Explaining Dr. King to my kids

No question: My kids need to learn about racism in America. But when is the right time?

Let me explain. I’m white (Anglo-German), and I grew up in Ohio, where people were sort of absent-mindedly racist. Absent other races, that is: the town where I grew up was almost entirely white. There was no segregation there, of course; you couldn’t have done it. But I have my suspicions that people would have tried it out, given the chance.

Maybe the town was itself a kind of city-wide experiment in segregation. I don’t know.

But my kids have a very different experience. I’m raising them in the South, in the public schools. They have classmates, friends, buddies, of all races and every socio-economic status. (Except perhaps the filthy rich.) My youngest started using the term “brown” to describe some of his friends, with no connotations attached. To him, it was a descriptor like hair color, but a bit more noticeable. He was just as likely to describe a classmate as “crazy” (i.e. “goofy,” fun).

To paraphrase Dr. King, my boys judge their peers on the content of their character, and not the color of their skin.

When you watch basketball in my house, and you hear my boys cheering for the “white guys,” they mean the home team. If one team happens to have black jerseys, well, they’re the ‘black guys.”

That kind of innocence, like sexual naivete, will eventually have to end. It just will. But the question is when.

On Monday I shared with them a story about a man who, in the 1960s, had left our town because he was getting threats from the KKK. A white professor, he had made too many black friends. I told the story gently, a bit hesitantly. And they watched me with uncomprehending eyes. “What kind of weirdness is that?” you could almost hear them thinking. “Those days were weird, Dad.”

They didn’t say anything, though. And I think I’m all right with that. I don’t mind if they cling to that innocence for another year. Maybe Dr. King’s dream can take deeper root this way.


4 thoughts on “Explaining Dr. King to my kids

  1. Interesting post-

    I grew up in the 60s and 70s as an Army brat. A lot of army bases are in the south but the army was also fairly integrated so I remember having African-American and Hispanic friends.

    We live in Oregon now. It doesn’t feel to me that it is very racist today (of course, I’m white so not as easy for me to tell) but that’s partly because of a sordid past- the northwest used to be extremely racist, so much so, that there just aren’t a lot minorities out here because for decades, they were hounded out of the state. Starting in the 70s there was a huge influx into the state, with the population going from about 500K to 4M. These out-of-staters seem to have drowned out most racism, at least in the metro areas, I can’t speak for rural.

    I’ve lived in 11 states in the US and visited many others. Oregon feels much less racist to me but I think it is due to the irony that historical racism gave it an easier bridge from the past to the present.

    Before I moved to Oregon I spent 9 years in the Dallas area. That’s kind of the other side of the coin. And looking back over my childhood as an army brat, the worst overt racism I remember was in Tuscaloosa, Alabama: the deep south. But that was also around 1971.

    As for the kids, we haven’t been very overt about it but I think kids learn from how they see their elders acting. So we try to treat everyone with respect and talk things over with our kids after they spend time with their grandparents (both grandmothers would probably claim to not be racist but sure seem that way to me. The grandfathers, not so much.).

    • Thanks for sharing those thoughts. As a Yankee, it’s ironic that here in North Carolina my kids have a better shot at learning how to treat different races and ethnicities with respect than they would have back home. Although things could have changed since the 70s in Ohio, too (less likely Boston, where I was more recently).

      There is racism around here, to be sure; but I’m with you. I’ll address it when it comes up, and try not to make them more race-conscious than necessary at this point.

  2. Great post John.

    I grew up in a pretty diverse community in New York. My family was the very first black family to move into our nieghborhood in 1970, but as far as I can remember there were a lot of ethic groups(other than whites) on our block, and in our schools.
    I learned about Martin Luther King Jr. from my mother( she had a tapestry of MLK, JFK, and Bobby Kennedy hanging in our living room). Seems like I’ve known about MLK all my life. The schools I attended as a child showed films about the civil rights movement from the March on Washington, DC,to the water hoses,and dog attacks on the civil rights participants. I guess I learned about race as a child not so much by my mother talking to me about it, as just experiencing it’s affects personally and observing what was going on around me. Now, I hope your sons don’t experience it in a personal way like I did(and still do), but it sounds like diversity- as far as race goes, is all around them. I think that’s great John. I also think that your approach to race with your children is good, and believe that you will continue the conversation in a positive, and truthful way when the time is right.

    • Thank you, Rose. I really appreciate you sharing those thoughts, and the encouraging words, too. Ultimately, I think it’s important that children like mine also learn what it’s like to suffer discrimination and prejudice. Then hopefully they’ll be even less likely to further it. As you say, when the time is right, I’ll do my best to see that they learn it.

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