The books we read, the movies we watch, the friends we make, the doctors we visit and the conversations we have at home all shape our children’s views of race.
When kids on the gaming site Roblox were darkening the skin color of their avatars to support Black Lives Matter, 12-year-old Garvey Mortley decided to speak up. She created a video explaining the offensive history of blackface, and offered viewers more appropriate ways they could show support.
“Changing your skin tone to a darker skin color in Roblox or any game is essentially painting your face with shoe polish,” she explained in the video. “It’s like you’re putting on blackface.” A better way to show virtual support, she suggested, would be to dress the character in a Black Lives Matter T-shirt.
It was one child’s small step against racism, based on lessons she had learned at home. Her mother, Amber Coleman-Mortley, is the director of social engagement at iCivics, a nonprofit founded by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to improve civics education using games and digital resources. Ms. Coleman-Mortley has marched with her daughters and mother in the 2017 Women’s March in Washington and created podcasts with her children during quarantine. Even a conversation about a favorite singer (“Cardi B is the greatest ever!”) was an opportunity to talk about other greats, like the poet and civil rights activist Audre Lorde or Oprah.
“People are overwhelmed and think, ‘I can’t tackle that. I’m one person,’” said Ms. Coleman-Mortley, who writes about social justice on her blog, MomofAllCapes. “But there are spaces where we address racism in our lives — even if you live in a homogeneous community, you can address and attack racism.”
We’re all in the midst of a global civics lesson right now, and we don’t have to be marching in the streets to take small steps toward changing ourselves and raising socially conscious, anti-racist children, she said. Join your P.T.A., go to school board meetings, learn more about the curriculum. Demand accurate history lessons about race. Supplement your child’s education with books and documentaries, and don’t shy away from conversations about race.
“When a child says ‘that kid is Black or Asian,’ I think a lot of white parents shush their child,” said Ms. Coleman-Mortley. “You don’t want to shush your child. It creates a negative connotation in that child’s mind, and they think, ‘Wait, there’s something wrong with brown skin.’ Just say, ‘Great. Let’s meet this child. What else did you learn about them?’”
Ibram X. Kendi, author of the best-selling book “How to Be an Antiracist,” has compiled a reading list he calls a “step ladder to anti-racism.” It’s not enough to be “not racist,” he says, because it’s a claim “that signifies neutrality.“
“Those who are striving to be anti-racist realize it’s not an identity,” said Dr. Kendi, who is the founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University. “It’s something they’re striving to be, to be sure in each moment they are expressing anti-racist ideas and anti-racist policies.”
Dr. Kendi recently published a children’s book, “Antiracist Baby.” The book, written in rhyme, offers nine steps, including seeing skin color, celebrating differences and growing up to be an antiracist. “Parents use books to teach about love or kindness or to potty train. Why not do the same for teaching our kids to be anti-racist,” Dr. Kendi said. He notes that people who are uncomfortable talking about race often come from homes where it wasn’t a topic of conversation.
“Our parents didn’t want to talk to us about it in a controlled constructive environment,” he said. “We didn’t even learn to start having these conversations because we’d already been trained by our parents that this was something you don’t talk about. There’s a cycle.”
Conversations about race had a huge impact on Winona Guo, now an undergraduate at Harvard, and Priya Vulchi, who attends Princeton. They remember the subtle and not so subtle ways racism influenced their own views of themselves as children and made them feel inferior. Ms. Vulchi, who is Indian-American, was told to bleach her skin. Ms. Guo remembers calling for a play date with a classmate who responded, “I don’t play with Chinese girls.”
The first time they recall a conversation about race at their high school, in New Jersey, was in 10th grade history class, when a teacher initiated a talk about the death of Eric Garner in 2014. The conversation inspired them to take a gap year traveling to all 50 states to talk to people about race, which became a book, “Tell Me Who You Are: Sharing Our Stories of Race, Culture & Identity.” The duo also started a nonprofit called Choose, and the book, education guide and a workbook have been used by hundreds of educators around the country.