racist society can be achieved.
I encourage you, really encourage you, to comment about this post. This is a safe place where are discussions will be monitored to ensure healthy, empowering, growing dialogue.