Talking to kids about race and justice

When Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida in 2012, Joanna Colwell’s daughter was 11 years old. Just old enough, Colwell recalled, to walk by herself to the store in East Middlebury for a Snapple.
“It was not in my consciousness that she could be the victim of violence,” Colwell said. “And that is what it is for Black parents.”
Seventeen-year-old Trayvon had been walking back from a convenience store when he was shot and killed by George Zimmerman.
“I was very in my bubble,” Colwell acknowledged. “But, as a mom, that murder just got to me and activated me.”
Since then, Colwell, who runs the Middlebury chapter of the organization Showing Up for Racial Justice, has been doing what she can to “dismantle the internalized ideas about white supremacy.” During the past two weekends SURJ organized vigils for Black lives that drew hundreds of people to downtown Middlebury in response to the murder of George Floyd.
MiniBury, a sister publication of the Addison Independent, spoke to Colwell hoping she might offer some advice for white parents who want to talk to their kids about race, injustice and police brutality.
“What I’ve come to see is that racism is a white-people problem,” she said. “We’re the ones who are perpetuating it.”
So what can white parents do?
“Start with board books of Blackness,” said Colwell. “Looking at your book shelf, pull out the books and see how many are all white protagonists and do something about that.”
And don’t just pick books and shows that are explicitly about injustice; look for stories featuring people of color that have nothing to do with racism. (“Doc McStuffins,” for example.)
“[White] kids should not only be exposed to Black people when they learn about slavery,” said Colwell. “That’s a travesty.”
Still, it’s never too early to talk to your kids about injustice. You don’t have to give a 3-year-old the explicit details of how George Floyd was murdered. But you can explain that “everyone deserves to be safe,” Colwell said, suggesting the following language: “Sometimes people get treated really unfairly. Some people have darker skin because they have more melanin in their skin. In this country, people have been treated really unfairly for a long time, and we’re trying to change that. It’s all of our responsibility to do that.”
It’s likely your kids have heard about George Floyd already. “Kids do pick up all this stuff,” said Colwell. “If we don’t talk about it we’re basically modeling that it’s acceptable. We want to model that this is completely unacceptable. We don’t tolerate this. Imagine if Trayvon Martin had been a white kid, imagine what would have happened to the man who assaulted him and took his life. There’s no question he would be behind bars.”
Most importantly, Colwell emphasized: Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. “We’re totally going to screw up doing anti-racism work,” she said. “People will let you know. And there’s only one response: Thank you for correcting me. I’m sorry. I’m going to do better. I’m going to learn more.”
Colwell shared a link to anti-racism resources including articles, podcasts and other materials.
For additional anti-racism resources for families check out the MiniBury page where this story first appeared.

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