My children’s experiences with internalized racism
My children are mixed heritage children—Latina (my partner) and White (me). They have internalized more racism and other oppressions than I would like and it comes out in a variety of ways. My partner and I parent from a philosophy of empathy, nonviolence, and attentive listening. I give my children a lot of room to work on the issues with which they are dealing.
As a parent, I do my own work to unlearn my racially oppressive patterns so that I can capitalize on moments to bring up racism with my kids. Part of my job as a parent is to listen well and remember that my children are the experts on their own lives. Sometimes, my children need more context or a wider perspective to help them think about things. Sometimes, they might need explanations for things that don’t really make sense (like racism).
This usually doesn’t occur in my house in a “let’s sit down and talk about it” kind of way. It’s usually on-the-fly, part of the hustle and bustle of our daily life, while making dinner, folding the laundry, or on the way to softball practice.
One thing that gets challenging is when my children’s internalized oppression is not addressed. At times, their internalized oppression plays out in their interactions with other people of color. For example, my older daughter has been having a problem with someone in her class who is also a woman of color. Her school is fairly diverse racially, supports students’ social and emotional needs, and provides conflict resolution between students. This has been an on-going conversation (and probably will be for a while.)
My daughter: “Raquel (name has been changed) was so annoying today. I hate her.”
Me: “Hmm. What’s happened today?”
My daughter: “She never leaves me alone. She is totally copying me. She’s trying to steal my friends.”
Me: “Does she do anything else?”
My daughter: “She is always rolling her eyes and is totally snarky.”
Me: “Hmm, that’s something you and your friends do often, too. Raquel has never done anything directly to you. What else is going on here? I wonder how I can expand the conversation from the other person to what is going on inside of you?”
Me: “That sounds like it’s really hard for you to deal with. You’ve been telling me for a while about how annoying this person is and I’m wondering why this is such a hot button for you…I know that she is Latina, like you. Do you think that might be part of your problem with her?”
My daughter: “No, not really. She’s just really annoying.”
Me: “I think that sometimes what we say about others has more to do with something going on inside of us. Like when people have been treated badly or gotten hurt because of who they are, sometimes they will treat others the same way to deal with the experience. It doesn’t mean they are bad people for doing that. They got hurt by racism and that’s their way of showing it. Remember that person in Kindergarten who was always picking on you and we found out that it was because she was getting picked on by other kids? Sometimes it happens like that. What do you think about that?”
My daughter: “I guess.”
Me: “Have you ever experienced anything like that? Where people treated you differently because of being Latina or a woman?”
My daughter: “Yeah, all the time. When I go to play football with the boys if there is not enough players they wait around until more boys show up and then say we can’t play. It’s not fair.”
We talk about her experiences and her thoughts for a while. We wouldn’t have gotten there if my reaction had been, “You can’t say that about someone.” I would have missed a big opportunity to understand my child’s experiences and perspectives.
Me: “So, what do you think?”
My daughter: “I guess, maybe I am being a little unfair to her.”
I have to be ready to listen to my daughter and talk about these things. Listening with empathy is key. And so is dealing with my own feelings of embarrassment, shame, or sadness that can sometimes come up when talking about these issues. It is also crucial for me to have a community of support for my multiple identities (parent, man, White person, etc,) and unpack my own baggage around issues of oppression. As a parent, this is how I can prepare myself to feel as comfortable as possible as I navigate these issues with my daughters.
For more information on the active and empathetic listening techniques described in this guest blog post, please consider attending a workshop on May 30th in Los Angeles called, “Talking With Your Kids about Racism and Other Biases.”
Ben Wright is a parent educator working with adolescent fathers. In addition to his work with young fathers, he is co-founder of The Peace School, a cooperative family school that uses a model of care that is based on nonviolent parenting philosophy, attachment theory, emergent curriculum, play-based learning, and fun. In his free time he like reading comics, riding bikes with his kids and making (and eating) waffles.