Updated: Jan 9, 2021
This year has brought challenges and opportunities for acknowledgment, growth, and adjustment. Along with these challenges have come significant burdens that women, parents and families are carrying, sometimes with limited resources at their fingertips. Whether it’s the adjustment to working from home while homeschooling kiddos or having tough conversations about the state of the nation; mothers, fathers and families are turning to friends and their community for support and resources. The death of George Floyd, while not the first unjustified death of an unarmed black man, was a catalyst for change. As CWBA members and parents in our legal community look for resources on how to ensure we, as a collective community, can deliver on the promise “that all men are created equal, that [WE] are endowed […] with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” The 1891 brings you a series of blog posts prepared by members of the CWBA with various backgrounds, races, ethnicities and sexual orientations. Our Anti-Hate and Anti-Racism Parenting Series brings guidance on how to raise the future to be more accepting of others, inclusive and embracing of diversity. Our first blog in this series comes from a white-mother who brings her perspective on how to raise children to be anti-racist. The 1891 hopes to bring a multitude of perspectives for our readership through this series.
-Carime Lee, 2020-2021 CWBA Publications Committee Co-chair
Racism as a White Person Problem
Racism is a white person problem and I am a white person raising white children, so it’s my problem to address with them. Much like sex education, personal hygiene, and manners, anti-racism is merely another piece I must fit into the puzzle of their upbringing. It is not an afterthought, it is not a fad, it is not a mere “feel good” part of their upbringing: this is a cornerstone of trying to raise productive members of society. Having said that, I am inserting a big caveat: I am not an expert, at either parenting or anti-racism. So, I will make and have made mistakes at both. The point, though, is to keep at it. Just like I don’t have the option of walking away from parenting, even when I get it wrong, I don’t have the option of walking away from anti-racism, when I get it wrong. This post does not cover every lesson and every conversation, so forgive me if I miss something that is important.
A. Tell them they benefit from inequity, even if it hurts.
For starters, I tell my children they have privilege and we talk about what that means. I spend a lot of time thinking about anti-racism and obviously I read books on the subject. I looked for words and ways to explain privilege in a way that makes sense to children because it won’t be the same as the words to address adults. So here is one succinct way I’ve explained it to them: as white boys and then white men, you will get the benefit of the doubt in all aspects of your life. You will benefit from the presumption that you just made a mistake, that you have unproven potential, that you can perform better than you’ve shown, that you are telling the truth, that you are smarter and more competent, that you are honest, and that you meant well. As white boys, I tell my sons that they benefit from that privilege and I remind them of that, even (and most importantly) when it pisses them off. This is not a smooth process. They get aggravated at me, they get upset and they don’t welcome this information like the social justice message that it is. But that’s the point.
With that in mind, I tell my sons that black boys will be treated differently for engaging in the same behaviors they may engage in: tantrums, talking back, arguments with children at school, responding to bullying, failing to turn in homework, whatever it may be if a black boy engages in those behaviors, they will be vilified and criminalized, while they (my kids) will likely face a conversation and minor disciplinary repercussions. This is something they relate to because reward-benefit and school discipline is what they manage every day. I also focus on boys because my sons respond better to an experience they can relate to, and at their ages (9, 11, and 13) boyhood is fairly central. This is the microcosm of anti-racism, in very concrete terms. Then, I do the work of explaining anti-racism on a macro level.
B. Educate them with documentaries and books.
I have them watch documentaries, like 13th (which I highly recommend). I don’t sugarcoat or soften the blow. Why should they get softness in the messaging when black children don’t get that in their actual experiences? Two of my sons cried during 13th. The middle son, who is most sensitive to right and wrong, was heartbroken and quiet. Again, I held the line and reminded them that even through their tears, they still have the luxury of not fearing mass incarceration, police profiling, inequitable prison sentences, and unrepentant violence as not only their own future but the future of the men in their lives. This does not alleviate the tears, but I am not teaching them this to make them feel better about the world. I am teaching them this for them to be better in the world. Eventually, they calm down and move on, but the lesson sticks. This week we watched I Am Not Your Negro. This summer the older one read The Hate U Give and I keep pushing it on Raphael.
I talk to my children about police brutality and I tell them that although law enforcement should be respected it should not be trusted just because it is law enforcement. [There are two factors here that inform my approach: 1) I was raised in Europe, in a staunchly anti-fascist family and 2) I am a civil rights attorney. I was raised with the understanding that the police, the military, and the government must earn the people’s trust, every day, because the memory of authoritarianism and state brutality on the streets is still very fresh.] I tell my children that law enforcement is made up of people, and that like all people, some are honest, some are not, some are racist, some are not. Very importantly, I remind them that the police has a massive amount of privilege in that they are, you guessed it, given the benefit of the doubt while black folks who are their victims do not get that same benefit and get victimized, with devastating consequences. This is how I tie the concept of privilege from their school hallways to the big picture.
C. Address whitewashing of the civil rights struggle.
Importantly, I counter the narratives they pick up at school about the “benevolence” of the civil rights movement. Civil rights were not given, they were won—winning means overcoming confrontation and resistance. My children know that many civil rights leaders were murdered. They need to know this to understand that the fight for civil rights does not have a “fairy tale ending.” They know Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were murdered and that they were murdered because they stood up against white supremacy—which is still strong in this country today. This last part is critical: the fight for civil rights is not in the past and it is by no means won. The civil rights battle is today, everywhere. We are not done, not by a long shot!
We talk about language, head on. The N-word is always referred to as that and I explain to them why they must never use it. Ever. Even if it’s in songs, even if they hear Black folks using it, even if they are told it’s “okay”; that word should never come out of their mouths. I steadfastly discuss the history of the word and why it is an act of hate and violence.
E. What does it mean to be white passing and why it makes a difference.
Sometimes the kids raise the fact that they are Latino, which they are, and we talk about what that means for them. Their father was born in Uruguay and became naturalized as a US citizen when our son was one. His first language is Spanish. His entire family is Uruguayan. But he is Caucasian and so are our children. What I explain, though, is that they are “Anglo passing” and that this, again, gives them tremendous privilege so that any claim they may make to their heritage should be one of belonging but not one of “Me Too-ism.” It should also not be an excuse to center their experiences, which would be insulting and painful to their BIPOC brethren.
F. Travel, if you can, to places where whiteness is not the norm.
Because we can afford it, we go to places where white folks are racial minorities. This includes the United States Virgin Islands, the British Virgin Islands, St. Vincent & the Grenadines, and Grenada. I cannot explain to you my children’s look of bafflement when I told them that in the United States Black people were said to be “incapable of swimming.” After spending weeks watching Black children jumping off peers, racing each other in the ocean for hours, handling boats better than I can ever hope to, fishing, and living in peace with the waters, they knew how ridiculous that notion is. They also saw how easily ignorant and factually incorrect narratives can take hold for the benefit of oppression.
Introducing them to foreign places and foreign languages also debunks the myth of “weird” names used to discriminate and put down “Black names.” The idea that certain names are “ethnic” and others “normal” is racist (through and through, so profoundly racist). It is also so deeply ignorant it makes my brain hurt. Names are tied to languages, dialects, culture, and history. Names are also completely arbitrary. A name is just that: a name.
G. See it, name it, talk about it.
Most importantly, we talk about race. Yes, it is a construct. Yes, it is relative. Yes, it is arbitrary. Yes, it is fluid. But that is exactly why we have to talk about it. Constructs have power and arbitrary classifications have been used to devastate communities. The fact some folks think they can ignore race, as some people claim to, is pompous and privileged because folks belonging to those races don’t have that option. And we have come full circle to the concept of privilege.
H. Step in and interrupt.
This final piece is the one that scares me because it can create danger for my children. I tell my children to intervene and speak up when they encounter racism, no matter how slight. Someone uses the N-word? Tell them to cut it out. Someone is getting hassled? Step in. Police is overstepping? Stay out of the way, do not interfere, but film it. Witness something racist? Report it. The best defense against racism is an unflinching offense. They won’t always step up to the plate and I don’t think they will always do the right thing, but I have to give them the space and permission to make others uncomfortable by standing up to racism. As their parent, I tell them it’s okay to get in trouble if they are doing it to protect someone else. The fight against racism has always required stepping out of our comfort, as white folks, to fight the monster within our own community.
And this final point is one that I have not broached yet but will have to: racism lives within our community. Racism lives within our kinfolk and it does so comfortably—racism can be comfortable for us and we cannot let that stand any longer. The monster is inside the house and eventually we are going to have to take apart this house because the rot is in its very foundation.
(In writing this piece, I consulted with my kids about whether I was being aspirational or whether I actually do these things. I had to delete certain passages, which just goes to show that there is still work to be done. I also asked them if they understood the importance of appreciating Black art forms, including rap—which I love for its lyricism, complexity, and poetry—and they flatly told me they “don’t get it.” So…back to the drawing board).
Giugi Carminati is a social justice litigator, handling cases ranging from family law and domestic abuse to police shootings and other civil rights violations, including violations resulting from unlawful immigration practices. She founded The Woman's Lawyer, a domestic abuse and sexual assault victim's advocacy law firm and is now Managing Attorney, W & SW United States, for NDH, LLC, a human and civil rights law firm. She is a founding member of the CWBA Publications Committee's The 1891 blog. She is also on the Colorado Community College Systems Board and is Vice President of Denver Mamas. Giugi is also mother of four children and speaks four languages.