Talking with kids about race, continued: ‘I’m tired of hearing it’s not an appropriate conversation’

Jun 4, 2020

How do you talk to your children about race? That’s the topic of a two-part series this week from WBFO education reporter Kyle Mackie as protests against police brutality and racial injustice continue nationwide.

Listen to part one of this series from Wednesday here.

Talking about race with her kids, as it is for most parents of color, has always been non-negotiable for Dayatra Hassan. Hassan is a Black mother of three, a community activist and artist, and she lives just off of Main Street in Buffalo near the Kensington Expressway.

“I’ve been talking to my kids about injustice since they were born. A lot of times, what I’ve been hearing in the conversations that have been circulating around [over the past week] is as if, like, something new is happening now. It’s not anything new,” Hassan said. “This is a conversation that we have had over and over. It is only now that it really feels like it’s right at our door. I think the idea that it hasn’t been at our door was just an illusion.”

The civil rights movement didn’t fix racial inequality, Hassan said, and neither has having a Black U.S. president or a Black mayor in Buffalo. But looking back to history is helping Hassan process the events of the past week and talk them over with her children, two of whom are still in high school.

“In our heritage, in our African heritage, we have a word that we use called Sankofa. And Sankofa means that it’s okay to go back and retrieve from the past what we need and bring it forward to our present. And I think right now it’s time for us all to Sankofa and look at how we got here. It didn’t just happen this week. It didn’t just happen last year. It didn’t just happen in 2016. It happened in 1492.”

That’s the year Christopher Columbus landed in the “New World” and began a long history of enslaving and killing indigenous peoples, which was followed by the Atlantic slave trade, which in turn helped build America.

Katie Reeb of South Buffalo also wants her kids to understand the legacy of systemic racism in the U.S. Reeb is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University at Buffalo and a white mother of two biracial white and Latino biracial children, who are 3 and 7 years old. Reeb’s husband is an immigrant from Ecuador.

“This past fall I taught an undergrad sociology of education course,” Reeb said, a class in which “we talk about hard things,” including systemic racism and economic injustice. “I don’t want my kids to be the kids sitting in my class at 18, 19 years old who are just waking up to it [issues of racial injustice]. Well, first off, because of who they are, it’s not going to happen just based on how society is, but at the same time, if we give our kids little by little that understanding, it will accumulate into a broader understanding when they’re adults and have the power to do something.”

One tip, Reeb said, is to teach kids about racism like we teach them about bullying.

“They know to stand up to bullying, so we can effectively teach them how to stand up to racism and be anti-racist. They already have that foundation when you talk about what bullying is. We just don’t want them to, you know, my husband is very much non-violent and he doesn’t want them to fight with—they can get angry but not get violent, and that’s what we’re trying to teach them.”

And as a parent who’s continually forced to talk about racism with her 7-year-old because of the discrimination he often witnesses against his father, Reeb said she’s tired of hearing the argument that it’s not an appropriate conversation to have with children.

“Kids can quote-unquote ‘handle it,’” Reeb said. “I’m not saying expose them to everything out there, but little by little, on their level, you can absolutely tell them that racism is wrong and point out racism and what that is.”

Of course, conversations about race need to take place in households that are just white, too. Dr. Wendy Mistretta, who is white and president of the District Parent Coordinating Council (DPCC), one of the Buffalo Public Schools’ parent groups, laughed in response to a question about whether she’s ever talked with her kids about white supremacy. “Oh, absolutely.”

Mistretta’s two children attend high school at City Honors School, one of Buffalo’s two tested high schools. City Honors has also been the subject of repeated parent complaints to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights for not accepting enough Black and Hispanic/Latino students. Mistretta said her kids know that she’s been part of the fight to change that.

“None of this stuff is new in discussions in our home,” she said. So, asked what advice she would give to other white parents who aren’t as practiced at talking about race, she suggested focusing on the topic of white privilege.

“When you say that [white privilege], some people immediately assume they know what it means when they really don’t,” Mistretta said. “As long as you understand that someone’s being discriminated against based on the color of their skin, then you have to understand that someone is getting a benefit from that.”