A messy conversation with my three-year-old about the history of slavery and #BlackLivesMatter

blmby Sachi Feris

I have been talking about race and racial justice with my daughter since she was a baby, not worrying too much when my commentary may have been over her head. I wanted her to hear my words even if, as I still often admit to her, “It’s a little bit complicated.”

The other day, my three-year-old and I re-lived various conversations we have had…in a rather disjointed way. The conversation began with my daughter asking to sing “Baa Baa Black Sheep.” As I wrote about in another post, I had been under the impression that this song had a connection to slavery in the United States.

“We can sing it,” I told her as usual, “and still remember the history behind the song.” I paused. “But you know what? I might have been wrong about the history of slavery being connected to Baa Baa Black Sheep.”

“But now there are no more slaves,” my daughter shared in response.

“Well,” I qualified. “People who are Black aren’t slaves in the United States anymore based on the color of their skin, but different types of slavery still do exist. Do you remember what slavery means? It’s when a person is owned by another person and doesn’t have any rights or freedoms.”

I paused again. I was making a conscious choice not to talk about human trafficking with my daughter so I returned to the history of slavery in the United States:

“But even though people who are Black aren’t slaves anymore, the history of slavery means that, today, people who are Black still are discriminated against. That means that they aren’t treated fairly. But people who are White, like us, don’t experience this discrimination. And that’s really unfair. So now there is a movement called “Black Lives Matter” where people are standing up and saying, ‘We want justice! Black people need to be treated fairly.”

I connect the history of slavery with #BlackLivesMatter because I want to make sure that my daughter is not left with the idea that “slavery (or racism) is over.” Also, I want her to know that many people are concerned about injustice and taking action for change.

I frequently use the Spanish word “luchar” (to fight) when I talk to my daughter about people standing up to fight for their rights (we speak Spanish at home so I always translate the conversations with my daughter). This word has often caused confusion from my daughter who hears the word “duchar” (shower) in place of “luchar” and understandably gets rather confused.

This was no exception.

“All the people are going to get wet when they take a shower?” she asked.

“No,” I clarified. “Not duchar. Luchar…like when people protest and stand together to say “We want justice!”

She responded: “Let’s pretend that I’m Black and you make a sign out of this play dough, (she gestured toward the play dough) and then we win and there are no more slaves and everyone is happy!”

“Again, people who are Black are not slaves anymore in this country but they are still treated unfairly because of the color of their skin. How about we stand up and say ‘That’s not fair. People who are Black should be treated fairly. We want justice!’”

My daughter accepted my clarification and we role-played the scenario.

“One day, we can make a real sign,” my daughter told me. “Like in the book with Lakas.” (My daughter referenced a book called Lakas and the Makibaka Hotel where a young boy organizes a protest.)

“Would you like to go to a real protest and stand and say, ‘We want justice!?’”

“Yes.”

“OK, one day we can go.”

Having conversations about racial justice with a three-year-old can get messy, complicated, and confusing. We can all expect bumps along the way—and we can all expect to make mistakes. The conversation may not be linear but if we keep engaging these conversations, we will get to where we want to go.

And, in the end, it’s simple, too. I want my daughter to know that she can be a part of the change.

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Sachi Feris is a blogger at Raising Race Conscious Children, an online a resource to support adults who are trying to talk about race with young children. Sachi also co-facilitates interactive workshops/webinars and small group workshop series on how to talk about race with young children. Sachi currently teaches Spanish to Kindergarten and 1st grade at an independent school in BrooklynSachi identifies as White and is a mother to a three-year-old daughter and newborn son.