Education & Family

Teach Your Children Well

A mother of four struggles with how best to talk to her children about racism.
Illustration by Abelle Hayford

If I’m being honest, I have a certain level of anxiety in writing this essay. Putting to paper all of my shortcomings when it comes to combating systemic racism opens me up to criticism. Admitting my outrage without action is just hot air. Just believing Black Lives Matter as some abstract thought isn’t enough. I keep seeing the same message: If you’ve ever wondered what you’d do during slavery, the Holocaust, or the civil-rights movement, you’re doing it now. In my mind, I’m getting arrested at a “sit-in.” In reality, I’m at home with my four children doing my best to home-school and get through a pandemic. Am I not as brave and progressive as I thought?

My kids—Milo, 13, Willa, 11, and Zeke and Gideon, 9—spent their first years of life in Baltimore City. They attended a public charter school that pulled students from every zip code, and our classrooms were filled with students of many different races and economic backgrounds. A few years ago, when we moved just over the line into the county, our kids enrolled at a school that we love, but where we, as Jews, represent one of the few examples of diversity.

We—my husband, Ron, and I—try to teach our kids daily about what’s right and wrong. We talk about the news, never hiding the hard stories. We vote—in person when we can and always dragging our kids along, so they grow up knowing that this is what we do in a democracy. We repeat, over and over, that everyone is loved and welcome and equal in our eyes.

We march, as we did in that first big Women’s March in Washington, D.C., after the last election (and the subsequent smaller ones in Baltimore). We’ve also marched against gun violence and for abortion rights and now we stand in the streets for Black lives. I go for many reasons, but mostly to breathe in—if only metaphorically now through my mask—the air of like-minded people. And make sure that my own voice is heard.

But are we just surface activists? After the BLM march in Roland Park, I posted a picture of my daughter holding her “RACISM IS A PANDEMIC” sign on social media and wrote: “I worry about posting the wrong thing and offending someone. To post #blackouttuesday or not. To attend a mostly white protest in support of racial justice or not. But then I thought, if I do nothing else but show my daughter that we don’t sit idly by when we see our fellow humankind hurting, that’s enough.”

But let’s be honest. That’s not enough.

It’s time for the tough conversations and self-reflection.

It’s time for the tough conversations and self-reflection. My kids are my opportunity to do better.

I think about reaching out to my friend, Tanika White Davis, a Black mom who has twin boys a year older than mine and an 8-year old daughter, but then I see she has posted her newest Sun parenting column, “No Sage Words for This Moment in History.”

“It is all just too much,” she writes. “And I am exhausted from feeling all of it, all at once.” How do I put my burden on her after reading this? “I know I should have more to say,” her column continues. “But I am no sage. I am just a mother of three Black children, trying to protect them. You’ll forgive me then if I spend what’s left of my energy doing just that.”

I want to say to her: “Help me help you.” But that just feels like extra work for her. (Though she later scolds me: “You know you can always reach out to me.”)

Instead, I reach out to Traci Wright, dean of students at The Park School of Baltimore in Brooklandville. We talk about race and privilege and kids. Wright leads the school’s formative Civil Rights trip, now in its 16th year, that takes students and faculty from Park, Baltimore City College High School, and City Neighbors High School on a tour of the South. From Atlanta to Birmingham to Montgomery to Little Rock to Selma, they visit sites and meet people who were instrumental during the 1960s movement for racial equality.

“They learn the importance of speaking up and being involved,” says Wright. One of the local stops is the Hampton National Historic Site in Towson, a vast 18th-century estate that still has its original stone slave quarters, which she suggests I visit with my kids for a guided tour. “They do a phenomenal job of helping kids understand the system of slavery,” says Wright. “No one is born a slave.”

Wright is full of wisdom and suggestions and kindness toward my jumble of questions. She forwards me a piece on NPR’s the Hidden Brain about how it’s more important to change the way that a community thinks about race and racial bias than it is to focus on one individual person. She tells me to read “75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice” on Medium and says she even learned things from that article that she, as a Black woman, should be doing.

I tell her about the “inclusive parents versus anti-racist parents” post from Curious Parenting, a caregiver online community, that I keep seeing shared by friends. In one example, an inclusive parent makes sure their child’s library is racially diverse. An anti-racist parent intentionally includes books that go beyond slavery and the civil rights movement to include reads on ballerina Misty Copeland or NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson or poet Maya Angelou. I realize that I fall into the former category.

Wright emphasizes that it’s important for students—hers at Park and mine at their Baltimore County public schools—to feel empowered. “It’s up to the adults to create a culturally relevant curriculum,” she says. And what is culturally relevant? Well, if you live in Baltimore, says Wright, “just open your eyes” and look around. That includes teaching about both current events and history in a real and truthful way.

In addition to Wright, I speak with Mark Riding, a high-school English teacher at the all-girls Maryvale Preparatory School in Lutherville, where he is the only Black faculty member.

“I’m not an expert, but I am a passionate educator,” he tells me. There have been only a handful of Black teachers in the school’s 70-year history. “The students are overwhelmingly white,” says Riding, the father of two teenagers. “I’ve done a lot of thinking, even more since the upheaval happened: How can I bring a fresh perspective to a community that is sorely lacking that [Black] perspective?” Despite some pushback over the years, Riding has always made it a priority to amplify the histories and lessons of the marginalized, from feminism to the Black voice.

This spring, he saved for last the Harlem Renaissance—the artistic explosion of Black culture in New York in the 1920s—and ended up having to teach it virtually. But he and his students still got in deep about why there needed to be a renaissance in the first place. And they also talked about the intersection of race and gender. “No matter what racial or ethnic background, you are marginalized for being a woman,” Riding told them.

Where do I go from here? I don’t write this to feel better about myself.

The final assignment was to write a poem exploring their own differences. Riding was surprised and impressed to see topics ranging from religion to sexuality to racial disparities. “Everyone has knots in their ropes,” he says. But recognizing that helps you “understand other people’s knots.” That’s a difficult concept even for adults, he says.

Riding told me, “I wanted to expose these girls to the dark, scary, disgusting history” of the Black struggle. But also, what came out of the struggle: music, poetry, stories, and the civil rights movement.

Wright says she’s been energized to see “the far corners of the state” reacting to this moment, as well. There are BLM marches in Harford County and on the Eastern Shore.

“People are seeing these issues as their own,” she says. “They’re becoming everyone’s issues. When people are marginalized, we are all marginalized.” Kids see that—sometimes more than parents—and are responding.

I tell Wright I have great expectations for my kids, as Jews, a group that has faced its own marginalization and decimation. Our house is filled with books about the Holocaust, we’ve visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., we’ve listened to survivor stories, and we feel it deeply and personally when a synagogue is under attack or a group of white supremacists are called “very fine people.”

Wright understands the connection I’m trying to make. “You have experienced other-ing and genocide,” she says. “The Holocaust happened not even on our soil.” But there is an outrage surrounding violence against Jews that isn’t always extended to Blacks, she notes. Wright recommends finding books on coalitions between Blacks and Jews to make this even more relatable to my children. “What is the history here in terms of people coming together?” she poses. “Baltimore is a segregated city. We live in our own pockets. We don’t really socialize. How can we bring people together?”

I’ve been thinking about that a lot. It came up in a conversation on Father’s Day. We (me, my husband, my own mom and dad) were sitting around the table discussing the BLM movement. My mother is 71 years old and, still, this movement has awakened her in new ways. As a first step of what she hopes will be many more steps, she just became a member of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. “Wouldn’t you want every person to walk through Jewish museums to better understand our plight and resilience and culture?” I say to my mom. “I would guess the same is true for that museum.” We’ll go together as soon as we can, I tell her.

Prior to this moment, and this movement, I’m not sure we would have had this conversation. And that’s what I have witnessed more and more—the conversations. “Can this happen in schools?” I ask Wright. “Public schools are more racially and socio-economically diverse,” she says. (And while that might not be true for our elementary school, it certainly is at Dumbarton Middle School, which my oldest attends.) “Public school is real life,” she says.

It’s the place where you are together with people who look different from you. It should be the best place for listening and sharing and growing.

Wright acknowledges that the conversations about institutional racism are not easy for anyone to begin. But it’s our jobs as parents to foster relationships, she says, whether it’s making sure we are on sports teams that are diverse or forming a book or movie club with families that create a safe space for honest questions and discussions.

“Initially, it will likely feel forced,” says Wright. “But we have to work harder to combat the systems of oppression. It’s okay if it makes you feel nervous or uncomfortable because the more we talk about it, the more it becomes second nature. It’s retraining our brains to see what we’ve been missing all along.”

In the days that follow, I spend a long time scrolling through posts on the Anti-Racist/Social Justice Parenting Discussion Group on Facebook that I joined during the heat of the protests. There are virtual events (the Reginald F. Lewis Museum’s African American Children’s Book Fair), town halls (“How to Raise and Teach Anti-Racist Kids,” hosted by author Kwame Alexander), and fundraising ideas. I can’t do it all, but I can start somewhere. I sign up for Zoom calls about raising socially conscious children, and I order Jason Reynolds’s and Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped: Racism, Antiracisim and You and Veronica Chambers’s Resist: 35 Profiles of Ordinary People Who Rose Up Against Tyranny and Injustice.

Where do I go from here? I do not write this to feel better about myself, or to say that Googling or reading or even protesting makes me a social-justice warrior mom. But I do understand that there is a time to talk and a time to listen. A time to teach and a time to be taught. My kids are watching me and all my actions. We, as a family, need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. We need to hold ourselves accountable.

I promise that we will.