When Michael Tyler’s oldest son Sascha was 5, he came home from school crying.
Someone had called him a name, and while Sascha didn’t understand the name, he knew it was bad because of the way everyone around him had reacted.
Tyler, who is Black, thought he was prepared for everything his mixed-race son would ask him. Until that moment.
He started to scour children’s books for one he could read to a 5-year-old to explain about skin color and why some people think it matters. He read 347 children’s books before he stopped and wrote his own.
“What I found in these books was this: many of them operate on a certain paradigm, they like to take inanimate objects and give them a persona and have them convey a concept,” Tyler says. “The way I looked at it is that a child’s perception is quite literal, it’s not conceptual at that age, so the concept of that book is something that adults feel good administering to their children, but it’s lost on them because on Saturday morning, giant pictures of Kool-Aid talk to them, toothbrushes talk to them, so this doesn’t mean anything to them, other than something else is talking to them.”
Though The Skin You Live In wasn’t published by the Chicago Children’s Museum until 2005, Tyler wrote it in 1995, an early anti-racism children’s book.
That the book has found new life in 2020 in the wake of the death in Minneapolis of George Floyd and Black Lives Matters protests is a testament to how parents want to educate their children, Tyler says.
“There are enough people in this country right now who really want a change,” he says. “They’re not just reacting to an unpleasantry, they really want a change.”
Amanda Lewis is the director of the Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and her 12-year-old daughter is also mixed race. Lewis has been studying anti-racism for longer than books about it have topped the New York Times’ Bestseller list.
Lewis also works with parenting groups around the city and suburbs who want to make anti-racist changes in their school districts.
“I’ve heard a lot of really contradictory ideas (from parents),” Lewis says. “For instance they say they talk to their kids that everyone is equal, and then they engage in a lot of activity and behavior – some of it explicit, some of it implicit – in their lives that is really very different.”
For parents who grew up being taught “tolerance and acceptance,” experts are now sharing advice about raising their children a new, different way, as anti-racists.
Acceptance teaches: Be comfortable in your skin
One of the most difficult points that parents face teaching their kids about racism is their own comfort limits with the race discussion. Some parents share young reader books about the Civil Rights Movement and then stop the conversation.
“One of the things that gets in the way of being serious about this and gets in the way of being more committed to anti-racist platform is in part people are worried about feeling uncomfortable,” Lewis says. “They’re not used to being in spaces where they’re one of few of whoever they are. They’re not used to being in context where it becomes clear that the assumptions they have about the world are just wrong. How do you embrace that’s where learning happens? That has to be part of these kinds of experiences.”
Anti-Racism teaches: Being uncomfortable is how you learn
Push yourself as a learner beyond your own comfort zone.
Know and explain how your family is privileged by its skin color, home location or education. Read books and listen to speakers that challenge what you know. If your kids are tweens or teens, take this journey with them and have continuing conversations about what you’re learning and reading.
“As long as you’re not willing to say, ‘how am I affected by it, what is my contribution to it’ you’ll never get to the point that you’ll think of solutions for it,” Tyler says.
Acceptance Teaches: Everyone is equal
Though the Declaration of Independence reads that “all men are created equal,” Thomas Jefferson wrote it at a time that he owned slaves and excluded women from the original document.
The problem with teaching children that “everyone is equal” is that they aren’t, experts say. While it’s comfortable to think that, “equality for all” misses the reality that equal isn’t “equal” for everyone. Children as young as 5 recognize fairness and when someone in their class is treated unfairly. Older kids can be introduced to the world history of laws that subjugated people based on their skin color or ethnicity.
“We need to think pretty clearly about what it means proactively that we don’t live in a world that is fair,” Lewis says. “If we’re committed to living in a world that all kids have an opportunity to thrive, we all have some work to do.”
Anti-Racism Teaches: Value each other’s differences
“It’s not just about ‘tolerating’ differences, it’s about valuing and appreciating differences,” Lewis says.
For more help on this topic, visit teachingtolerance.org, a website that helps adults guide kids toward understanding racism and anti-racism. Using age-appropriate language, the lesson plans explain for grades K-12 how differences help define who we are as people.
“Part of what (Teaching Tolerance is) asking is how do we help kids understand and appreciate not just differences, but questions of justice,” Lewis says. “Like how much power is attached to those differences. Not just, I have friends of every color, but how different we are individually, but also how our families’ and communities’ lives have been because of our history.”
Acceptance Teaches: Do as I say
Parents read board books to their kids about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and talk about the importance of the Civil Rights Movement to educate their children about race.
Then, they make non-verbal choices and gestures that have been, even unknowingly, racist.
“Whether it’s living in a mostly white neighborhood or having mostly white social networks, even the kind of subtle ways they lock their doors going through certain neighborhoods,” Lewis says, “there’s lots of superficial ways that parents deliver a message, and that kids learn.”
Anti-Racism Teaches: Do as I do
Ibram X. Kendi, in his book How to Be an Antiracist, explains that “not racist” is not the opposite of “racism,” but “anti-racism” is the opposite of racism. By that measure, anti-racists actively work toward justice and equality.
“Not just ‘what are you saying,’ but ‘what are you doing,’” Lewis says. “Kids are learning as much, if not more from what we’re doing than what we’re saying.”
How we are reacting and responding to Black Lives Matter protests, helping our kids understand the movement and teaching them about the history of their neighborhoods, cities and towns is a start to showing them how to be anti-racist.
Acceptance Teaches: I want to give my child a diverse culture in school
Often parents consider the idea of enrolling their child in a school with classmates of different backgrounds and cultures as anti-racist. In reality, it also leads to what Lewis calls “opportunity hoarding.”
“So for instance, white parents say they want their kids in a diverse school and have a diverse context,” she says, “they’re also very narrowly advocating for having their kids to have the advantage in those spaces.”
Anti-Racism Teaches: Advocate for all children in the school
Encourage your child – regardless of age – to talk about their day in school. Help them notice things that they see are wrong and right, even if it is happening to other students. This is also a great opportunity to teach your children about standing up to bullies who pick on their friends and classmates.
“I was talking to parents, they had already noticed that some kids in their class would get in trouble for doing things that other kids in their class wouldn’t get in trouble for,” Lewis says. “As parents I think sometimes in the past, people either are surprised and they feel uncomfortable, so it’s about asking questions, why do you think that’s happening, what do you think that’s about?”
Advocating for your kid’s classmates gives children an opportunity to see how adults work through problems together. It’s OK for them to see that sometimes adults get it wrong. It also models standing up for everyone.
“Even though it’s not happening to your kid, it is something happening to your kid in that your kid is learning something from that,” Lewis says.
Acceptance Teaches: Read from authors we know and trust
It’s easy to read books and follow ideology from sources we’ve seen on television or listen to podcasts that promote our own opinions.
Trustworthiness of bestselling authors is why we are comfortable believing in them.
“One thing is about reading, you see the same three books on the top of the N.Y. Times Bestseller list,” Lewis says.
Anti-Racism Teaches: Diversify your media diet to include more voices
Listen to podcasts from speakers you wouldn’t normally listen to and go beyond the typical book lists to seek out authors of diverse backgrounds. Visit with your local librarians to take a deeper dive into books and articles.
Even if you don’t agree with everything you’re reading, you’ve opened yourself and your family to another point of view. You’ve also taught your children to see both sides of an opinion, and they see you reading books – be it fiction or nonfiction – from a multitude of sources.
“There’s age-appropriate stuff for younger kids,” Lewis says. “Wade in is the first thing. Have courage, know that it’s going to be hard and you’re going to mess it up at least three times along the way and you’re going to have to circle back and say ‘I didn’t know about that.’”
Acceptance Teaches: Teach them as much as you know about racism
Think of the Black History Month stories your children are taught. Are they writing the same papers and reading the same books about King, Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman?
“We have to ask ourselves, why did I only learn about Rosa Parks and MLK?,” Lewis says. “Why didn’t I learn about the millions of people that were involved daily in resisting subjugation and what it meant, how it felt and people putting their lives on the line?”
Anti-Racism Teaches: Learn more, and keep learning more
A Ride to Remember by Amy Nathan and Sharon Langley is a children’s book that tells kids the story of a protest at an amusement park in Baltimore in 1963. With bright pictures of carousels and people singing, it is a first-person tale that allows parents to ask questions like “what did you think of that” and lets kids know that children were involved in the Civil Rights Movement, too.
Seek out to learn about more events in the Civil Rights Movement and in the history of the Black Lives Matter movement through age-appropriate books and stories.“Thinking about history differently is a lot more interesting and engaging thing,” Lewis says.
Acceptance Teaches: Come with good intentions
To mean well is to have good intentions. While we are learning about race and anti-racism, we will still say or do things that have good intentions, but poor outcomes.
Tyler read Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the story about someone who was different and is ostracized for his difference until that difference has a utility: to save Christmas. He says he read a lot of stories with that premise in his search for a book for his son. While the intent was to teach tolerance of others, instead it taught something else.
“I didn’t want to teach my child, and I don’t think any educator wants to teach their child, that the benefit to a group is predicated on their utility to that group,” Tyler says. “Because the ultimate manifestation of that is slavery. Slaves were never valued as human beings; they were only valued for what their work was worth.”
Anti-Racism Teaches: Know your impact
“What happens with white people is that they want to focus on their intentions and how good their intentions are,” says Lewis, who also co-authored the 2015 book Despite the Best Intentions: How Racial Inequality Thrives in Good Schools. “One of the first starting points needs to be: put your intentions aside, what are your impacts on the world?”
Learning the impact after the intention is vital to growth, as important as apologizing.
While the intent may not have been to hurt someone with words or actions while learning anti-racism, teach kids to apologize and promise to learn from their mistakes to do better.
Keep the conversation going
There are age-appropriate ways to continue teaching kids about racism. Our experts recommended these tips:
Talk to your local librarian for books you can read and for books you can read to your kids about anti-racism. With teens and tweens, read with them so that you can talk together.
Have discussions as a family about current events, what your children are learning and seeing at school and how it makes them feel.
Look for family-friendly protests, donate time or money to organizations that are promoting anti-racism and changing policies that are racist.
Learn your local history.
What do you know about the current and historical racial makeup of your town? If not much, seek out sources to learn with your children.
Shop diverse stores and locations.
While shopping local, find Black-owned stores and restaurants, attend culturally diverse fairs and festivals and go to diverse history museums.
Diversify your family’s media.
Read books about kids with diverse backgrounds and abilities. Read books and listen to podcasts from authors and personalities who are Black, Latinx, Asian or Aboriginal.
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This article also appeared in Chicago Parent’s August 2020 magazine.