Change the World

How I Talk About Race With My Black Son

Look your child in the eye. Start by telling your child you love him or her, that you're proud of who he or she is. Say, as you have many times, that he or she is special and has so much potential.

Take a breath and look once more at your young, vulnerable, fragile child, one you're raising to be strong, confident and self-assured. But for all the work you've done to build this child up, you have to start tearing them down, to destroy a part of who they are. You have to convey doubt, fear, injustice. Slap your child hard with reality.

Tell your child that it is your role as a parent to keep him or her safe. To be safe, your child has to be obedient, to do what someone in authority says. Say to him or her: you have to be nice, you have to be over nice; you can't talk back, or be defensive; you can answer only when asked; and even though you may be nervous or anxious, even though you're young and inexperienced, you have to control your emotions and stay calm; it may be a stressful situation but you need to be mature beyond your years; you have to behave perfectly - in fact, better than perfect; this is all you can control in the situation, and still it might not be enough; that you're talking to a person who can change your life, for the worse; even – and especially – when you've done nothing wrong, you'll still be considered guilty; there's no second chance, no re-do or do over; you get the once chance. You, as a parent, don't want it to be his or her last chance.

You'll need to explain that there are people out there who will treat your child as unworthy, as second class, as less than, so your child needs to be careful. Remind your child that a different child may do the same thing and not get into trouble, or get a light talking to; your child however may face worse consequences. As much as you want to impart and wish that the world is equal, you know it's not true. You have to say that even fairness and justice are not truly blind; they are also affected by centuries of bias that might yet take more centuries to undo.

Say to your child, people will look at you - the colour of your skin, the shape of your nose and how curly your hair is - they're going to judge you: judge how you look, what you wear, how you behave. Tell your child: those people are not going to see your talents, your achievements so far, your goals. Those people are going to think less of you, not for who you are but who they are. And often there's nothing you can do about it.

As a parent, you've always talked about dreams and hopes, telling your child that he or she can do anything or be anything. But say now that that's not entirely true – there are limits, there are barriers. Your child won't in fact have equal opportunity, not without fighting harder and longer. Your child will have to do so much more to create his or her own opportunities.

While you've talked about tolerance, acceptance and a celebration of difference, point out that the world is not what you want it to be. It is unacceptable but at this point it is unavoidable. Talk about how some people loathe diversity, how they're – what? – ignorant, scared, threatened, angry? Bias, discrimination and hate are ugly, insidious and pervasive; sometimes they're explicit but sometimes they're hard to discern. But tell your child that he or she will encounter all of them. He or she will have to find an inner strength to push through and will have to decide how to address them, how personal and political he or she will be.

Repeat that the world is not what you want it to be. It is harsh and ugly and hard for a child to understand. It is hard most times for you to understand.

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