Updated: Jan 8, 2021
When I was asked to write on the topic of “talking about racism with your kids,” quite frankly I was nervous. I am not a self-proclaimed expert on parenting, but then again, every family is different and so is every child, so here goes….
As I have shared before, I grew up in Richmond, Virginia driving down Monument Avenue every Sunday to attend Cathedral with my mom. If you missed it in the news this year, Monument Avenue is in the heart of downtown Richmond, and is lined with 12-ton statues of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis, J.E.B. Stuart and others, and was purposefully designed to revive/keep the fires of the Confederate memory alive. I marveled at the giant statutes, but never grasped the racial significance of those imposing symbols. Slavery was not glorified in school, nor was the fall of the South something that was instilled in me as something to be mourned. Plain and simple, ownership of other people was bad and in my mind the South was not to be glorified for such practices. I had friends of all different races and ethnicities, we were all equals. I remember from an early age being so proud that I could speak Spanish and that I needed a passport to go visit my grandparents. I was unique, I was different, and that was positive for me. But we did not talk about “race” growing up in my household.
As I matriculated through middle school, I started noticing race more -- we started grouping together by race. Though we were still friends, it was different. Honestly there were not that many Hispanics where I grew up, heck if you were new to town and you spoke Spanish, you were told to find my mom. In high school, I was confronted by an upper class-man, telling me that my mother should go back to where she came from, she was not welcome here just because she was an immigrant. That was the birth of my identity, in the middle of Sociology class, when I stood up to him and in no uncertain terms told him that my mother had a master’s degree and my family was successful. I am certain I said something unflattering about his mother in return. I was a Sophomore, he was a Senior, and I was not going to let that slide. That experience left such a mark on me. After graduation, I left Virginia and never looked back. I spent my first three (3) years of college at the University of Arizona and surrounded myself with every shade of brown I could find and then transferred to American University in Washington, DC, where I immersed myself in the international scene for two (2) years before returning West for law school – I was starved for diversity.
What is missing from this story, is that there is a reason race was not spoken about in my family. My mother came to the US when she was 8 years old, and her generation was taught to assimilate. You spoke English in public, acted American, and kept your ethnicity at home. So, despite the fact that all of our family friends loved coming to our house for parties, because mom always served South American food, my brother and I were taught to assimilate because it would be “easier” for us, to just blend in. The other aspect of my family dynamic was the fact that my father is Jewish and grew up in Richmond where his family was not welcome at the Richmond Country Club (RCC). My grandfather’s response was to buy a house in the nicest neighborhood right across the street from the RCC. I always admired his chutzpah. At the same time, in 1970, in Bradley v. Richmond School Board, Federal District Judge Robert Merhige, Jr. ordered a limited citywide busing program in Richmond. My father was bused downtown to attend high school in the inner city. Being both a minority and considered part of the majority, was complicated to navigate for my parents.
Now that I am a parent, I have purposefully chosen to assimilate into my husband’s strongly proud Mexican family and raise my children as Mexican. One day they will get to visit Panama and Ecuador and my extended family, but here in the US they have lots of family on my husband’s side. We do not formally sit down with our children and talk to them specifically about “racism.” What we do talk about regularly is being proud of being “brown” and that being different is a strength. We have a motto, if you will, “Brown is Beautiful,” which my kids, ages 2, 6, and 7 proudly proclaim for anyone to hear. I am certain they get a lot of confused looks when in public, pale skinned, blue eyed, and blond, as they are. But they are not fazed, and I could not be happier. My children also attend an IB school, so I know that at school they are taught about different cultures and to respect all cultures.
Teaching your kids how to treat people as equals, despite the color of their skin, is the lesson I am trying to impart by teaching them to accept that they are different and beautiful. In our family, Mexicans are pale skinned and blond, just as they are dark skinned and black haired. Mexicans come in many different shades and that means despite my kids’ fair skin, they are Mexican too.
So, when George Floyd’s death sparked anew the Black Lives Matter movement, I froze a little. In retrospect, it was more about really understanding the root of the movement and where I fit in. I was not thinking about “how to do I explain this to my kids.” I should have known that they were going to ask about it. They grasped the “virus” concept with no problem or fear. So just when I was beginning to ask myself – what is the best way to handle this, they beat me to it. We were dropping our youngest off at daycare, when they asked me “why did that police officer kill that guy?” I approached the situation like any attorney would – answered the question with another question.
Me: “What guy?”
My daughter: “The guy on the video?"
Me: “What video?”
My daughter: “The one with the police officer choking the guy’s neck.”
Me: “What did you think of that video?”
My daughter: “Police officers are not supposed to kill people, they are only supposed to get bad guys.”
Our daughter is 6 years old. We had not spoken about skin color, but she understood that he was not supposed to die at the hands of a police officer. I could also tell from her voice, that she also did not believe that Mr. Floyd was in fact a “bad guy.” I think she was questioning that notion because he did not look like a “bad guy.” We then had a conversation about how not all police officers are bad, but that this police officer had killed a person and he was not supposed to have and now he was in trouble.
A few weeks ago, our son, who is age 7, again brought up Mr. Floyd. He referred to him as a Mexican because he was brown, followed by the usual “brown is beautiful.” He even went on to say, he was like our family. We then tried to explain that not all brown people are Mexican, but we did not get too far. Which means we have some work to do. But I will lose that battle happily, as long as my children understand that a person’s skin color is just that “skin color” and does not dictate how a person is treated. My children label themselves Mexican and see anyone with any shade of skin color as Mexican too. They are projecting the concept that they are the same as people with a different skin tone. We are all human beings, and that is how I want my children to think about race -- everyone is equally a human and deserves to be treated equally.
As you can see, my approach is NOT earth shattering, and you might even say I am wrong in my approach – that’s OK. But what my children can tell you is that ALL brown people are beautiful, regardless of the shade of brown and according to them you may even be Mexican just like us!
Christine M. Hernandez is the Immediate Past-President of the Colorado Hispanic Bar Association. She earned her law degree from the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. Christine has practiced for the last 15 years exclusively in the area of Immigration Law, specializing in Removal Defense.
Christine is a Shareholder at Hernandez & Associations, PC, a firm she owns with her husband, Arnulfo D. Hernandez. Hernandez & Associates, PC is the largest Immigration law firm in the state of Colorado and is proudly Latino owned and operated. The firm specializes in criminal and immigration defense, and where those two areas of the law collide – crimmigration.
Christine is the first lawyer in her family. Her mother immigrated from Panama to the U.S. with her family when she was 8 years old. Her father was raised in a Jewish household in Richmond, VA, with Russian heritage.
Christine is active in the legal community nationally with her leadership in the Hispanic National Bar Association as Chair of the Immigration Section. She frequently speaks at national conferences and has conducted Congressional Briefings about Immigration Law. She is also active in the Colorado legal community, continuing to serve on the Board of CHBA, as well as the CBA/CJI Joint Taskforce for Diversity on the Bench, Colorado Supreme Court’s Wellness Task Force, and sits on the DBA’s Board of Trustees.