Braden: For parents, anti-racism work starts early

It had been a busy day, full of stressors pulling me in different directions, and I was looking forward to picking up my 5-year-old from his preschool. When I got there,

though, one of his teachers pulled me aside. "He's having a hard time with one of the other boys," she said. "I think it's because of the boy's skin color." My internal scream was loud and long. My son was a racist? The boy she was referring to was the only black boy in the preschool. How could this have happened? What had I done wrong? What could I possibly do to fix this?

My mind was spinning as I helped buckle my son into his car seat. I needed to talk about it with him, but I couldn't figure out how to do it without driving an even bigger wedge between him and the other boy. But I had to do something before we got home — the car is the only place I had a captive audience. Impulsively, I turned into the empty farmer's market parking lot.

"What are you doing?" he asked. I stopped the car and turned around in my seat. "There's something really important we need to talk about," I said. And then I proceeded to describe the history of slavery from the beginning when Europeans were looking for a way to make money until today when black people still aren't treated fairly because they are less likely to get interviewed for jobs, less likely to be able to rent an apartment for a fair price, etc. And how throughout all of it black people have been pushing back, working to be treated fairly. And how there have always been at least a few white people who have stood alongside black people and said, "This isn't right." And we want to be like those people.

Now, I am a white parent, trying a parent a white child. If my child had been a color other than white, chances are we would have been forced to have difficult conversations about race earlier than age 5. Although we hear some white parents say that the issue is too heavy to bring up with a child so young, parents of children of color don't have the privilege of choosing when to address racism. To stand together, we all need to choose to engage.

One of the articles his pre-school teacher gave me talked about the importance of having a diverse group of friends since young children gravitate toward what's familiar (and often view everything else with skepticism), but if you don't already have that it can be hard to diversify a white-dominated friend group quickly enough for children in the newborn-to-5 age range.

Still, anti-racism work can happen on multiple fronts. For example, I've filled our house with picture books with characters that aren't white, such as "The Quickest Kid

in Clarksville," "New Shoes," "Drum Dream Girl," and "Blue Sky, White Stars." It doesn't fix the problem, of course. My younger daughter who is now 4 will often point to the character who looks most like her (the white one), and say, "I like her." But at least this gives us the opening we need to examine those ever-present internal biases. "Why do you think you like her instead of her?" "Do you think it's because she looks more like you?" I point to another picture, one of a black girl. "Look at this girl in the yellow dress. Maybe you have the same favorite color."

It's not a perfect approach. We are all finding our way with this. But it's important that we talk openly about what we're doing and how it's working. Parenting for Social Justice is a great local group that focuses on this work, hosting chats and pulling together books lists of good titles that are available at the public library, among other things.

We will all make mistakes, and it will be messy.

After overhearing our discussion about the recent killing of a black man at a traffic stop, my 4-year-old pointed to the next black man she saw and asked (too loudly) if he had been shot. That set off yet another of my internal screams. But if we have the privilege of choosing whether to engage or turn away, it's up to us to engage — even when it's messy — and make sure our children are by our side for the struggle. Because little by little, progress can be made.

During that year of my son's preschool, something changed in his relationship with the other boy. The next year when the two of them were in the same class for kindergarten, every single morning they walked into school together, holding hands.

Ann Braden can be contacted at


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