(The Root) —
"I am remarried and now have a blended family with two teenage sons. One is black (10 years old) and one white (12 years old). In light of Trayvon Martin's death and the miscarriage of justice that surrounded it, what do I tell them? How much can children absorb at these ages and what role should race play in the discussion with each child? I have read a lot about what this means for black boys, but it feels strange and unequal to give two brothers different messages about this tragedy. Do they need to hear different things or is there a universal message? Do you have advice for how to address this with each of my children?" —Tailoring "The Talk" About Trayvon
Any time there's a national tragedy (and I use that phrase intentionally here because I believe the entire narrative surrounding Trayvon Martin's death is just that serious when it comes to its effect on many Americans), one of the dilemmas in the aftermath involves how to discuss it with kids.
You have an especially hard case because the takeaway from this story — the killer of an unarmed black teen who profiled him because he was black getting completely off the hook — can vary in its significance for people with different racial identities and worldviews. And the two for whom you're responsible, even if they're raised in the same household, will experience all the things that played into this story (identity, stereotypes, privilege, justice, just to name a few) in very different ways.
Kristen Howerton, a professor of psychology at Vanguard University (and herself a mother of black and white children) gave me a few dos and don'ts that apply pretty broadly to raising sensitive topics with kids. They're useful as a start here.
Don't: Talk to them before you process it yourself, while you're still "emotionally bleeding," she says, and "Make sure you as a parent are controlling the flow of information," versus letting them watch unlimited (and often, sensational and divisive) news coverage.
Do: Help your boys understand that what happened to Trayvon Martin is a "possibility and not a probability." In other words, they should both know that not all nonblack men, not even all gun owners, behave like George Zimmerman. One way to drive this point home: "Go to a protest, point out a diverse crowd rallying to support justice and equality," she suggests.
Those are the basics. But here's one more "don't" that's key in this particular case, according to Kristal Moore Clemons, a history and education scholar whose research focuses on topics including civil rights, critical race theory, social justice and education: Don't preach colorblindness.
That's right. There may be a temptation to minimize the role race played in this story and in the reaction to it. After all, your kids are so adorable — they're brothers of different races and they love each other, so you don't want to ruin their innocence, and inject the issue or racism into their life, right? Perhaps, but I sense from your question that you already know that's unrealistic.
Clemons says colorblindness — pretending not to see or notice race — is exactly what's behind people completely "missing the point” about the larger significance of Zimmerman taking Trayvon's life, and you certainly don't want to perpetuate that.
Khadijah White, whose scholarship focuses on race, media and politics, agrees. She says your kids are not too young to think about the role race played in this case. Trying to preserve childhood by ignoring the still-taboo topic, she says, "is usually more about trying to preserve the adults' ability to ignore things."
There are some things both kids need to know, starting with a simple explanation of what happened and where it fits into American history. Clemons suggests a script that links what happened here and how "Zimmerman thought that Trayvon didn't belong in that neighborhood" all the way back to the days of legally enforced segregation. When, with her own young stepson, she drew connections to the murder of Emmett Till, she says he really got it, concluding, "In both situations a child was murdered; no matter what the juries decided, we still lost a child."
Clemons suggests linking the protests in major cities around the country to the activism of generations past, making sure they understand that people of all races had roles and that injustice isn't only the concern of African Americans.
Finally, encourage them both to pay attention to the lessons they're absorbing. "I would say that this case reminds us there's a long history of not thinking of black people as equal and human. I would walk them through the ways that even they've probably been taught this and encourage both of them to be cautious of it," says White.
But your sons do also need to hear individualized and race-specific explanations about what this story means for them. For your 12-year-old, "It's a great moment to really talk about what it means to be white and what whiteness entails," White says. She proposes a kid-size explanation of white privilege (simply, a list of the things you get to do without worrying when you're white, including walking without being seen as a threat), and how not to be complicit in maintaining it.
For your 10-year-old black son, White says, the conversation is more practical because, "It's literally a matter of life and death." Still, she cautions against teaching fear and "being an overseer."
"All these rules [about how to dress, speak and behave] that people do give their children to help them to survive in fact perpetuate a white supremacist society," White argues. "So what I would say is to never go anywhere by yourself if you can help it, and call me if you're ever afraid. Don't tell him he can't wear a hoodie. Explain what might happen if he does, and how to respond (get out of the situation, or call home immediately) if it does happen."
All the experts agree that there should be no secrets here — your kids should hear each other's conversations. Introduce the family talk by saying, "Because of the way that you look and how people respond, there are different ways you're going to live, " White advises.
This two-pronged lecture is a harder and more complicated conversation than most parents will have to have. But it's also an opportunity. After all, the chance your sons will have to see a person of a different race as an individual for whom they have compassion is exactly the type of thing that could have prevented this tragedy in the first place.
The Root's staff writer, Jenée Desmond-Harris, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life — and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette-surrounding race in a changing America. Follow her on Twitter.
Need race-related advice? Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previously in Race Manners: "Help, I'm a Racist and I Don't Want to Be"