I wish I could say I was surprised by the events that transpired in Charlottesville, but sadly I’m not.
On Saturday, August 12, 2017, the Virginia town—home to the University of Virginia—became a headline and a hashtag virtually overnight. White nationalists, neo-Nazis and other white supremacists gathered in the town to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. What followed were violent clashes between protesters and counter-protesters, including a brutal car crash that left one person dead and 19 injured. First-person accounts, along with photos and videos, detailed the horrifying scene.
Beyond the violence, Charlottesville was filled with symbols of hate, from Nazi symbols to the Confederate flag. With each update, I was more disturbed and disheartened.
As a 35-year-old Black woman, I’ve lived through my fair share of racial strife in the United States. But it wasn’t until I became pregnant with my baby girl that I started to think about how I wanted to teach my future children about race in America.
Over the past few years, several events have prompted me to think about how I would talk about race and current events with my future children; most notably, the death of Philando Castile, which happened just 10 miles from the home I share with my husband and daughter.
As a mother, my first instinct is to protect my children, but I know that raising Black children in America means that I have to also prepare them for life in the real world, which includes discussions of race and racism.
I was raised in a pro-Black home, taught to love my history and heritage. Through my adulthood I’ve experienced racism (both overt and covert), but the lessons from my childhood continued to resonate with me. My husband and I plan to raise our 7-month-old the same way: to love her Blackness and take pride in it.
We also want to instill in her a respect for all people, and we plan to provide her with opportunities to interact with all types of people, diverse in color, culture and religion.
My baby girl is too young for a conversation about Charlottesville—but I can only imagine the types of questions I’d get if she were 7 years old instead of 7 months old. I have many older children in my tribe—a tribe made up of family, other children of color and also the children of allies—and I know at some point we’ll have to discuss the events in Charlottesville.
Here’s my game plan for how I’ll answer their questions and ease their fears:
Share a high-level and age-appropriate version of the truth
A 5-year-old isn't going to understand the history of racism in this country, but simply saying "some people don't like other people" isn't enough. We owe it to our children to tell them the truth, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us feel. There are people in the world who hate others because of their skin color, religion or nation of origin. It’s our duty as parents to prepare our children for the real world. Sharing the truth helps build trust with your child, as they’ll know they can come to you to answer the hard questions with honesty.
This conversation can be difficult if you yourself don’t feel prepared, but there are resources available, such as Raising Race Conscious Children, an organization that hosts workshops and provides strategies to parents for talking to young children about race. In this conversation, allow your child to ask questions. Your child’s questions can also be a great segue into learning about the history of civil rights in the United States, social justice or other topics.
Let them know they’re safe
Graphic photos of the violence at Charlottesville have dominated the news and social media these past few days, and your child may have seen them. Even overhearing conversations about the event could spark your children to question their safety, or the safety of their friends. Reassure them as much as you can that they are safe—remind them that it’s a parent’s job to protect them—and instruct them on what to do (such as find a police officer or other adult) if there’s an emergency or some type of violence.
Talk about what you can do together
If your family is able, use this as an opportunity to explore ways you can make an impact in your community. Marching in rallies isn’t for every family, and that’s OK. Check out community events or groups that will allow your child to interact with different types of people. Organizations such as the Points of Light’s HandsOn Network host volunteer opportunities for all ages in a variety of locations.
Head to your local library to check out books related to the civil rights movement or current events. For younger kids, read picture books about different cultures, like Let’s Talk About Race or Lailah’s Lunchbox: A Ramadan Story. For older kids, encourage them to check out young adult fiction or nonfiction to help broaden their learning.
The events at Charlottesville aren't isolated and the conversation shouldn't be either. Children learn by our example, so it’s incumbent on us parents to incorporate lessons about diversity as we teach our children. Books, movies, community events are all great ways to keep the topic current for your kids. Even a simple dinner out to an ethnic restaurant can be an opportunity to get your kids thinking and learning about other cultures.
Buzzfeed Parents produced an excellent video and companion piece that outlined why parents should talk to their kids about race, which is a great starting point for parents who have been apprehensive.
While this past weekend in Charlottesville was an ugly incident, it’s also a learning opportunity—not only for our children, but for us as well. We have the ability to shape them into the adults we want them to be and it starts with honest communication and dialogue.
Although I’m saddened and disappointed that such an event could take place in 2017, I’m encouraged that so many people have stepped forward to denounce and reject the messages of hate.
This is also a wake-up call for me to be more active in my community and more deliberate in the messages I give to my child and the other children in my tribe. We have an opportunity to shape the future into the type of place that’s welcoming to all. And that starts with what we share and teach our children now, especially after an event like Charlottesville.
I’m up for the challenge and I hope you are, too.