As the father of two African American sons, Philip Canady has taught them from a young age how to protect themselves because of the color of their skin.
And after the killing in Minneapolis of George Floyd, a black man who died after a white officer pressed a knee into his neck, black families across the nation are having conversations with their children about racial violence and police brutality.
But that’s something they’re used to.
“It almost comes as second nature to most African American parents,” Canady said. “From the moment the child is walking around, the conversations begin.”
The conversations can be particularly challenging for young children because a parent is teaching both that the police are there to help them in an emergency but also the need to protect themselves.
For Canady’s children, and even with his parents, lessons of protection are passed down through generations with the ultimate message: “Don’t.”
Don’t pick up anything at the store, he tells his children. Don’t wear hoodies, don’t keep your hands in your pocket.
And most importantly, don’t speak to a police officer if you don’t have to.
“I think Caucasian parents may tell their kids the same things,” he said. “But they tell their kids these things in order to be a good citizen. Whereas I tell my kids to save their lives.”
But in a time where racial injustices are posted on the internet, the conversations around race are changing.
For Jackie Bridgeforth-Williams, president of the Village Initiative, those conversations are starting to surround the trauma of seeing a black person die on screen. As a mother with three adult children, she said conversations surrounding race have changed over the years but the fundamental values remain the same.
“We have to remember that black children have always been somewhat strong,” she said. “When integration came, it was the children who had to be strong and go into the schools. So with these tough conversations, you need to put them in a historical context.”
When Bridgeforth-Williams was young in the 1970s, she said her father would have regular discussions about his experiences traveling in the Deep South and they taught her how to be safe even during a time when society seemed to be progressing.
These are lessons ingrained into the everyday conversations of black families and when events such as Floyd’s death occur, fear is brought to the surface.
“Mothers are still going to make that phone call to make sure their sons made it home safe,” Bridgeforth-Williams said. “Mothers are still sitting up late at night in concern, because even though you know you have a good kid, you know what can happen.”
But as those conversations are changing in black households, they’re also starting to take place in white ones. Canady said moving forward, what will make a difference in racism is having white families talk to their children at an early age.
Amy Quark, a member of the Village Initiative, said as a white parent she’s recognizing the importance of talking to her children about race even though it can be difficult.
“As a parent of two white children, I admit, this isn’t easy, and I don’t always get it right,” she wrote in an email. “That’s why it is important to talk to kids regularly about how racism and white privilege shape their lives. Race is a complex topic—we can’t just talk to our kids about it once.”
She tries to make racial justice an ongoing discussion with her children and teaches them about racial history through books and other resources.
Both Quark and Canady said for white parents who are trying to teach their children about race, it’s important to ask questions and learn alongside their children. When teaching her children, Quark said she tries to identify and address her own racial bias and do research about explanations for certain aspects.
All three parents agreed there needs to be continuing discussions in the school systems as well.
Canady, who is a fifth grade teacher at a mostly Hispanic school in Richmond, said he tries to have cultural conversations regularly and educate the students about any racist remarks they might unknowingly make.
“I know for most of these kids, I’m new to them,” he said. “I think a lot of teachers struggle with the topic because many are Caucasian women coming from largely Caucasian colleges. So their experiences can be very different.”
Canady said schools need to add more diversity and cultural training so children are exposed to different perspectives and history through conversations in the classroom.
He said one thing he doesn’t want people to forget is that race exists and should be celebrated.
“We’re different,” he said. “When a white person says, ‘I don’t see color’ it might be a comforting statement for them, but I’m insulted. That means you don’t see me. I identify as a black male, those are my identities and I can’t escape them. So you need to see me.”
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