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What Are We Teaching Our Kids About Race?

May 15, 2016

Perhaps no other topic is capable of causing more potential conflict and harsh feelings like religion, sports, or even politics. I’d dare say that one topic, in particular, is liable to create just as much, if not more divide between people and that is the subject of race. The issue of race is so divisive and potentially dangerous that it is the one issue that holds sway over all of the above categories mentioned! We know there are serious racial issues that continue to trouble our society, so it is not as if we have to make a case that there is a problem, the problem is evident. My reason for discussing this topic is to address how we as reasonably intelligent parents discussing the many complexities of race with our children today?

A few years ago I was presented with a valuable lesson about race when my wife brought to my attention a very public meltdown that one of my oldest son’s best friends had which involved his repeated use of the N-word, which he posted on social media! My son’s friend discovered that his apartment had been broken into, and his little brother’s game console, stolen. He went on a Facebook rant venting how upset he was, and it could have ended quietly with that, but it was taken to an entirely new level by recalling a Black kid in his neighborhood that day who he deduced must have been the culprit.

He went on to say “it was probably stolen by that fuckin nigger I saw earlier, yea, I said nigger!” (all caps, bold, to make sure we understood he meant business!) Well, I am African American, my wife is Puerto Rican, and our kids are mixed. We have an entirely diverse group of both family and friends, so at any time we may have a United Nations appearance when it comes to family gatherings and holidays!!! Our kids have never had any issues as far as making friends with literally anybody!!! If you enjoy their company and are nice with them, they’d most likely be your friend. When this happened, and my wife showed me the post I was rather disappointed because we had known him and his family for quite a while and he had stayed at our house more times than I could count.

This incident happened in our personal life; this was not work related, so I didn’t need to be objective and try to sound politically correct. I was rather pissed and disappointed! My wife asked me, “what do you want to do about this?” My first instinct was just to sever all ties with him and advise my kids to do the same, but I don’t know if it was Therapist training, Christian values, parenting skills or a combination of all three helped me to call a meeting with my kids about the incident. My primary goal was to process it myself and explain to my kids how I felt, but let them know it was up to them to honestly decide how they felt about it. I did not want to project any of my anger, prejudices or angst on my kids who I always remind myself of the fact that they have their cultural identity that is different than mine or my wife.

I must say that this was some of the best damn parenting my wife or I had ever done, and I’m not trying to sound pretentious because I wanted to vent and dictate to them how they would respond, but the moment was bigger than my little attitude, and a better choice was made. My kids all gave their take on the situation and while my daughter voiced more anger about the situation than my son did she admitted that he was welcome back at our house as long as he apologized. My son seemed to blow it off almost immediately saying that he was just upset, and he didn’t believe he felt like that or used that language or views regularly. He also required him to make an apology.

My wife, to her credit, addressed him directly on social media when he first made the comment asking for him to calm down and think about what he was saying. What I found more disturbing than what he said was the fact that a couple of his relatives echoed some of his sentiments and tried to rebuke my wife’s words which were only trying to get him to calm down and not react using such hate-filled language! Can you imagine the context in which an adult would support what he was saying in that moment? Even a few of the boys other White friends were trying to echo what my wife was saying and get him to quickly delete his post.

He reached out to me and asked to come to talk one on one and apologize formally as he had already apologized over the phone and on social media. I gained more respect for him when he did this, and he got a chance to get into the ramification of his decision to vent while in the state of anger. I am not more spiritually enlightened than any other man/woman, but I am realistic about my prejudices and how my history and experiences with racism can affect how I see the world vs. how my children see their world. Are we teaching our kids to be like us or to reach beyond our limitations and make a greater effort than what we have?

This example was unique indeed because not only did I get an opportunity to teach my kids about issues concerning race, but I got a chance to discuss it with a young man who had put himself in the middle of the great debate by posting hateful words on social media. In my work as a Therapist, I get the chance to show clients that many of their behaviors don’t just appear out of nowhere. They are a byproduct of learned behavior that is often so subtle that we don’t even realize we are quietly being programmed to normalize the behavior. The fact that a few of his family members were encouraging him to use the hateful language is proof that the practice exists somewhere in his family.

I explained to him that I too get angry at things such as people tailgating me or cutting me off in traffic, but when these things happen to me, I stressed to him the importance of remembering the fact that these people who are doing these things are just people. The man who once rode my bumper for several miles and threaten to hit me several times, all while flipping me off and cursing me was just an ass hole, not a White asshole!!! I followed this guy to Quicktrip. He had the misfortune of happening to be going the same way I was after our expressway encounter! I pulled up next to him and said out loud, “now what?!?!?!” as an entire parking lot looked on thinking that I was having an “angry Black man moment!”

I explained to the guy who was so scared he wouldn’t even look me directly in the eye that his reckless behavior could have caused an accident, and I had my children in the car with me, which was my real reason for being so pissed at him! I told him that he was lucky that this occurred while during the stage of my life when I was able to take responsibility for my actions and not when I didn’t think twice about knocking someone out if the opportunity presented itself. I told him to be careful and not to do crazy stuff like that in the future because the next person he does that to may not be as forgiving or enlightened as I was trying to be with him! He looked at me as if I was crazy, but he apologized, and I got in my car and went about my business. Now my wife fussed at me about the incident because she thought I was wrong for following him due to that whole me being Black and he could have had a gun thing.

I talked to my kids about that incident because they saw me and knew how upset I was and why I was so upset. The guy was acting as if he was going to ram my car all because he thought I wasn’t going fast enough, but instead of going around me he decided to tailgate me for miles and flip me off and shout profanity at me! Even though I felt justified to do what I did, I had to explain to them the proper way to handle those situations and also to let them know that not all people are like that. What do we teach our kids about our incidents in which racial tensions were involved in a dispute you had? I’ve explained to my kids, friends and clients that as long as we are human race is always going to be a factor.

We have to stop trying to disprove that racism still exists, the signs are too numerous to count, but instead we have to teach the fact that all people are racists. I tell my kids that not every White person is a racist and out to get me, just like not every Black man is my brother or has my best interests at heart! I respect the truth and what is right, and that goes across racial demographics and all cultural lines.

My wife recently showed our daughter a video in which a teenage girl was attacked by several classmates who set her up by inviting her to a party in which they took turns beating her all because she was “mixed race.” Perhaps the saddest part of the story was the fact that not only were no charges filed for the assault which sent the girl to the hospital but her parents only discourse was to file a suit against the parents of one of the girls where the attack took place. They were home at the time of the attack and had allowed teens to drink alcohol during the events that took place that day. How could any parent not only allow their underage kids to drink alcohol but how could they also be “clueless” to an assault like this from taking place under their watch?

While kids can make one wrong choice, we don’t typically see good kids go from being responsible and friendly to setting up a girl to be bullied and beaten up overnight! How can any parent not pick up on this type of behavior developing in their child? One of the benefits of raising kids with “multi-cultural” dynamics is that they’re used to having so many diverse groups of children and adults around them that they adjust and can coexist with any group. When my kids were younger I recall going to a Burger King play area and seeing my oldest son. when he was about five encountering a group of Mexican kids and getting so excited “Hi friends” he kept saying only to be disappointed when none of them would talk or play with him! I had to wrestle against my views as I momentarily thought they didn’t want to play with him due to me being Black, so they assumed he was only a Black kid and wanted nothing to do with him?

I quickly thought to myself “duh, maybe they don’t understand you, son, talk to them in Spanish!” My boy went back “I can speak Spanish!! I can speak Spanish!!!” When he introduced himself in Spanish and got a few of the basic communications, he knew from his Puerto Rican mother teaching him the kids were all smiles, and he made new friends just like that! Sometimes it is as simple as being able to communicate past the static and misunderstandings and hear what the other person is trying to say. Are we as parents facilitating that environment or are we contributing to the same static and noise that keep us divided?

What do we base our perceptions of other races on, what the media and entertainment outlets portray? Are we so limited in our perspective to sum up an entire culture based on the few people of that culture that we’ve met? Do we ever find ourselves generalizing an entire culture based on skewed representations which are often wrong? Do we challenge or even correct our kids when they generalize or use short sighted views concerning race? The truth is we teach our children more so by how they see us behave and not as much by what we believe we are teaching them with our words.

Over the years, I’ve grown accustomed to people telling my wife and me, how sweet and well behaved they believe our kids are. I always make it a point to tell them, my kids are just as capable of being just as typical regarding being bad as any other average kid. We’ve managed to hold them purposely accountable for their behavior, which means we deal with the issues to make sure they’ve always understood the expectations in life. My oldest son at 20 years old is more level headed on issues of race than I could have ever hoped to have been when I was his age. My daughter has managed to develop a bit of my cynical perspective, but she has enough of her mother’s optimism to help her continue to develop into a well-rounded young woman. Our youngest is still developing. Judging by his ability to play with every kid on a playground or in a play area, solely based on their willingness to play with him and not by the color of their skin, I’d say he’s well on his way to following in his sibling’s footsteps regarding his attitudes concerning race. That is the only true way to once and for all kill off racism when the later generations eliminate it from society, but how can this happen if we as parents don’t instill in them the tools to do so? What are we teaching our kids about Race?

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