Personal Reflection by Jacob Reft, Principal at St. Ann School.
As a husband and father of four young children I have a distinct responsibility in the education and upbringing of my kids. As a child, one of the most important and lasting impressions my parents made on my siblings and I was our family’s discussions about race and racism. In recent days I’ve seen headlines and think-pieces centered on the awkward or uncomfortable dynamics of today’s white parents discussing race and racism with their children after they themselves grew up in a household that was likely silent or limited in its teaching and talking about such topics. “Treat everyone the same” or “We don’t see race” or “We’re ‘colorblind’” are common one-liners that end discussions before they can really start. A few simple lines, well intentioned as they may be, are no match for the daily education we all receive from the carefully crafted news cycles, stereotypical and limited representation, and other cultural tropes that form our individual and collective views on race.
Black families in America are often very deliberate in talking about these same topics. These discussions happen frequently and quite necessarily in an effort to teach children about those stereotypes and prejudices, systems and mindsets that have so much potential to harm them in real measurable ways as they grow up. These aren’t the sorts of conversations that black families want to have but they’re so often acknowledged as necessary that ‘The Talk’ is a term widely accepted as an unfortunate but important part of the black experience, especially for black boys and young black men.
So where’s the white community’s version of ‘The Talk’? Who is coaching white children about the dynamics and nuance of race relations and the dismal history that has plagued our nation? Who is pointing out the systemic and individual privilege that white children are likely to enjoy without even realizing it and illustrating the inherent and unfair challenges that their black peers are likely to encounter? It should be parents, first and foremost. I’d like to believe my siblings and I experienced a pretty good blueprint for what ‘The Talk’ might look like for white children.
My parents began talking to us about race and racism very early and very often. Identifying racism and injustice were not uncommon dinner table conversation topics in the Reft household. They taught us to recognize patterns and stereotypes in the media. They called out bigotry among people we encountered and made sure we understood their disapproval. They pointed out misleading communications in the news about race. They were specific about the individual and systemic challenges black people faced that we didn’t. They defined and used real concrete terms and equipped us with the vocabulary to continue those discussions on our own. When white flight coaxed neighbors away, my parents received the news with “good riddance” as opposed to worrying about what kind of family might move in next. Our version of ‘The Talk’ wasn’t a one time rite of passage but a daily and weekly education from the people we trusted most. As we grew up we learned to perceive the world through a lens of cultural competence and awareness. We were far from ‘colorblind’ and we were more compassionate and empathetic humans as a result.
This is the experience and education my wife and I aim to give our children. Empathy is the characteristic I most hope to instill in my kids. Silence is not an option. A one time lecture is not enough. Our kids will be learning from someone and developing their own worldview on race whether we contribute to it or not and we can’t afford for the loudest or most frequent teachings to be those based in racism or ignorance. Speak to your children. Speak loudly. Speak confidently.