Talking about Black Lives Matter to White Children
by guest blogger Amy Dudley
This past Martin Luther King Jr. Day my five-year-old daughter and I attended a day long Freedom Camp organized by some long-time educators, a passionate, intergenerational, multiracial group that included pioneers in anti-bias education, and veterans of the civil rights movement. The organizers were highlighting the 50th anniversary of Selma and were also interested in making connections with the current Black Lives Matter movement.
I suggested we add the song “I Can’t Breathe” to the songs the children would be singing from the freedom songs of the 60’s. At home, our family had watched two versions of this song on YouTube, one with a mother and her daughter singing it, and another version that interspersed images from protests in NYC. After watching a few times, our five-year-old and three-year-old clapped and hummed along. It’s a catchy tune with simple lyrics and ends with a call of solidarity and action.
At the event, the organizers showed a clip from Bloody Sunday in Selma, and then the successful arrival of the marches in Montgomery with police escorts, and then turned to me to introduce the song and lead the group of 30-40 children and youth, a multi-racial group spanning kindergarten through high school. I paused, looking around the room at these sweet, upturned faces. I wasn’t sure how or what to put into words for this audience about the horror and injustice of Eric Garner’s murder by police.
And then I thought of his family, of all the families of color who face police harassment, violence, and murder, and how not talking about this ugly truth doesn’t protect them. I thought about the African American mothers who have to talk to their young sons and daughters about how to act in front of the police so they aren’t shot. I thought of a Black friend whose young son broke the toy gun from his Halloween army guy costume so he wouldn’t be shot like Tamir Rice. I thought about the way my daughter was learning about Martin Luther King Jr. at school as someone who just “wanted everyone to get along.”
I turned to the sea of young faces and shared:
“Eric Garner was a father and grandfather who was hurt and killed by the police. He was one of too many Black men that the police have hurt and killed. His last words were ‘I can’t breathe.’ That is why people all over the country, including in Portland, Oregon, are remembering him by singing those words. By saying ‘I can’t breathe,’ we are saying that it was wrong that Eric Garner was hurt and we are standing up for justice for him and his family. We are telling the police it is not OK to hurt people, and we will keep working together until everyone, especially people of color, are treated fairly, with respect and dignity.”
That night my White daughter had nightmares of the police coming and taking her dad and I away. And I know she wasn’t the only child in that room who became upset as they processed this racist violence. Racism really sucks. Introducing our children to the pain of White supremacy makes me really sad. It made me wonder if I had really screwed up. And I might have.
But here’s what I know.
The pain, fear, anger, and confusion that my daughter felt was absolutely how she should feel, how we should all feel, when we are confronted with the injustice and violence of White supremacy and police brutality. It should rock our worlds. It is important to give our children, and ourselves, space to feel those emotions and work through them towards actions that affirm Black Lives Matter. If we are committed to supporting our children to recognize unfairness and teaching them to act for justice, we can’t be afraid of their deep and real emotions. In fact, the United States needs more people to feel just how wrong White supremacy is in order to end it.
As a White woman and mother, I came to recognize my White privilege in my 20’s, and I had a lot of feelings about it, namely shame and guilt. Many of us White folks get stuck in those emotions which are ultimately not helpful, though they are understandable, and if we can’t move past them into action for racial justice, valuable allies are lost.
My young White children don’t have any emotional attachment to their White privilege. Yet. My hope is that by talking about race, racial injustice, and the unfair benefits we get as White-skinned people, I will support my children to understand their world as White people and as allies to people of color. Without this understanding, they will not be prepared to take action in solidarity with people of color to make the world more fair for people of color, and ultimately, a better world for all of us.
Amy Dudley loves being a mama to her two little ones as they explore the wonders of the world around them, and is constantly challenged and amazed by their passion, courage, and compassion. She hopes to bring the same traits to her work with Creating Democracy, a new movement building project that she and her partner in life and organizing, Chris Borte, are seeding. Amy grew up in the mountains of South West Virginia and organized with rural communities in Oregon through the Rural Organizing Project.