by Mia McKenzie
For the past three years, ever since Trayvon Martin was murdered for walking while black and reports of unarmed black people being killed by cops and wanna-be cops have surged, leading to the Black Lives Matter movement and push-back from black communities all over the country, I’ve wondered how, and if, we’re ever going to beat anti-black racism. I don’t even mean eliminate it. I just mean…get a leg-up. Because sometimes it seems as if we’re getting nowhere, and getting there really fast.
In the wake of the South Carolina church shootings, when South Carolina governor Nikki Haley said, “Parents are having to explain to their kids how they can go to church and feel safe,” I wondered what those parents have been teaching their kids about anti-black racism all this time.
More importantly, what is everyone (who actually cares) teaching their kids about anti-black racism?
“Don’t say the N-word, Bobby!”
“Be nice to people no matter what the color of their skin is, Malik!”
“The Ku Klux Klan is bad, Madison! Don’t ever put on a hood and burn a cross on someone’s lawn! Okay, nap time!”
Is this the gist of it? God, I hope not. Jokes aside, I suspect that it’s not much more nuanced than this. And it really needs to be.
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As informed, non-presidential black people have been saying forever, and as one presidential black person, President Obama, recently said, too: anti-black racism isn’t just saying the N-word.
It’s not just being in a hate group, either. Or being mean to people because of the color of their skin. It’s way more complicated than that.
As someone who is working on baby-making with my partner, and is already auntie to the cutest nephew ever, I’ve tried to imagine what, exactly, I’ll tell my kids about racism, and especially anti-black racism, that will make them less likely to internalize it when they encounter it, which, as black children, they absolutely will. There are a few things I’ve identified as especially important for them to understand as soon as they’re able to, and I think these are good things for everyone (who actually cares) to teach their kids about anti-black racism.
1. There’s nothing “wrong” with black people, Jenny.
One of the ways white supremacy operates is that it convinces us that all of the struggles black people face are a result of inferiority and shortcomings, rather than the fact that there is a system of racial oppression working every day that denies us access to equal opportunity and full acknowledgement of our humanity.
Children need to understand that anti-black racism in this country is an intricate system of oppression built on a foundation of hundreds of years of enslavement, followed by segregation, housing discrimination, economic suppression, police brutality, unfair sentencing, mass incarceration and many other practices. All of these have worked against black people and our ability to survive and thrive and we have fought, and are still fighting, an uphill battle against systemic oppression, even in 2015.
We should teach children to recognize when the media and individuals are pathologizing black people—when they’re making our struggles about some inherent defect in us, rather than the intricate system of oppression that works against us—rather than calling out that system.
If kids can understand from a young age that there are forces at work here, very real forces that impact people’s lives in very real ways (I see a fun Star Wars analogy in there that could be hella effective) then they’ll be able to identify who and what the enemy is and not fall into the trap of blaming oppressed people—including themselves—for their own oppression.
2. Don’t trust the mainstream media, Mateo.
We all grow up watching, reading, listening to, and being influenced by the mainstream media. Without a basic understanding of the ways the MSM works to uphold systemic racism, kids are ill-equipped to avoid its trappings.
We should all teach kids that the U.S. media isn’t fair and unbiased, but rather that it’s made up mostly of people who benefit from white supremacy and anti-blackness, and who hold white supremacist and anti-black biases themselves.
Teach your kids to constantly question the media’s narratives, especially about black people, including what stories the media tells and doesn’t tell, what images they show and don’t show, and the ways that black people and other people of color are made less than human by the media, while white people, even mass murderers, are allowed full humanity. Point out to them the differences in headlines and language used to describe people of color vs. white people and make sure they understand the motives behind them.
3. Being “colorblind” is not the answer, Tiffany.
The “I’m colorblind” or “I don’t see color” or “I don’t see you as black, just as a person” approach is one of the major ways that racism actually gets perpetuated. The fact is that everyone sees race, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The problem occurs when we make assumptions about people of color based on race, when racialized people are stereotyped and denied access based on race.
Most of the black people I know, most of the people of color I know, don’t want their race, culture and heritage ignored or erased. They also don’t want their experiences of racialized oppression ignored or erased. They simply don’t want to be treated as less human because of their race.
Also, if you have to pretend my blackness isn’t there in order to see my full humanity, you might be racist (j/k you’re definitely racist).
We have to teach kids of color that being surrounded by “colorblind” people is no kind of goal to have, and teach white kids that “not seeing race” isn’t possible, isn’t necessary, and, in fact, perpetuates racism.
4. There is no such thing as reverse-racism, Tyrone.
“Reverse-racism” is a made-up concept that just won’t die. Kids, including many, many kids of color, think “reverse-racism” is a real thing and that fact makes me want to take Jesus by the shoulders and shake him.
Okay, that’s not fair. This isn’t Jesus’ fault.
But seriously, we need to teach kids early on that ‘reverse-racism’—also known as ‘racism against white people’—isn’t a thing. The best way to start is by helping them understand what racism actually is: a system of oppression that denies people access to employment, education, housing, food, medical care, safety from police brutality, fairness in sentencing, media representation, and a host of other things, based on race.
Once they get that, explain to them that white people aren’t denied access to any of those things based solely on their race, and that’s why racism against white people doesn’t and can’t exist. See how simple that is?
Help them understand that if a person of color calls a white person a mean name (cracker, mayo, etc.), that isn’t racism. Unlike whites using the N-word, which is connected to centuries of brutality and denial of access and opportunity for black people, words like cracker and mayo have no such power. While it might hurt a white person’s feelings and make them sad, it has never in any way affected their ability to access all of the things I listed above, so it will never be racism. Hurt feelings aren’t oppression.
Think of it like this, little Dustin:
Ashley is a black girl and she has five pieces of candy (the candies represent access and acknowledgement of full humanity). Every time a white person calls her the N-word, she feels sad AND a piece of her candy gets taken away. Pretty soon, she has no candies.
Bobby is a white boy and he has five pieces of candy. Every time a black person calls him a cracker, he feels sad but none of his candy gets taken away. Pretty soon, he still has all of the candies.
These are only four things, and of course there are many other things, but this is a great start for a kid, and one that gets at some of the more insidious ways that anti-black racism operates. It’s not enough to teach kids that all colors of skin are beautiful, or to make sure they don’t use racial slurs against others, or even to buy them storybooks with diverse faces. Systems of oppression like anti-black racism are always working, both overtly and covertly, and in order to give kids tools they need to fight it, we have to go deeper with them.
The next generation of black lives depends on our kids having better tools and better ways to understand racism than we have had.
Mia McKenzie is an award-winning writer, a speaker, and the creator of Black Girl Dangerous. Bring her to your college or community event.
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