I write today’s Post-Charlottesville column in response to parents who have been asking me how to talk about these horrific, shameful events with their children, particularly those who are Brown, Black or Multiracial.
To some of us parents, there’s a before and an after: Before the White nationalist rally of August 13, and post-Charlottesville, when the name of the town seemed to dominate every newscast in the country.
It is my way to be inclusive, to acknowledge multiple needs and viewpoints. But this column is not for those who sympathize with the alt-right, or for those who believe it is possible to be at once “a fine person” and to march alongside someone carrying a swastika. This column is for parents who are outraged by the marauding White supremacists, dismayed by the president who would give them a winking thumbs-up, incensed that they must break through what remains of their children’s innocence with an ice-cold dose of reality.
I am fortunate, in this post-Charlottesville moment, that my children are teens. In our family, there is no censoring of political talk or filtering of news reports. My children read the news on their own—sources they find online as well as those my husband and I recommend. Our kids enjoy debating and questioning, forming their own opinions and challenging one another. We read, listen to reports and discuss. They are developing their political vocabularies and learning to stand up against bigotry when it crosses their paths. Post-Charlottesville, our conversations have grown livelier to say the least.
My clients and the readers of this column, on the other hand, are wondering what to say to their younger children, whose heads are buzzing with complicated, post-Charlottesville words and phrases related to the event. Alt-right, confederacy, KKK, White supremacist, swastika to name a few. How to explain such deep hate to these innocents? Especially when the hate is directed squarely at their sweet selves?
Maybe these post-Charlottesville conversations start with an unexpected question at bedtime. Maybe your child has walked in on an adult discussion about the rally or the president’s response. In any case, here are some bullet point topics relevant to the current cultural moment and some kid-friendly ways to address them. Take my explanations as guidelines to be embellished for older children, simplified for younger ones. You know your child best.
Hate. In school and here in our home, you are taught not to hate anyone. But in this country, unfortunately, there are some people that do hate. They hate people who are different from themselves. I don’t fully understand why they hate, but I know it is because they don’t want to share the country with others. They hate having to share. They are afraid that sharing means they won’t get to keep the best opportunities—jobs, schools, houses—for themselves. Hate comes from fear.
Racism. This is a special, ugly kind of hate. Racism is the hatred of others because of the color of their skin and their ancestry. Anyone* can be racist against people of different backgrounds, but it’s most damaging when race is used to deny a group of people their equal rights, citizenship and safety. (*Please note: different people use different definitions of racism, bigotry, prejudice and discrimination. I won’t get into that here, a) because some of that is subjective and b) it is usually best to be as direct and brief as possible when beginning these discussions with kids.)
White supremacy. Together these words mean a very ugly type of racism. White supremacists want to believe that White people are better than every other race (and they don’t accept Jews as White, by the way). I say that they want to believe White people are better—but deep down, they know it isn’t true. Knowing that they are not better than other races makes White supremacists very afraid and very angry. They believe that this country should belong to White Christian people who were born here and no one else. They commemorate a period in history when White, Christian males were the only ones with full rights here. The White supremacists also know that they will never be able to go back to that time. This makes them so angry, they want to fight with everyone. I know you saw pictures in the paper of angry-faced White people carrying flags with symbols on them. Those symbols all represent the things we talked about before: hate, racism and White supremacy.
It is very important for you to know that most White people, including the White people you know, are not White supremacists.
The Confederacy. Maybe in school you have learned about the Civil War. It took place in 1861-1865. The country was divided into two sides: The Union army of the North and the Confederate army of the South. The Southern states were fighting for the right to maintain their way of life, which revolved around slavery. This was the system of holding people of African descent in captivity and forcing them to work without pay. Most families of African descent had been enslaved for many generations. The South was willing to secede—or become its own country—to keep slavery legal. The Northern territories believed the states should be united and that slavery should be illegal everywhere. The Confederate army lost the civil war to the Union army. When the war was over, the slaves were free.
Since the civil war, many laws have passed that took back rights from free Blacks and kept rights from other non-White people. But those laws were resisted and most have been changed. Now we live in a country where everyone is supposed to have equal rights, though there are some rights that still must be fought for.
There are still people who fly the flag of the Confederacy. Some people claim that flying the Confederate flag is simply a way to honor the history of the South. But there are many ways to do that—cooking Southern food, telling stories, going to heritage museums—without flying a flag that celebrates slavery. Many people of color and their allies are offended by the Confederate flag. When it is seen waving: it is says to many people, “We wish you were still enslaved.” Again, it is important for you to know that most White people do not feel this way.
Monuments. People build monuments to honor something or someone important from history. After the enslaved people were set free—emancipated—racism and White supremacy became worse in some ways because the racial order of the country was shaken up. White supremacists were even more afraid that freed Blacks might catch up to them and gain equality. People who believed in the Confederacy and the ways of the Old South built monuments to certain Confederate Generals. They wanted to honor these men for fighting to preserve slavery. But remember, these men were not heroes—they fought against the country we are today. On the other hand, there were Confederate generals who left the Confederate cause after the war and fought for equal rights for people of African descent.
There are no monuments created for those generals. Confederate monuments represent hate and racism and White supremacy, just as the Confederate flag does.
White Supremacists are Bullies
How do you usually handle bullies in school and on the playground? That depends. Sometimes, especially if the bully is older or bigger than you, and is threatening you physically, the best thing to do is get help from an adult. On the other hand, if the bully is using words to frighten and threaten, the best way to go is taking away the power of those words. The more the bully sees that his mean words are working—the more upset and frightened his victim becomes—the more powerful the bully feels. On the other hand, when the victim stands up to the bully, or better yet, refuses to let the insults hurt her, the bully shows his weakness.
White supremacists are bullies and President Donald Trump is like a bad teacher who cannot control the class. When that teacher is in charge, bullies never get in trouble. Bullies know they can do what they want and get away with it. Since the person in charge is not punishing them, the bullies think that the teacher either approves of them or doesn’t mind what they are doing. Then the bullies get meaner and louder. Donald Trump, as president should punish the White supremacists by condemning them with strong language. But he won’t do that because he knows they all voted for him. That’s why they are getting braver and noisier, just like bullies.
The best message we can give to White supremacists who hate, who are racist and wish this country would return to its Confederate roots is:
It’s too bad that you hate. It is too bad that you are afraid and weak. I hope you figure out how to change, because this country belongs to everyone and it’s never going back.
Sadly, our president won’t say this, or do anything but fan the fire. In the meantime, we can all teach our children to take the lead.
Please note that this is not a complete or perfect list of points. Here are two links for further exploration:
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