Growing Up in a Divided Society

Each time I see black and white toddlers hugging each other, a four year old of one color gently touching the face of a baby of another, a mixed group of school-aged children playing raucously together, or teenagers deep in absorbing conversation--each time I feel that I've been given a gift of hope for the future. It seems so natural, so right that they should be together that way. Yet the challenge of raising children who are relaxed, loving, welcoming and confident around these issues, in a society where injustice and divisions on the basis of race, class, religion and ethnicity are rampant, is one of the biggest that parents face. As I watch my children growing up in the big city, I wonder if, despite my best efforts, they have figured out that some people are not "their kind of people."

What can we do? I think the first step is to realize that even the best intentions cannot protect our children from absorbing the norms of society. It's been helpful to me to think of racism--and others "isms"--as a social poison. It's in the air. We live and breathe with it. It's bad for all of us, regardless of our color. Though we can make choices about how we respond, it's not our fault that we are affected by it.

Our children are affected as well. They will pick up things that they see and hear, and try to figure them out, using us, as their most trusted sources of information, to get as complete a picture as they can of the situation. If we're in good communication they will bring us all their questions, all the stereotypes they come across, all the misinformation they hear, in an attempt to get it straightened out in their minds. Sometimes this is very straightforward: "Mommy, why is Jamie's skin a different color?" Other times they will repeat things that they've heard, or act our things that they've seen, as a way of asking for help with them. This is often more difficult for us, since our urge may be to keep them from behaving inappropriately. Yet a response of "That's not nice," or "I don't ever want to hear you use that word again" just drives the issue underground.

If we can manage to not sound horrified, but simply ask about the context in which they heard or saw that behavior, chances are that we'll open up a way to help them deal with the hurts and confusions of growing up in a world where relations between different groups are not yet right.

One of the most useful things we can do is provide good information about and access to a wide variety of people. We can think about these issues as we make choices about children's books, gifts, where to live and where to visit, friends, child-care, who we invite to dinner, the music we play, the TV we watch. As our children have more and more opportunities to see and hear about people in different situations living their lives, their perspective on the world will broaden and they will have an increasingly solid basis for figuring out the hard spots.

Our children watch us so closely, they count on us so much. If they see us appreciating and respecting the diversity of people in our world; if they see us being friends; if they see us acting against injustice; and if they feel free to come to us with their questions and hurts about growing up in the midst of division and injustice, then they will be well positioned both to live rich lives of their own and to add their weight to the momentum for change.