How to talk to small children about racism

Brittany “Bree” Newsome removes the Confederate flag from a pole at the Statehouse in Columbia, South Carolina, June 27, 2015.
Brittany “Bree” Newsome removes the Confederate flag from a pole at the Statehouse in Columbia, South Carolina, June 27, 2015.
Image: Reuters/Adam Anderson
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Recently, our family ate dinner with another family, and their kid had seen a video of Bree Newsome taking down the confederate flag. Prior to that, I had written a satire post for adults about the Confederate flag, but I wasn’t sure at first how to explain the anti-flag activism to my daughter.

For some time, I have been working with a group of parents in California’s Bay Area to create Black Lives Matter activism activities for children ages 0 to 8. I have been adamant that our work must be developmentally appropriate. I believe they need to be given information about racism in a way that builds on concepts they already understand.

Our country’s history of anti-black racism and current police violence is terrifying—even to adults. The brutality of these histories and current realities should be handled gently with children. Part of racism in the US for black children has meant that our children don’t get to have a childhood. From early on, we learn that our lot is to be targets of brutality. This is early training in being terrorized.

I want to do a slow and gradual job of explaining the brutality of racism to my daughter. And let’s be clear, this is only a recent privilege. Up until the latter half of the 20th century, the Jim Crow system of racial segregation impacted the earliest socialization of black children. They had to learn early about the threat of racist violence, lest they unwittingly show any behavior that could lead to them or their families being targeted: Eyes down. Yes sir. Yes ma’am. Use the colored water fountain. Go to the back of the bus. These are outdated prescriptions for black survival, yet killings of unarmed young people by white police and vigilantes continue to impact black childhood.

So far, I have the privilege of explaining to my daughter the system of US racism in the abstract, as opposed to explaining the system as it has hurt or killed someone she loves. In this context, I have decided to use very controlled and specific narratives that don’t emphasize skin color and that downplay violence.

I choose to focus on skin color in other contexts, such as celebrating diversity of color, hair texture, facial features, and body differences. However, when looking at racial inequality, I choose not to focus on skin color because young children are very literal. For example, if I explain that people with black skin were held in forced servitude or are being targeted by police, black children run the risk of being confused that their skin was the cause of the enslavement or the violence, not racism.

My focus is on providing an initial lesson about the inequality in language they can understand. When she’s older and has a clear grasp on the dynamics of mistreatment and exploitation, I can explain that skin color was the pretext for the mistreatment, not the reason for the mistreatment.

When talking about racial inequality, I also choose to downplay and use general language about violence. I take this approach because I am trying to raise a leader. I don’t want her to be so terrified by graphic information about racism in her early childhood that she develops the idea that she is powerless to change it. I am constructing a narrative of explanation that emphasizes people’s power to transform injustice. And I believe we do have the power to make change. Which is why I am attempting to raise a leader. Bree Newsome is a great example of bold leadership.

So here’s the story I wrote. I picked pirates as a way to explain slavery, because most US children have been exposed to the idea of pirates as people who go around taking things that don’t belong to them and taking people prisoner. And because, in many ways, slavery begins as a pirate story.

A long time ago there was a mean group of pirates. This is a regular pirate flag.

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And they took some people prisoner on their ships and sailed far away. And they made them work all the time, and didn’t let them play. And didn’t pay them any money. And they wouldn’t let them leave. And they were mean.

So the people they were mean to said, “This isn’t fair. We’re gonna get out of this.” And they fought back and a bunch of them escaped and other people helped them. And they had a big war about it.

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Image: AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

This was the flag that the pirates used in the war. The pirates lost the war. And the people they had been mean to got the right to be paid for their work and leave if they wanted to.

But the mean pirates were mad. They didn’t want to do their own work. So they remembered the pirate times as good times, because they had other people doing all their work for them.

But the people who did all the work, and didn’t get paid, and had pirates being mean to them remembered those times as bad times.

Years later, some of the kids and grandkids and great grandkids of the pirates were in charge of some things, and they were still flying the pirate flag as if the pirates were still in charge.

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Image: AP Photo/John Bazemore

And the kids and grandkids and great grandkids of the people the pirates had been mean to, and their friends all said, “That’s a flag from bad pirate times, and the pirates lost the war and you don’t get to fly it anymore. Take it down!”

But the people on the side of the pirates said, “No, we’ll fly our pirate flag if we want to because it’s our heritage.” And the other people said, “That flag reminds us of meanness and our ancestors being treated bad.”

But the people on the pirate side wouldn’t take it down. And they put it on a high high flagpole and they put a lock on it.

And people were mad and they shouted about it, and wrote articles and sang angry songs and spoke poems, but the flag stayed up.

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Image: AP Photo/John Bazemore

So a brave woman named Bree Newsome and some of her friends said, “That’s enough, pirates!” And she got her climbing gear, and her tools and she wore her helmet. And her friends helped her. And she was so strong and so brave.

So, she climbed to the top of the pole and cut down the flag. And the people cheered. But when she climbed down, the people on the pirate side were so mad. And they had some people who work for them take her prisoner.

But most people thought she was a hero. And people all over began noticing pirate flags and making people take them down. And the people got Bree Newsome out of jail, and she went around telling everyone why she did it.

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Image: Reuters/Adam Anderson

She said: ”As you are admiring my courage in that moment, please remember that this is not, never has been and never should be just about one woman…This is a multi-leader movement. I believe that. I stand by that. I am because we are. I am one of many.”

“I did it,” she explained, “because I am free.”