BY SHAWNA GAMACHE (Estimated reading time: 6 minutes)
Like a lot of white people raised in the 80s and 90s, I grew up learning racism was bad. Racists were evil and would make themselves known through the blatantly terrible things they said and did. My job as a good white person would be to speak up when this happened. Besides that, I was pretty much off the hook.
But like a lot of white parents, I know we need to do better if we want things to change. I want my children to know about the racist systems designed to keep certain people down — and give others a leg up. I want them to be able to see white supremacy everywhere it exists, including in themselves and the people they love.
I want them to understand that this system was created by white people for the benefit of white people — so it is our job as white people to tear it down.
I wasn’t sure where to start distilling more than 400 years of white violence and oppression for someone still in diapers. So I started where it was easiest: over-representation of whiteness.
- Showing my toddler that the sticker book she wanted featured dozens of fairies — and barely a variation in skin tone. “That’s not our world, is it?”
- Bringing her with me to the front of the toy store to tell the owner why we wouldn’t be buying that book.
- Stocking our shelves with books, dolls and toys created by Black, Indigenous and other people of color (BIPOC), representing the beautiful diversity — and varied experiences — of our world.
- Seeking out libraries and parks where my young daughters could play with people of more diverse skin tones and backgrounds. Our block ran a lot more white, and that segregation — and my participation in it — was something I had to own openly.
We repeated some version of this lesson thousands of times as my girls grew:
- Do you notice that the Black baby doll is smaller in the catalog?
- Do you see how the white family is centered on the page of the book?
- How many non-white characters are in this movie? How are they represented? Wouldn’t you like to hear more of their story?
Before long, my daughters were noticing things I hadn’t, and pointing them out to me and others. Beloved childhood movies were particularly vulnerable.
A funny thing happened in making these observations daily to my young children — I noticed much more myself. White supremacy was everywhere, in every book they read, every song and movie they consumed. It was also in every book I read, and every song and movie I consumed.
It was like a fog lifted, and I saw everything for the first time in all its glaring ugliness. Not just the school-to-prison pipeline and the justice system and red-lining and Jim Crow and voter suppression, but ME. Well-intentioned little me.
Time and time again, I made choices in my own life that affirmed the white supremacy inside me. Where I lived. What I studied. What I enjoyed. How entitled I was to all of it, and how rarely I stuck my neck out for those who weren’t.
There were universes of experiences out there that I hadn’t even tried to learn about. I benefitted from an implicit assumption of my ability and goodness — and I had never questioned it. That was on me.
It was when I told my daughters about my own complicity in the system and what I gained from it — the ability to buy a house without getting shady loans, for example — that our conversations started catching fire.
Even though I longed to shelter my preschoolers from the history of slavery and police brutality, we talked about them — though without going into detail on violence at first. We talked about who built this country, and who benefitted from all of that free labor. We talked about the many institutions in place designed to maintain that social order, especially prisons and policing. Why Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color aren’t safe in this country — and white people are.
Being together all day during the pandemic as the Black Lives Matter protests picked up steam this spring, I knew it was time to tell my youngest daughter what happened to George Floyd and Breonna Taylor — and countless others. My older daughters and I had talked about this before, but I worried the conversation would be too much for my then five-year-old. She nodded gravely. She had understood all along what we were talking about.
Besides, at the end of our conversation, she was still safe — just sad. Why had I shielded them at all? They weren’t the ones in danger.
It was only a matter of time before my daughters started calling me out. “Mama, if we care so much about BLM, why aren’t we marching?” They were right. The hand-lettered sign in our front window was still a testament to our comfort, while more vulnerable people were risking their safety to protest. So we did it. We were scared, but we did it in the middle of the pandemic. And we will do it again.
My daughters and I talk openly about how bad this all feels. I want them to see how messy and uncomfortable this growth has been for me, so that they can lean into those feelings rather than push them away. I want them to know their guilt doesn’t help anyone and it doesn’t absolve them from action.
They will never be the hero of this story, but they can help.
This journey has been harder than I expected. I mess up all the time. I don’t say enough. I rest while others do the work. I still want to hide from the truth.
I spent a long time putting my comfort over other people’s safety, and it’s tempting to default to that. When entitlement rises up within me, I still let it fester before fighting it down, looking for someone or something else to blame.
I know I will drop the ball again. And when I do, my kids will call me on it. Then, together, we will do better.
Your kids aren’t too young…
…to talk about race
PEPS has assembled a mega list of anti-Racist resources for parents and caregivers to get you started, including a list of 30 books on ‘interrupting whiteness’ suggested by local librarians, a clickable bookshelf of books about race, and 100 conversation starters from Race Conscious. It’s a great place to get started — and it’s never too early.
…to read about race
Check out Ashia Ray’s Books for Littles, the ALA’s Coretta Scott King Book award winners, Book Riot’s starter list of children’s books and Middle Grade books by Black authors, Embrace Race’s Diverse BookFinder and list of 20 recommended picture books. Buy or borrow books through Seattle’s own Estelita’s Library, a justice-focused community bookstore and library.
…to learn about the slave trade and police brutality
Nikole Hannah-Jones’ Pulitzer-prize winning 1619 Project includes photos, essays and articles about the slave trade and its ongoing impact, and her companion lesson plans can help guide discussions with your kids. Families of Color Seattle has assembled a resource list for families to help talk about Racism, Police Violence, and Black Lives Matter.
Shawna Gamache is donating her compensation for this article to Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County.