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talking to kids about Martin Luther King, Jr., race relations, and ethics

As with everything, I launched into it without much thought. "You see," I told the boys one night last week, "many people in this country used to think people who looked different than them -- with darker skin or different hair or different-shaped noses -- weren't as good as them. They even sometimes thought they weren't fully human, like animals or something! Isn't that awful?"

"That sounds pretty stupid to me," said Everett. He's the oldest, seven-and-a-half. Emboldened, I marched on, describing how people who needed to make decisions they weren't totally comfortable with -- like owning people, treating them horribly as slaves, making them do the worst work and endure terrible living conditions -- used this ethical trap to convince themselves it was o.k. "If they believed it, then they wouldn't think of themselves as so mean and awful," I said. "And it made them feel good, to think of themselves as better than these other people."

Lately, I've been referring to Hitler in a few different contexts, telling Everett the story of the man who put the heads on Pez (I had discovered he'd ended up working for the same Nazis who had sent his entire family to their deaths in concentration camps, after the war, and been stunned by this) and another story about the man who first put jigsaw puzzles on cardboard, making them available to the masses (his family, too, had needed escape from Nazis; we don't know if they made it).

It's context that I feel the kids need to understand why Martin Luther King, Jr's speech is so important -- why it is I still cry when I hear it, for the umpteenth time -- how our generous minds let us take cruel shortcuts, sometimes, without owning up to the cost. How we build up a whole infrastructure around this cruelty, laws and societal norms and unkind jokes, to protect our fragile consciences from the truth.

I see how this framework of thought can be applied to many other sorts of arguments; why, for instance, we as a society ignore the costs of our resource use because it's too hard to take apart what we've built. Why we screw up our eyes and say "thank goodness we don't live in California" when we see a recall of nearly a million pounds of ground beef; and continue to buy Value Packs from Safeway, sweeping the knowledge of the infrastructure that supports these enormous swaths of contamination from our conscious mind.

It's probably too heavy for Two-and-a-Half and Four-and-a-Half. But I generally don't buy the argument that we can be race-blind; it's certainly impossible to escape the influence of the great legion of our culture's injustices in even the most cursory literary or cultural experience, whether it's coloring pictures of MLK Jr. or looking at parents who wept as Barack Obama was inaugurated or talking about why some of our friends' parents can be married, while others can't, and others won't due to principle or reading Laura Ingalls Wilder and untangling the bits about Indians.

As usual, I'm jumping without a lot of contemplation and then over-thinking. But I'd be interested in your take on discussing these weighty issues with kids; and I'd recommend, even though it's targeted toward an MBA audience, Robert Hoyk's amazing book on the 45 ethical traps and why we fall into them. It's a text to which I continue to return to inform my thinking on the sorts of things I used to try not to think about.


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Thanks for the book rec., I'll have to look into that one.

I think one of the most important things is to keep these discussions going all year round, not just one day or month a year. I'm also struggling with age-appropriate conversations (for my 4.5 yr old) but find jumping off points all around me: we drive down MLK Jr. Blvd all the time (and my little one is fascinated with street names, so she asks about the origin of such things); we see homeless people on the street all the time; we have a blended extended family; we live in a semi-urban area and are confronted with our white privilege and socio-economic privilege all the time. (etc!)

One website I've enjoyed is:

I talked with a childhood friend about this over the holidays - and got her insights on raising a white child in a very white city (Portland) to have a diverse/open minded/considerate world view. My friend has a PhD and is a professor in African American studies - though she's actually white.

She said that the idea we should raise kids as "race blind" is false - that they notice the differences (and I can see it in my 22 month old - when she sees a black man she labels him with the same name as her indian uncle & black children are connected to a black boy in her class). And so ignoring it or glossing over it with "we're all the same" is doing them a disservice.

My friend suggested using simple explanations with kids as young as preschool... "yes, your uncle has darker skin because a LONG LONG time ago - even before your great grandma was born - his relatives came from a place that had more sun... so his skin is dark to help protect him from getting a sunburn".

So according to my friend, by talking about race vs ignoring it, Sarah's on the right track.

Great post.

I still remember when my son was young, maybe 2, and he was asking me at a brown man at the gas station. In a very loud voice. The man was Hispanic and I thought oh gosh, we have to have that talk now, here.

We talked about how everybody is different, people have different skin colors, etc. Then he started asking me something about a purple man walking by.

I realized that he wasn't talking about the color of their skin, but their shirts. The color of the men's skin was not an issue for him. He saw it, he knew it, but he also didn't care. It didn't define them.

I think that it is incredibly important to teach about differences, but just as important to focus on our similarities.

It's definitely a facet of white privilege to be able to hold off on having these conversations. If your kids and family are targets of discrimination, there's no luxury of waiting. I suspect you won't find many black families in Portland where the issue of racism isn't addressed before kids are even in kindergarten.

My 4 and 1/2 year old has certainly heard about issues around civil rights and racism. And my 7 year old and I had a conversation today that linked MLK, slavery, and Haiti. It's very difficult to have these conversations, I agree, but they are so important.

It's also important for white kids in white families is to understand how they have benefited from white privilege. It's not just a matter of teaching them that "people used to think it was okay to treat people differently because of the color of their skin," but specifically how it was and is darker skinned people and especially people of African descent who are discriminated against.

And I think it's even better to link these to current issues of injustice and social inequality. Jefferson High and the PPS transfer policy are excellent examples of local, institutional racism that that benefit primarily white kids in primarily wealthy neighborhoods.

It's also important to link these to current issues of gay civil rights. But it's essential not to magically wish away the issues MLK was talking about and dealing with, as if they are remnants of the past (and I'm not suggesting anyone here is saying that).

As well-intentioned white liberals, we need to own our own culpability and let our kids know we are still working to make the world a better place.

I’m white and grew up in Alabama, and I find that white people in Oregon like to pretend that racism is something that just happens in the South. It’s an easy out.

Oregon also has a past and present of white supremacist violence, segregation, redlining, and exclusion, and we do our kids a disservice to pretend it didn’t and doesn’t happen here. Having an age-appropriate discussion is challenging, but maybe one first step is to learn more about Oregon’s history (One resource is a book called A Peculiar Paradise: A History of Blacks in Oregon. It looks like most of it is available online http://gesswhoto.com/paradise-index.html . )
and help kids connect with their own backyard. Kids could visit the Golden West Hotel downtown that has new historical panels http://www.african-american-historical-district.com/About.html about that building’s role in the history/African American history of Portland or the max stop at the Expo Center that explains the connection of that place to Japanese internment.

You can learn about and support the on-going struggle for Civil Rights by checking out the Urban League's State of Black Oregon Report http://www.ulpdx.org/StateofBlackOregon.html.

I think it’s helpful to try to connect the struggle for Civil Rights to today. My daughter’s grandparents were alive during the Civil Rights movement. It’s not that distant, and our world is shaped by the movement’s victories and unfinished struggles. Talking about racism and white privilege is hard, but we owe it to our kids to try and to continue to work for rights for all people.

A retired Berkeley elementary teacher recommended a great book called "People" by Peter Spier to me. The book illustrates and celebrates how people from all over the world are different. It addresses religion. It also takes one page to address how some people hate other because they are different. It shows 40 some different languages in their written form. I love this book.
Yesterday, we revisited this book, then we read, "Martin's Big Words." This book talks about MLK, Jr., touches on Rosa Parks and recalls his struggle for civil rights by non-violent means. The book ends with the truth... that he was shot dead by a white man, with a gun, for wanting what America promised him. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all citizens. Equality and protection under the law.

I just won't pull punches on these issues. It seems gruesome and scary because it is and they need to know the truth. It cultivates compassion and reinforces who we are and how we view people for the "content of their character," just like he did.

I don't mean to make some big poetic statement, but I just think MLK, Jr. was otherworldly. He was amazing in all that he accomplished.

How many of us will willingly include a black family in our playgroups, for instance? when we do that, our children will know that we are equal, not just by reading about it from books.

My parents (not very educated actually) taught me this lesson.

I have. No problem. I can't imagine that being a problem for anyone in my family or group of friends.

I think this is way too adult for a 7 year old. It is challenging for adults, much less kids.

Show how to do it, don't bring in all the gory details, it is frightening and shocking to younger children....

FOcus on service, inclusivity, as part of your life, not as something you have to 'do'. Make it completely woven in, normal, everyday, like peanut butter and jam.

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