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Christian Living

Talking to Our Kids about Race and Ethnicity

I wish this were isolated. 

I really wish it were.

On Wednesday, an incident occurred on campus a mile from my house that’s being investigated as a hate crime against a Muslim woman:

At approximately 2:28 p.m. today, a San Diego State student was the victim of a strong arm robbery in Parking Lot #12. Comments made to the student indicate she was targeted because of her Muslim faith, including her wearing of a traditional garment and hijab. SDSU Police are investigating this robbery as a hate crime.

via San Diego State President Elliot Hirshman on Facebook

Again, I wish this were isolated. But things have popped up this week. And with every report things get more tense.

What’s My Responsibility as a Parent?

If you weren’t already uncomfortable enough let’s go ahead and get totally uncomfortable. As the parent of three children from the dominant culture in our society I am asking you, What is our responsibility as parents to talk to them about in regards to race? Because the reality is this… parents of minority cultures have to talk to their children about this from in details I’m not even aware of because these aren’t issues I face.

For example: (Watch this… please. Watch.)

It’s not just African-American families. If you watch the video above you’ll see other videos about raising kids of other ethnicities and races.

I can tell you this, as a white man my parents never had that conversation with me. Quite honestly, my parents had the opposite conversation because my parents knew the local police. “If you get pulled over tell them who your parents are.” Does it get any more privileged than that?

And, if I’m 100% honest, nothing has changed. Literally. Nothing. This is what privilege looks like. I can [and have several times in 2016] called the police because I know they are on my side. Even though I don’t live in Northern Indiana anymore I know several of the cops on the beat in my San Diego neighborhood by name and they know me.

As uncomfortable as I am in saying it I benefit from racial privilege every single day in ways that I’m both aware of and not aware of. My kids do, too.

So what’s my responsibility as a parent? It’s talking to your kids about race and privilege… acknowledging that it’s unfair… and helping them see how they can help level the playing field.

My Confession to You

In 2008, when we moved to San Diego, Kristen and I made the choice to move to Mid-City San Diego. When you move to a new area your friends will tell you where the white people live. Sure, they won’t say it like that, but they’ll say “the best school are in _____.” Or “Don’t move to ____ because there’s a lot of problems. Look for a house in _____ where it’s nice and quiet.” We all know those are codes for where the white people live, right?

Little did they know that we weren’t looking for racially homogenous, we were looking for diversity. One of the greatest assets I have as an adult is growing up in diverse schools filled with kids whose parents worked at Notre Dame. Not many kids growing up in Northern Indiana grew up going to school with kids from all over the world, but I did. As a missionary kid growing up in Indonesia, so did Kristen.

And we wanted to pass that along to our kids. So we picked Mid-City San Diego.

Our kids have grown up as minorities in the classroom. You could argue it was an exercise in privilege. Sure, they didn’t have to be there. Sure, we had choices. But nonetheless this was the reality we wanted them to grow up with. As our country’s landscape changes we wanted them to walk intuitively through it.

But here’s the confession: Even with all that desire from mom and dad, I never talked to my children about how to talk about race. Or, at least, I didn’t talk about it clearly enough or sternly enough.

And it came back to bite us in the butt. One of our kids got in trouble for using a racial description (not an inflammatory one) of a person in their class.

And while it wasn’t “our fault” in that mom/dad didn’t say it. We do own some of the responsibility because we’d not been explicit enough about the nuances of language and how to talk to/about people respectfully.

Setting Expectations for How Our Family Talks About Race/Ethnicity/Gender/Sexual Orientation

Now, please understand we’re not perfect parents who are pretending to have it all together. (Re-read the previous section!) Please understand we live in a context where our kids are often extreme minorities but still members of our society’s dominant culture. I’m not an expert on talking about these issues. Literally, I’m just a dad trying to figure it out and raise responsible, respectful kids.

We live in a community full of immigrants, legal and illegal. We live in a community full of refugees. Just 52% of my communities adults were eligible to vote on Tuesday. The park 500 feet from our house is a virtual United Nations on weekends as people and cultures from all over the world come to have parties, fiestas, play soccer, football, basketball, and Sunday morning cricket.

So here’s what we’re telling our kids for our context:

  • Whenever possible refer to someone by their actual name. If someone is in your class it’s your job to learn their name. If you don’t know, ask. Just like you don’t like being called “the white kid who sucks at soccer” the same is true for everyone else. Learn names and use them.
  • Never, ever, never ever begin describing a classmate you don’t know by their race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.
  • Instead, it’s more helpful to start by describing other things about them beyond race/color/ethnicity. “She always has a purple backpack, she sits on the other side of the room from me, she’s friends with ____. I don’t know her name though.” She’s not “the Muslim kid over there.” This is why learning names is so much better.
  • Whenever possible we’d prefer you referred to other nationalities, races, ethnicities, etc in a positive light. Celebrate, be curious about our differences, but don’t tear down. If you don’t like someone keep it to yourself. 
  • You may not join in joking or otherwise about race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation… this is SUPER DIFFICULT because it’s nuanced in that among friends people tend to be self-depricating about themselves, including these things. There’s so much in the world that is funny, let’s just not get caught up in joking around that could be misinterpreted. If your friends are doing it and you can’t speak up, walk away.
  •  You may not ever use a racial slur even if you are repeating what someone says of themselves. Specifically, the N word may never come out of your mouth. Ever.

What’s the Point, McLane?

I hope you hear me on this.

I’m not saying that what I’ve shared above is what you need to tell your kids tonight at dinner. What I am saying is that you and I, if we want to prevent the stuff I mentioned at the top, need to own our responsibility in it. As we’ve learned in our own home… if you don’t talk about it… your kids might not be part of the solution, they might actually be part of the problem. There’s nothing quite as embarrassing as trying to explain to a school administration that you didn’t talk about it.

When I see what happened at the middle school in Michigan or the parking lot of San Diego State I hope we all agree that there is a parental responsibility there which each of us owns part of. If we don’t teach our kids what is and isn’t OK, that could be our kid.

I know it’s uncomfortable. I know it requires some self-reflection. But it’s worth it. You need to do it. Please have this conversation with your children.

By Adam McLane

Kristen and Adam live in the San Diego neighborhood of Rolando with their three children.

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