Explaining Racism to a Child

I have been thinking about this post for so long and don’t know if I have the words to do justice to this, but it’s been a few weeks already since this happened, so I have to write what I can before I forget the details.  (better settle in with a tea because I have the feeling this will be a long one!!!)

We were watching Oprah’s Master Class with Condoleezza Rice with some of the kids in the room and the image of the second plane hitting the twin towers came on.  That image is something that most of our kids have grown up with.  September 11th happened three months before Gracelyn was born, five months before Josiah was born, and three years before Eliana was born and yet, it is something they have always known about.  They have seen footage from that day and still images and we have talked about it in passing here and there.  For our older boys, they have memories of the actual day, of seeing it for the first time.

Elijah and Sedaya had never seen or heard of September 11th.  I had never thought about it until Elijah piped up, “what happened Mommy?  Why that plane crash into that building?”  I felt myself hesitate.  How do you explain to a child hatred so intense that it causes the deaths of thousands of people?  I don’t remember exactly what Mark and I explained, but it really struck me as significant that two of our kids were completely unaware of a day that had quite literally changed the world.

Later in the same show, the subject turned to racism and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.  Again, Elijah asked a question.  I paused the show and turned to him and as I tried to explain, I fought back the tears.  How do you explain racism to a nine year old?  Here in my living room were my children, three of them just happen to be black.  How was I to tell them about a time in history when there were lynchings, segregation, slavery, hatred all because of race?

I first became interested in U.S. black history when I was in the seventh or eighth grade and we read Underground to Canada.  Over the years, I did my own research and was especially moved by those who fought so hard for civil rights, even willing to give their lives for the cause.  In the early years of homeschooling my older boys, I taught them units on slavery and on the civil rights movement.  They watched movies such as Selma, Lord Selma and Ruby Bridges.  We used to get quite the stares when we would go for walks and my two caucasian boys would be singing freedom march songs as we went!!!  But I have not done those units with the other kids yet, not because I was putting off teaching them, but because while we were waiting for Elijah and Sedaya to come home, we studied Africa for two years and then when they were first home, we were concentrating on teaching them English and about Canada.

So now here I sat, my black children wanting to know about Martin Luther King Jr., one of my personal heros, and me, at quite a loss as to what to say.  Over the years, I had touched on racism with Josiah here and there, explaining that there were some people that believed that the colour of our skin determined our worth and he quickly agreed how silly that was since God made us all.

As I began to tell Elijah about how things used to be in the United States (and many years before that, even in Canada), about Rosa Parks and the bus (“The only tired I was was tired of giving in”), slavery, separate lines, separate schools, unequal rights, and hatred (I could not bring myself to find the words to explain horrors such as the KKK – even writing those letters makes me feel sick to my stomach and worried to have them on this site).  Then, I told him about a wonderful man who loved God and his family and wanted his children to grow up in a world that would judge them for who they were, not by the colour of their skin, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.”  I tried to tell him about the “I Have a Dream” speech, but got choked up, as I always do when I try to recite any part of that inspired address.  There is just something about a man who knew what was right and was willing to lay his life down so that his children and the children of others would live in a better world, a world that would someday have equal opportunities for all people that touches me down to my very core.

I told Elijah about this amazing man and how what he fought for made it so that this woman on the TV show, Condoleezza Rice, could do anything and be anything, and that because of him and people like him, the United States now has a black President.  (I did cry when I said that – how could I not, when just 40 years before, there was such injustice and it does show that those who died for the cause did not die in vain.)

I tried to explain what we believe about God making each of us in the way He designed, but that some people still today would judge because of skin colour.  I worded things the best way I knew how and tried to keep it easy for him to understand, knowing that there would be many more talks on this topic in the weeks, months, and years to come.  I think I did okay until this…

“But mommy, why they kill him?”


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Denise on March 28, 2011 at 11:05 am

    Oh, that’s heartbreaking! The end of innocence for Elijah to some degree. But good for you for tackling this issue with all the love and compassion of a mother instead of waiting for someone else to educate him in a not so loving way. I pray you have wisdom and words to help your kids along this journey.


  2. Well, you have helped your precious children to understand. Racism is still around, I see it all over and my heart breaks. I too, tried to explain so many things to my kids back in SA wanting them to feel the heartbreak too. well done to you – sounds like you spoke with passion, the same passion God has for ALL of his children, no matter what colour, creed or race! May God keep the words you spoke, close to your children’s hearts!


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