You Can't Raise Anti-Racist Kids By Ignoring Racism


Thursday is library day at my daughter Layla’s school, which she treasures because she gets to bring a new book home for a whole week. She’s chosen books we love, books we hate and books designed to send a pointed message to mom and dad about what she wants for her birthday (“I’m a Big Sister!”). So last week, when she brought home Travels of Babar – a book about a character I remember fondly from my own childhood – we didn’t think much of it. Until we started reading.

Layla and I were a few pages into reading the Babar book when we came across incredibly offensive and racist images of black people, caricatured both in the drawings and in the text, which called the book’s characters “savages” and “cannibals”. I was so taken aback that I quickly shut the book, mumbled an explanation for why we couldn’t read it and started to pen an incredulous and angry letter to her school’s library.

This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered racism in the media to which my daughter has been exposed (Aristocats, I’m looking at you), and I’m sure it won’t be the last. But as jarring as it was, the experience served as a good reminder that raising anti-racist children is not about ignoring racism - but tackling it head on. Closing the book or shutting off the movie may be the easiest move, but it’s the wrong one.

Research has consistently shown that proactively teaching your children (and white children especially) about racism – telling them that discrimination exists in the world – is far more effective than ignoring race and pretending as if the world is “colorblind”. As tempting as it is to think of even our young children as innocent, they are exposed to the same racism and biases that adults are in culture. The best thing that we can do for them as parents is to arm them with information about the reality of racism – historic and present – and teach them that it is unacceptable.

And, in the wake of University of Oklahoma fraternity members being taped chanting a violently racist song, I can’t help but wonder what lessons – if any – about race they were taught as children. The parents of one student, Levi Pettit, said in a statement this week that their son “made a horrible mistake.” They own the fact that what their child did is “disgusting”, but insist: “we know his heart, and he is not a racist.”

I understand the fierce love that we feel for our children, but if we truly love them and want them to grow, we have to tell them the truth about their actions and how those actions shape who they are. In this case, the truth is that these young men – even if they were drunk, even if they were raised the “right way”, and even though they may feel shame now – are racist. The real next step for them needs not to be arguing that point, but figuring out how they can mitigate the very real harm they caused.

White people have the privilege of pretending that racism doesn’t exist or is a relic of the past. It would’ve been easy enough to say to myself that the book my daughter brought home from the library was published in 1937 and that times have changed, kept turning the pages and returned it like normal. But despite many people pointing out the book’s racism – its Amazon reviews are full of warnings – it is still being widely sold and, obviously, housed in children’s libraries. And, presumably, other parents are reading it to their children as though the illustrations and depictions are normal or acceptable.

I am fortunate that my daughter goes to a school where the administrators, librarian and teachers were horrified that this book was in their library – they removed it immediately from the collection. (Spare me any comments about censorship; I have no issue with removing racist crap from children’s libraries.) And though the conversation I had with my daughter later about why we weren’t going to read that book was a difficult one, I know she is so much better off for having had it. Because it will serve as a preface to a lesson that I hope she will carry with her through the future: racism is everywhere and it is incumbent on white people to cut it out.

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