by Malaika Parker
Dear Fellow Black Parents:
With the beautiful Uprisings of 2020 there is a newfound awareness of something most Black folks have always been aware of: White Supremacy exists (welcome to the party, y’all are real late). There has been a collective awakening to the fact that in order to make changes we all must be in conversation about our respective roles in perpetuating anti-blackness and what we must all do to dismantle it. For me this is a moment of deep contrast, of beauty and incredible hypocrisy. While the non-black world is scrambling to figure out how to unpack their own anti-blackness, they are not checking on us, Black parents raising Black children. Now is a moment when Black parents could use as much support as possible; concrete strategies to help ease the incredible burden of unpacking anti-blackness to our beautiful Black babies, strategies on how to hold that space for them. Instead, yet again, Black folks are left holding the bag. There is an assumption that we know how to explain these things because we have lived it. More resources, more information, and fewer assumptions are of the utmost importance right now. We Black parents who have lived with the realities of state-sanctioned violence and race-based vigilantism continue to be terrified of what the future might hold for us and our families.
I have spoken to many Black families who are doing their best (and their best is pretty amazing) at holding up the sky for their kiddos, but spend time wondering if they are doing it “right.” Just like other families, we wonder if we said the right thing, gave the right advice, held the right balance of exposure and pride, resistance and survival. To assume that Black parents “get it” plays into the trope that we are some type of racial oracles who know all the things all the time. While I am not here for people telling Black folks how to parent better or different, I am here for research and strategies on how we have conversations that engage with the history of how we got here. I am here for real examples of how Black families and other folks are talking to their babies at different stages. I am here for conversations that match developmental stages with what it means to be Black in an anti-Black country AND what it means to be connected, joyful and proud. So in the spirit of creating the world I want to see, I am humbly offering this writing as a path to opening up that conversation. Part One will lay out some suggestions that apply to all ages; Part Two will focus on talking with younger children; and Part Three on how the journey continues for tweens, teens and adults.
Part One: Talking with Children of All Ages
Children are remarkable beings. With our support, they teach themselves some truly amazing things in their first years of life. They learn to walk, talk, eat and so much more. Studies have shown that at this pivotal development step babies are also building their understanding of race and assigning meaning to it. By six months of age, babies are noticing racial differences; by age two or three, children have begun to show signs of racial bias. They are learning from us in every way. They learn from our words, our actions and our silence.
As an adult-centered society, we often underestimate children. We undermine their brilliance and underestimate just how insightful they are. Child development theories identify early childhood as a crucial stage for developing core strategies for navigating the world as well-rounded, emotionally intelligent adults. To make it successfully, children require guidance from their grownups on everything from how to cross the street safely to how to look at the world through an anti-oppression lens. Black children also rely on their grownups to teach them strategies for how to survive and thrive in a toxic anti-black culture. As Black families, we know there is no option other than to talk to our children. We know that our children’s ability to make it to adulthood is dependent on their ability to read the world, to understand the spaces they occupy, to know that the very presence of their beautiful Black skin can be seen as a threat and used as a weapon.
When we introduce the realities of the world to our children we are establishing a foundation of trust, signaling to them that we are in their corner and that they have a safe place to land when the world is rough. Talking early to children about White Supremacy creates a context into which they can scaffold their experiences as they grow. These conversations do not inoculate our children from the impact of living in a society that puts a target on their backs, but they do give our children reference points so they can externalize (rather than internalize) experiences of oppression they will most definitely have.
Talking to young children about state-sanctioned murder and abuse, systems of oppression, and deep-seeded anti-blackness is not anyone’s idea of ideal conversations to have with young children. We can and should acknowledge that it is unfair that we have to talk to our children about these heinous systems that threaten their very future and rob them of the ability to enjoy an innocent, carefree childhood. AND there are ways that we can structure conversations that boost up pride, build connection, and help them to see themselves as powerful, proud members of a collective society that will fight like hell to protect them.
Given how hard this is, here are some tips on talking about these painful subjects:
- Create a safe place for your child to ask questions and explore their understandings about the world. You do not have to be perfect, you just have to listen and be present. Enlist the help of community members, educators, and allies to help identify strategies that will work for you and can easily be integrated into your parenting/communication style.
- Don’t wait until you have the right words to say, the perfect moment, or until you think your child is ready. There is no perfect time, there are no perfect words to talk to children about the injustices of this world. It will always be hard.
- Don’t let yourself be paralyzed by worry about sharing too much. As caregivers of Black babies, we must understand that the world will bring it to them. Of course we want to protect our children’s sense of childhood and wonder. As former Black babies ourselves, we know there is no space within the context of this country where these experiences don’t exist; we experienced it and sadly our children will too. Remember, we can both prepare them for the world and provide them with the space to freedom dream.
- Talk to your children early and often. By doing so you offer them an opportunity to place the blame for White Supremacy completely outside of themselves. They have an opportunity to understand it is not something that reflects on them but rather reflects on a society that is ill and in need of urgent repair.
- Take care of yourself. These topics are hard. Do not underestimate the toll that is taken by navigating the complex trauma you experience when talking to your children about oppression. Take time to cry, breathe, and experience the loss, disappointment and fear that are present when sitting in spaces that require you to come face-to-face with possibly harm happening to you or your children as a result of White Supremacy.
As I write this, I have the awesome privilege to be parenting four beautiful Black children, currently ages 14, nine, eight, and five. I know firsthand that as children move through different stages of development, they have different needs and require different parenting strategies. I want to share with you some of the wisdom I’ve gained from reflecting on my own upbringing, my parenting experiences, and from being in community with so many brilliant Black caregivers.
All ages, starting at birth:
We can hold the complexity of Black life by teaching our children about their beauty, their history, their worth, at the same time that we are talking about what is happening in the world around them–with kid-appropriate language, not graphic details. Use current events to start conversations, and let your children know that in your house you talk about hard things. Share stories of resistance; introduce them to the world through stories of people who fought against oppression. Sing songs that pay homage to Blackness; surround your children with images of Black brilliance. At every single age and stage, fill your child’s life with books, music, art, media, and experiences that reinforce their beauty and power and the splendor of their people.
If screen time is a must, prioritize media that centers positive Black characters. Use your child’s favorite sources of media and music as entry points to conversations. Use toys to emphasize the beauty in blackness and brownness. Conversations about color preferences present an opportunity to highlight the beauty in rich colors in all of the places they exist: landscapes, foods, clothing, art. Recognize for yourself that colorism is present everywhere and an antidote is to highlight the beauty of brown and black hues all around us.
Part Two: Talking with Younger Children
In Part One, we started exploring what it looks like to have developmentally-appropriate conversations with our children about what it means to be Black in an anti-Black country AND what it means to be connected, joyful and proud. What does this look like when we’re talking with babies, toddlers, preschoolers, and elementary schoolchildren?
Birth to age 2:
At this stage, children are learning at an incredibly rapid pace. They are beginning to notice differences and similarities among people. As they begin noticing the existence of emotions and adult responses to them, communicate clearly and repeatedly that emotions are important and necessary. Children (and eventually adults) need to know they have space to feel and process all of the big things they will confront.
At the pre-school stage, children are building on the idea of sameness and difference and beginning to apply their new ideas and understandings to everything, including friends and family. At this age children are inherently inquisitive, curious beings, trying to understand the world they are navigating. They are self-focused and begin to internalize difficult situations. Preschoolers are very concrete thinkers. They will develop their own meanings when there isn’t one offered. For example, “If this person doesn’t like me, I must be bad.”
At this stage, having conversations about fairness, equity and justice are important. It’s time to talk with your children about the idea of White Supremacy: Saying things like “Some people believe that they are better than others just because of the color of their skin, but not us and not our friends and family.” My friends at Abundant Beginnings Forest Freedom School talk about the idea of a “white supremacy fairy” (In their use of the term, fairies are not good or bad). The white supremacy fairy whispers things to people and makes them think that it’s okay to treat people badly because of the color of their skin, but we have power and we can tell the fairy to go away. We can tell the fairy that we know everyone is beautiful and deserving of their humanity. This description is helpful for children in maintaining their sense of safety, which is vital at this age, and their formation of an understanding of White Supremacy as a system and not a person. Everyone can choose to listen or not listen to the whispers.
Reinforce, unabashedly, that Black is beautiful. Help children see our collective power to create change. Lean into conversations about how our difference as Black people is sometimes seen as a bad thing by people who make big choices in our society, but we know that is not true. We are all different from one another and that it is beautiful and necessary.
Provide opportunities for your child (and you) to be immersed in community where they see the beauty and brilliance of their blackness reflected. Family is important, but what are other spaces where they see themselves? Be intentional about growing community that will help reflect back the value of Black beauty, joy and resistance, spaces where your child can hear values of racial and social justice are reflected. As children age they will look beyond their family to make meaning of their values and solidify their world views.
Create opportunities to experience liberation. Blackness is not just about oppression, it is about the joy that we manifest through movement, song, righteous struggles, connection to land, community, food. Where are spaces that your child will experience this? Talk about the legacy of resistance that is present throughout the entirety of the African Diaspora, not just within genetic lineage.
Elementary schoolers see themselves in terms of what they can do, and begin to compare themselves to their peers. They do not like to be different, unless that difference is along the lines of “I can read better than anyone in my class” or “I can run faster than most of my friends.” At this age, teasing among peers often becomes a factor. In a society formed under the construct of White Supremacy, whiteness is always the default norm when it comes to standards of beauty, language, clothing, heritage, food. Look for opportunities to create a norm of pro-Blackness. Interrogate what is being offered in school assignments. If there are challenges, talk with your child about it so that they can begin to build their muscle for navigating injustices. Share with your child ways that you navigated challenges in the past and what you are doing to take care of yourself currently. Children at this age are using their developing conceptual skills to figure out how and why injustices happen. Children at this age are very focused on fairness and have a deep need for things to be equal. This is a good stage to introduce, in a deeper way, concepts of social justice and equity (everyone getting what they need, not everyone getting the same).
It is important for Black children to understand that while there is a particular target on them, they are not the only ones who are experiencing oppression and that this creates opportunities for allyship and for integrated responses to injustice. Talk about systems of oppression that impact most people who are not White, cis-gendered male, heterosexual, wealthy individuals, while generating more wealth and power for the privileged few. (If this feels like more than you can take on, read books together, listen to podcasts, show up for other oppressed people.) It is important for your children to know, see, hear, feel that people are actively resisting oppression.
A mother/grandmother who I recently met talks to her children about having a wetsuit and an umbrella. Their wetsuit keeps them warm and feeling secure no matter what: this is our cultural pride, our connection to the diaspora, our connection to family and friends, our ability to dream a full and free future. Their umbrella is information/strategies for navigating difficult interactions and confronting oppressions in the world and how they impact us. We give our children an umbrella when we give them strategies for protecting themselves from what they fall on their shoulders.
Part Three: Talking with Older Children and Young Adults
Now let’s turn our attention to the deep, rewarding, frustrating and important conversations we need to have with tweens, teens, and adult children.
The job of a “tween” is to figure out who he/she/they are in the world. Tweens develop a new ability to think independently about themselves and the world and develop their own opinions, some of which may be challenging to us as parents. Our most difficult task at this age can be helping our tweens feel safe and connected while they explore their emerging individual identity. Conversations about personal safety, dependent interactions with systems and people, and how to respond are vital. Putting emphasis on personal and collective power, histories and future visioning are really important for tweens, even though they may be resistant. Finding peer spaces that lift them up and help them to hold a balance of self-love and social literacy are crucial as they exert increased independence.
When there are opportunities for them to attend protests, take them. Take them to solidarity actions when other communities are targeted, encourage them to see the intersections between oppression of their communities and of others. Within my community of families it is common practice for young people to participate and often plan protests or opportunities for resistance. It is vital at this stage for young people to see their power and the power around them. Oppression is vast and wide. It can feel unsurmountable. We want to ensure that our children understand the depth of it but also have deep connection with their own agency. Have them identify spaces/places moments that bring them joy. Remind them that Black joy is also part of our lineage.
Encourage them to think of creative solutions, to imagine in specific ways what is possible without the context of oppression, to envision their own freedom, what a world without x would look like. Children at this age can look for policies and practices that they can impact. A friend of mine worked with her children to organize community soup-making and then distribute soup to unhoused communities on a monthly basis. My children and I started a seed and learning exchange project that connects Black families to ancestral farming practices of the African diaspora.
We want our children to understand the possibilities that can propel them not just the oppressions that restrict them. In his book Freedom Dreams, Robin D.G. Kelley describes how his mother encouraged freedom dreaming for her children:
“She simply wanted us to live through our third eyes, to see life as possibility. She wanted us to imagine a world free of patriarchy, a world where gender and sexual relations could be reconstructed. She wanted us to see the poetic and prophetic in the richness of our daily lives. She wanted us to visualize a more expansive, fluid, ‘cosmopolitan’ definition of blackness, to teach us that we are not merely inheritors of a culture but its makers.”
It is important to help children at this age use their developing conceptual skills to figure out how and where White supremacy happens. Without a variety of places to talk and explore these themes, they will develop meanings of their own that often involve internalizing anti-blackness. Talk directly to them about things that are happening in the world. Do not wait for them to hear from their friends, see it on the news, or on social media. Assume that they will find out and talk, talk, talk. Encourage them to use their creativity to imagine different outcomes for a scenario. What would this police interaction have looked like if there were no police? How could the community have handled this? What do you think about how the candidates for president are talking about, what do you think they should be saying/doing?
Even though tweens may like to act like they are ignoring you, you still have a big influence on them. Model for them enjoying music and media that highlight Black excellence; reading books about experiences of the diaspora; creating space for yourself to experience the range of emotions that are present when experiencing the complex trauma that is created by White Supremacy.
As they enter the teen years, we are helping our child become adults. For me, it is exhilarating and terrifying to imagine my child as an adult managing the world. As children enter high school, the reality that they are mere seconds from adulthood comes crashing in for those us who have lived in denial. The beauty of this time is that they are thinking deeply about friends, about school, about relationships, and much of the theoretical, rhetorical concepts that were presented to them in earlier ages are now becoming realities. I have learned that it is not my job to preach at this stage, but to offer perspective occasionally and reintroduce ideas we’ve talked about before that might be useful now (I am a work-in- progress!).
One of the most important things that we parents can do during this time is lend a non-judgmental ear. Give them space to come to discussions in ways that are organic to them. Spend time talking to them about dynamics that might be happening at school, in social media, on television, in music. Listen/watch with them to encourage conversations, let them take the lead on unpacking what they are seeing, hearing, and feeling. Work to ensure they feel safe talking to you about things that come up. Talk to them about situations in your own life, and ask them what strategies they think you should have used.
Encourage books, experiences, media that brings up topics at a deeper level but that also feel accessible/interesting to them. Sometimes these just have to be required reading/listening/experiencing. It is okay for us to give them space to be “grown” AND it is okay/important for us to take these learning moments as seriously as homework or chores.
We can also create opportunities for exposure to real-life opportunities to engage in work, community and resistance. If your children do not already have independent relationships with people outside the family with whom they can discuss issues of oppression, or who they see as a resource, help them make those connections.
Reinforce the importance of safety. While “the talk” should have happened before entering school, this is a good time to talk through real-life scenarios they may encounter while on their own in the world, since we all know that our precious young ones will be perceived as threatening adults in our racist society. Talk to them about handling interactions with police, make sure they know who and how to call if something should happen. Reinforce boundaries around navigating spaces safely, and being able to read the anti-black reactions of others.
Remember that cognitive science tell us that our young adults have underdeveloped executive functioning skills, which leads to compromised judgment. Role-playing scenarios with them can help their responses in scary situations become embodied. Role-play with them ways that anti-blackness may show up and strategies for how to engage, including on social media.
18 and beyond, the adult years:
Continue to be there for your children. As adults we need people that we can turn to so that we can unpack how anti-blackness is showing up in our everyday lives. As a 44-year-old woman, I routinely call on my mother to unpack the things that are unfolding in my life. Her response is always, “Oh sweetie, I am so sorry you have experienced that,” either followed by offers to help me problem-solve or similar experiences that she has encountered in her life. These conversations with my mother always end with a reminder that our people have been through a lot and that we are strong, creative and connected.
There are not enough words to convey how important these conversations with my mother have been for me. She is my original role model of how to raise children to cherish their blackness and always fight against oppression. I hope and pray that I can provide the same ongoing, lifelong support to my own children, and that you can too.
Malaika Parker is a Black parent of four children, two who joined her family via same-race adoption and two born to her. Malaika served as the founding director of Pact’s Adoptive Parents of Color Collaborative and now serves on Pact’s Board of Directors.