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Educators share their perspectives on how to talk to children about racism

As our community and country struggle with the horrific death of Mr. George Floyd, many parents of children, teens and young adults are seeking concrete ways to talk, and act to heal the tremendous hurt and injustice done throughout American history.

Four community educators, who teach college, elementary students and mentor young men are lending their voices and perspectives on how to be part of the solution. They include Dr. Michael Otaigbe, Roxanne Edwards, Liz Bush and Gil Knowles.

Michael, a former Prince William County school board member and currently an Economics and Sociology college professor, shared his perceptions on how to help.

He said, “First, recognize the pain and suffering your black neighbors are going through. Ask, ‘How are you feeling?’ This is not the time to minimize what they tell you they are feeling. This isn’t the time to say things like ‘There is no racial discrimination in America. We elected a black President in 2008.’ This is not the time to say, ‘How about black on black violence?’ or, ‘How about Chicago?’ Just listen and show empathy for your distressed black neighbors. I have a young adult son, and I worry when it is dark, and he is not home.”

Michael believes hate begins with prejudice, which is forming opinions before you got to know them. It becomes discrimination as people act on preconceived factless ideas.

He wants people to be mindful of what they are seeing and hearing about certain groups. “That’s stereotyping, and they are usually wrong. Be careful of the type of people you hang around, because you will become like them,” he said.

He hopes protesting of racial discrimination and hate is done without violence.

Michael quoted Mr. Floyd’s brother, Terrance, “If I’m not over here blowing up stuff, if I’m not over here messing with my community, then what are you all doing? Let’s do this another way. Let’s stop thinking our voice [doesn’t] matter and vote.”

Michael encourages the community to contact legislators to tell them to hold officials who use excessive force to be criminally responsible and that government should take over poor performing police departments by cutting off funding to those not in compliance.

He added, “When I look at the Millennials and Generation Z children, I’m hopeful about the future.”

“ In a survey conducted by Pew Research in 2018, over 50 percent of them believe African Americans are not treated fairly in the United States.

“Over 50 percent of them support African American players taking a knee at NFL games.

“Over 60 percent of them say diversity is good for society. So, I see hopeful signs that Rev. Martin Luther King’s dream that children ‘will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,’ will be realized.”

Roxanne Edwards is currently a first-grade teacher but has taught several grade levels. She understands the age groups well. She also has a daughter and son in college.

Her mother is an Islander who when Roxanne was very young married a white man who adopted her.

“I come from an interesting background. We have a very blended family representing many races and cultures,” she said.

From her experience growing up and as an adult, she knows the importance of talking to children about issues, including racism.

She said, “It is such a parental choice. I would just hope it was done in a manner that expresses compassion and empathy for all.”
“ I know people like to use phrases such as, ‘I don’t see color,’ or ‘I was taught… [or] I teach my kids not to see color,’ but these phrases are counterproductive. Children do see differences, and for sure [they] see color.”

“The matter is, of what relevance does that difference really have to us being human beings? None. That’s what I hope they teach their kids.”

“They can do this through diversity in the books they read and most importantly, through their actions.

“Get involved. Make sure your children are exposed to a variety of people. Be aware of your children’s actions and friends.”

She suggests going to https://www.todaysparent.com/family/books/kids-books-that-talk-about-racism/#gallery/books-that-talk-about-racism/slide-3 for a list of books parents can read with their children.

“For the youngest children, I would not focus on race, as much as reading books with a variety of people and cultures in them. Their focus should just be our differences make us special, not less. We need to embrace them and share them with each other,” she said.

Roxanne added, “In all honesty, the idea of racism is not foreign to most African American children. This is not because the family is teaching them that ‘all white people don’t like and will hurt you.’

It’s a very important life-saving lesson. We let them know, there are some people that may not like you because of the color of your skin, because it’s a fact. So, our children need to understand from a young, [age] how to behave in certain situation, so they live.”

She also believes children need to have a better understanding of history in a manner that is sensitive.

Leaders from all cultures and ethnicities should be blended throughout the school year, not just is a specific month, like February.

“When I teach about George Washington, I do not refer to him as a white man. I read the book and show the picture. When I teach about George Washington Carver, I do the same. The discussion revolves around what makes them notable. I do not focus on the color of their skin, but I do show the pictures, so they see it again.” 

“We are not color blind.  We can’t change our past, and we cannot hide from it. But we do not need to continue to refer to people by color,” said Roxanne.

If her children were young now, she would explain what is going on, saying, “The lack of understanding usually comes from fear, misinformation and pain.”

“Our world is experiencing [this now] all at once, which creates chaos. It is our job to do our best to create harmony by being the best version of ourselves, while maintaining compassion and respect for all people.”

“Hate is a serious word. You cannot hate someone who has done nothing to you. You can hate the actions of people, because they hurt. But visual, cultural,or religious reasons or differences are not reasons to hate or even dislike.”

She said, “This is not only having people of color, but the people who are an active part of the community at the table to be a part of the discussion and decision-making process, and holding people responsible for their actions, no matter the title.”

Liz Bush, a former elementary teacher and now the director of First Impressions at Park Valley Church, has words for parents on how to broach the subject of racism with their children.

She said, “Parents and their kids at all age levels need to share, of course, what they are comfortable with.

However, it is important that when children watch the news, they see the perspective of what the news is showing. In this case, a horrific murder was seen, and no child should be seeing this.

The ongoing violence in our streets is also something that can be terrifying for kids. We need to shield our children from the images of what we cannot explain. We need to teach our children that there is evil, but good exists and far outweighs the evil of our society.”

She believes this situation gives parents a teaching opportunity to talk about humanity, and what is happening, isn’t love between fellow humans.

“Hate starts in the home, and what is heard is either accepted or denied. I have taught in very diverse schools and ones that have little diversity. All students need to see love and acceptance,” said Liz.

“The thought that we don’t see color is not true.  People see color. It is what we do in our heart that matters.”

“ As a woman who is white, married to a man who happens to be black, that is just skin color, nothing else. Our pigment doesn’t convey a message about character. That is taught. We need to do better in the message we are sending to our kids.”

Liz wants our community, government and church leaders to live out what is written in Micah 6:8, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

She added, “It is that simple or could be; act justly by turning away from evil and doing good, love mercy by understanding every wrong doesn’t need a reaction and finally, walk humbly by living in obedience to God rather than in our own wants.”

She wants all of us to step out of self and show love and compassion for each other in all that we do, to eliminate injustices.

She said, “We are all created equal, man changed that. All leadership has an opportunity to show that there are no biases with any race. We need to be seen as one race with all the same opportunity.”
Retired Army Lt. Col. Gil Knowles, President and CEO of Knowles What To Do Mentoring Solutions, has a wealth of knowledge about decades of racism in our country.
He shared, “I vividly recall my mother in the mid-1960’s, whispering to the good Lord, ‘How long Lord?’ I was 11 years old at the time. She was asking the Lord how long would black people in America continue to endure the ravages of racism?’
 
My wife and I, 55 years later, are now echoing my mother’s ‘How long Lord?’ Tears come to my eyes when I think of my two beautiful granddaughters having to endure racism. They absolutely do not deserve to be hated because of their beautiful dark skin.  I will continue to fight against racism for those grandbabies and generations to come. I pray they will never have to ask, ‘How long Lord?’ but be able to shout, ‘Thank you, Lord.’”

After decades of military service Gil has dedicated his life to mentoring and helping young, black men.

He has found many of them numb from lifelong harassment, condescension and racism. Through mentoring them he strives to let them see how much value they have.

He shared, “I tell them how smart they are. Their replies are normally, ‘Do you really think so?’

In so many cases, I am the first strong, positive and successful black man they have encountered. My major focus is building self-esteem in positive ways; determining their passions and helping them construct detailed plans to fulfill their individual brilliances.”

“ I want them to know they have value. I focus on what is good about them rather than focusing on society’s negative label of them.”
Gil works fervently to be part of the solution and encourages community members to go from apathy to empathy.

He shared “Let me preface by saying, not all white Americans are racists. Many white Americans over the decades felt the pain of people of color and like in the past week, have marched alongside us in great numbers protesting for equal treatment.”

He added, “There are also non-racist white Americans that feel uncomfortable discussing racial issues and have chosen to remain silent over the years.

Unfortunately, there are millions of racist white Americans, many of them Christians, who will take their utter hatred and disdain of black people to their graves. The bible says in 1 Corinthians 13:13, ‘And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.’ We must pray for those that hate.”

Once a community moves from apathy to empathy, it can be doing something positive, says Knowles.

“If they genuinely empathized instead of deflecting and attacking, they would be able to transition from silence to action. If they empathized and felt the pain of our pleas being ignored for equal treatment and feel the same pain black Americans feel watching the video of George Floyd’s death, as if he was their son, I believe it would be a start to substantively and aggressively addressing America’s deep-seated racism,” Gil said.

He strongly advocates legislators actively listen to their constituents. He said, “Action begets action. Therefore, [as] the larger numbers of diverse constituents unite for action, the more legislators will listen and provide substantive action to those desires,” he said.

When asked about relationships between the community and the police, and how they can improve, he said, “Again, it is all about empathy. I empathize with good police having to deal with the terrible behaviors and actions of looters, arsonists and bad apple police.

“In the same token, I ask police to empathize with those that have been improperly and unfairly treated. Community policing is the key; like life in general, it is all about relationships. I note the police that empathized with the peaceful protestors by at least respecting why they were marching, reaped a lot of goodwill from the protestors; Genuine respect equals genuine connect.”

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