George Floyd’s death in May set in motion protests so large and powerful — even international in scope — that the sound of marching, charging feet has at least temporarily drowned out our anxiety about a deadly global pandemic.
History teaches us that history rarely happens in tidy and convenient ways. So it is no surprise perhaps, in the year 2020 A.D., that a new plague to humanity has been eclipsed by a very, very old one.
What a unique moment in history we are living in. And what an inescapably shameful one. Yet it’s not a moment devoid of hope or opportunity. Especially if you have young minds to shape.
Someday soon we may have a vaccine for this new plague, though we will never have a vaccine or quick fix for the old one. Because of it, parents are confronted with the same challenge. Change, true change, meaningful change, into a world where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of people being judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character, will take more than a hashtag, or a T-shirt or a bumper sticker. It will take work.
It will also take patience. And even more so, tenacity. King often paraphrased 19th century minister Theodore Parker when he would remind his audiences: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” He knew people had to think about the goal, not the news of the day. Parents do too.
As many parents try to navigate this time, struggling to find just the right words and deeds to shape their children into moral and fair-minded adults, take heart there are resources available, experts to listen to and families whose example we can all follow.
Leading by Example
Andi Matsumoto is originally from a surf town on the Gold Coast of Australia, so Huntington Beach, nicknamed Surf City U.S.A., might not feel so far away. And it’s here, in her American home, she’s built her American life. Her husband, Kerry, is Japanese-American and her two adopted sons, Jacob, 9, and Zachary, 5, are African-American. She’s white.
The issues of race and tolerance and diversity certainly surround them from outside the walls of their home, but inside, they are a family.
They are newspaper readers and generally keep TV news out of the house, but Floyd’s death and the following protests were impossible to avoid. And too important to leave alone.
“We talked about George Floyd,” Matsumoto says. “And that there have been other people in the past that were not treated fairly due to the color of their skin. As a mother, I’m conscious of the difficulty of raising black boys in America. It’s a balance of wanting to protect and empower them, but also explaining the dangers they might face, simply because of their appearance and the prejudices people hold.”
An understanding of those dangers also partly comes from experience. Members of Kerry’s family were interned during World War II, even while others fought the Nazis in the U.S. Army 442nd Infantry Regiment, one of the most decorated combat units in U.S. military history.
“My father-in-law joined the army after being interned at Santa Anita as a boy during WWII, and that’s a story we’ve shared so they understand the importance of loyalty and commitment,” Matsumoto says. “We took our sons to the Manzanar National Historic Site a couple years ago to share the internment story and to understand it’s part of our collective family background. The last time we drove through the same area, our son asked me to stop there again as he wanted to understand and learn more about that experience and to share it with one of his classmates.
“It certainly makes us realize how fragile public and media views on a specific population or race can change within the U.S. whether it be war, COVID-19, or specific other incidents.”
Though adopting was easy, Matsumoto says, because she and Kerry made it clear they had no child preference at all, it has nevertheless provided them with an education far greater than they already knew.
“It has certainly given me more pause to think about race and the implications of stereotypes. I’m less tolerant of any kind of racial comment,” she says.
“Often, people say things that are perhaps well-intentioned, but still hold racist tone or content. My 5-year-old has been consistently at the 98th percentile in height and weight. I am ready to slap the next person who tells me he will be a football player when he grows up,” Matsumoto says. “My usual response is ‘or an engineer,’ and my husband comments that ‘yes, golf is a great sport.’ Assuming a black kid will be good at sport is a positive stereotype, but it’s harmful to connect his race to his ability. Another comment that irks me is when parents say, ‘We don’t see color in our family. We are colorblind.’ That is like saying racism doesn’t exist and you are downplaying unequal treatment. It’s healthier to talk openly about race and not sweep it under the carpet.”
The first time the Matsumotos brought up the subject to Jacob, it began from a simple question.
“When my son was in preschool he asked me why people are different colors. Kids notice differences from an early age and ask questions without judgment, out of curiosity. We read different books and I also explained differences by pointing out our dogs — we have a black dog, a white dog and a brown dog. They are different colors but they are all still dogs and that’s kind of like people.”
As their sons have grown, the conversation has changed more to positive role models and understanding success stories.
“One of my son’s favorite stories is the Tuskegee Airmen, partly because he wants to be a pilot when he grows up, and partly because it tells the story of black men who push on and become heroes. It is important for him to see black role models. There is plenty to learn beyond the figures taught in school.”
There are lessons in their travels as well.
“On one trip to Australia, we visited a wildlife park and were watching a presentation of various Australian animals by a young aboriginal park ranger. He greeted my son by saying, ‘Hello, little brother.’ My son asked me why he called him that and it was a great lead-in to talking about race and why the ranger felt a camaraderie with our kids. Jacob still recalls that moment every time we go back. I think both countries still have a long way to go toward addressing racism.”
Filipino-American Lycia Stokely and her husband, who is African-American, are raising young kids in Tustin. She says for them, it’s as much about what their children project as what they might absorb.
“We want them attuned to their needs and their rights, but also aware of how people are treating them,” Stokely says. “We have an open dialogue to talk about how things make them feel and any issues they find troubling. At the same time, we want them to be kind, to help those who may need support and to be inclusive of others.”
But all the parental prepping in the world can’t help her from feeling like a lot of moms caught in this moment.
“I’m both hopeful and apprehensive when thinking about the future for my children,” Stokely says. “In some aspects, it feels as though we have made progress when it comes to diversity and inclusivity. However, there are still many instances where we know we have a long way to go.
“People are protesting a society that, historically, has not treated everyone equally. We’re hopeful that people will continue to be vigilant, and that serious changes will be made for those who suffer from unfair treatment. We know change does not happen overnight, especially for those who don’t even think a problem exists. However, I believe that if we keep teaching our children to be kind, to respect others and treat people fairly, we will pave the way for a better society,” Stokely says.
Let’s Talk (And Listen)
Delia Douglas, of Multiracial Americans of Southern California, an organization that cultivates conversation, community building and education about racial issues, sees a way for parents to seize the moment.
“We can best do this if we keep our conversation positive,” she says. “When discussing the current protests, it’s important we acknowledge the protests are due to racism. Ultimately the protest is not white versus black, in actuality it is everyone versus racism.”
Douglas stresses the starting point for parents is defining what racism is. She points to research showing children as young as 2 years of age able to notice differences in other people. So “embrace children’s natural curiosity about race and ethnicity.”
Then, build their awareness from there.
“Be aware of and call out the racism, injustice and unfairness that exists locally and nationally. We want to empower our kids by providing them with the necessary awareness, language and skills to act against discriminatory actions. This requires us to talk to them with some specificity about what it is that is not right about what they are seeing or asking about.”
Douglas encourages parents to:
Speak openly and honestly.
Have age-appropriate and honest discussions.
Respond in a positive way while highlighting all the good things about being different.
Encourage children to see color and discuss differences openly.
Embrace and celebrate diversity by choosing books, toys, dolls, music, videos that feature diverse characters in positive ways.
Foster cultural pride by talking to your child about their heritage to encourage a positive self-identity.
Lead by example and make sure your circle of friends reflects different shades.
Role-model interracial and interfaith interactions, and actively seek out diverse playgroups.
Share with your child that we are all different and come from different backgrounds, cultures and experiences. “That’s what makes us so wonderful,” she says.
Parents of teens can have in-depth conversations around issues of prejudice, racism and the Black Lives Matter movement. There may be examples of language and behavior that can be used to bring the conversation home and make it useful for them.
By Shawn Price
“The Skin You Live In” by Michael Tyler
“All the Colors We Are — The Story of How We Get Our Skin Color” by Katie Kissinger
Capistrano Unified School District summer resources for parents on social justice
Orange County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Al Mijares finds hope in the situation.
“We must embrace our capacity to be change-agents and advocates for our most vulnerable populations, and this starts with placing a greater emphasis on understanding the stories, needs and — in far too many cases — traumas of every student who walks through our doors,” he says.
“With the death of George Floyd and the civil unrest that has followed, our country is engaging in some extremely important and overdue conversations right now. I believe the Orange County Department of Education and the schools of Orange County are well-positioned to help carry those conversations forward with our students and our community partners.”
Q&A with Dr. Marie Nubia-Feliciano
On race, diversity and why parents should bring their children to protests.
Parenting OC: As dark and chaotic and tense as this moment in time seems to be, can parents also look at this as an opportunity?
Marie Nubia-Feliciano: The premise that this is a dark, chaotic and tense time is a matter of perspective. For black and brown folks, it is just another day in America.
The intense emotions come from the fact that white people are now really paying attention to what is going on. This attention brings with it an overwhelming sense of helplessness, fear and inability to wrap your head around what you’re witnessing.
Before white parents can see this as an opportunity, they must first seek to understand what is happening. Presenting it to their children as just some people upset about how police treat certain groups, diminishes the importance of the moment. The work must begin with parents educating themselves, then working with their local schools to bring these lessons to the community.
POC: What is the most important thing parents should be trying to convey when they talk to their kids about issues of race or diversity or tolerance?
MNF: I think that the one most important thing parents can convey is that we are all interconnected. When they hear phrases like “none of us are free until all of us are free,” they must understand that this speaks to our collective humanity.
Hiding in gated communities and private schools does not protect your children. The instinct to not get involved models the privilege to not have to be involved. It does our children a disservice because the world they will inherit will require them to be aware of this interconnectedness and their place within it.
Regarding race and diversity, parents need to be sure they have a good understanding of these terms before they begin speaking with their children.
Race is a real social construct, but not a real biological concept. That said, this social construct has been used as the rationale for chattel slavery, redlining, segregated schools, anti-miscegenation laws, etc.
Diversity is a term that has been watered down to mean everything from the way we behave to our political leanings. Diversity primarily has to do with issues like race, culture, sexual orientation, religion … things that are almost immutable aspects of who we are. Knowing this makes the work of understanding diversity a very personal endeavor.
Tolerance places the power to ‘allow’ or ‘include’ in the hands of a person or group. Tolerance can be taken away, so I don’t like using that word when speaking with people about issues of race and diversity.
POC: And yes, do you have any tips for parents struggling to find the right words at the moment? And how might it be different for younger kids compared to teens?
MNF: Given that June 19 is Juneteenth, parents can start by learning what that holiday commemorates.
I suggest that parents start reading and watching talks about issues of race, ethnicity, white privilege, etc. HBO, Netflix and Amazon video services are making available black-themed films and documentaries. “Sesame Street” did a series earlier this month for children in early elementary helping them understand what is going on in their world.
With older children, parents need to make sure they are hearing the right information. This age group is online a lot so they hear things that are very ill-informed and often racist. They may be seeing this talk and behavior as normal, which it is not. Parents must intervene with accurate information and impress upon their teens that this is very important.
POC: How should a parent approach the idea of joining a protest with their child?
MNF: Black parents don’t hesitate to take their children to protests. We do what we do because of — and for — our children. They cannot be protected from the reality they already live in. We must demonstrate how they can survive and thrive in the face of this reality.
Your question reflects the concern from white parents who fear what would happen. This concern shows an inherent disconnection with the social movements taking place. We are all a part of this, so it will take all of us to address it. So, to answer your question, I think that yes all parents should bring their children to protests with them. Children must see their parents grapple with the difficult reality. And the parents must demonstrate an authentic way of dealing with this reality.
Dr. Marie Nubia-Feliciano is a Chapman University and UC Irvine adjunct professor, lecturer on counseling and ethnic studies