Anyone who is not fluent in a language they are trying to speak has had the experience of trying to communicate and feeling like you’re building a house without the necessary tools. In Costa Rica, I once perplexed a guy at a fruit stand by calling a mango “una fruta como la naranja.” (The word for mango in Spanish is…mango.)
For white parents, talking about race with their kids can feel that way. We were raised to believe it was rude to talk about race, rude even to notice it; our parents shushed us, hands surreptitiously pinching our shoulders as they smiled apologetically when we noticed that someone’s skin or hair was different than ours. So while children of color grow up with a robust vocabulary around race from an early age, we are told that there are no words for it and any words we might find are inevitably bad. No wonder, then, that we often trip over our tongue when trying to speak of it now. We want mangos and we don’t know how to ask for them.
Books that frankly address race, then, can be as necessary to a white parent as to a child. As we read stories to our children, we are building a shared vocabulary for talking about racism and injustice. Recently I read two books that aim to do this, with mixed results.
Something Happened In Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice, by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazzard, is a picture book for ages 4-8. It tells a story of two classmates, Emma (white) and Josh (black), as their families navigate the emotions of a police shooting of an unarmed black man. The story introduces the topic in a way that children will recognize–as a story that was on TV and radio and which they heard older children talking about, provoking the questions they take to their parents. The parents express dismay, anger, grief, fear, and empathy as they talk honestly with their children about systemic racism in accessible, child-friendly language: Emma understands patterns of injustice by equating it to patterns on her blanket. The children are also encouraged to think about how they can create new patterns, which they do the following day when a new boy from the Middle East joins their class. The story is frank about addressing racism as more than interpersonal antipathy, and doesn’t shy away from the powerful emotions both children and adults have as they grapple with it.
The other book is Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness by Anastasia Higginbotham. It is also a picture book, ostensibly for ages 5-12. But it will be too abstract and confusing for the younger end of the age spectrum, and the older ones will do better to read any of the excellent YA novels dealing with this subject. This book has no plot; it is ostensibly about a police shooting as well, but our young white protagonist, who is nameless, seems to have no friends or family helping her to navigate her emotions. In place of plot and character, we have information about disparities in bank loans (valuable information, but probably more than a first-grader is ready for) and lines like “Skin color makes a difference in how the world sees you and in how you see the world.” The idea of being aware of how the world seeing you–W.E.B. DuBois’s double consciousness comes to mind–seems a bit abstract for young readers. Ditto for the line about how white people have “exploited the love and labor of Black women.” Maybe your 8-year-old understands the concept of exploitative love; I certainly did not at that age, and this book would have been quickly consigned to the pile of “books people think I ought to read the same way I ought to take medicine and make my bed.” The premise of the book–that racism is a white problem that white people should confront–is valuable, but its execution is heavy-handed and screams “I am a white adult who has read bell hooks and Ta-Nahesi Coates and I want you to know it.” It might be helpful for you as an adult, but your kids won’t be interested.
What the first author remembered, and the second seems to have forgotten, is that we are hard-wired to love stories. Even as children, we will shy away from something that feels didactic, but there is no limit to what can be taught through a good story. Housing discrimination is more real and pressing when we confront Walter Lee’s impotent rage (Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry). I know endless facts and figures about the civil rights movement, but it continues to be the stories–the image of the beloved community as a church supper on the ground, or Martin Luther King’s telling of his crisis moment at his kitchen table over a Bible and a cup of coffee –that capture me, as they did the first time I heard them.
Give your kids great stories. And be prepared with an ample vocabulary for the conversations that will come.