Parents discuss how to talk with their children about racism

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CARMEL – Across the country and in the Hoosier state, parents are debating how to discuss racism and social injustice with their children and when to start those conversations.

Experts say the conversations look different for each family. Some don’t just talk about racism, but they live it.

“The last three months have been really difficult,” Carmel mom, Jan Need, told CBS4.

In early 2020, Need and her 3-year-old daughter, Josephine, were out when another child said something very hurtful.

“I don’t like dark skin,” Need wrote in a blog post. “These were the exact words said about my 3-year-old Black daughter by another child.”

“I have watched her stop playing with her Black Barbies. I have watched her stare at herself in the mirror and examine what she looks like, and it catches me off guard because she is only 3,” Need said in an interview.

Need adopted Josephine at birth. They named her after Josephine Baker, an entertainer turned civil rights activist who devoted herself to fighting segregation and racism in the United States.

“She saved so many children, and she rescued children of all colors,” Need said.

Need said at first, Josephine didn’t say anything. Need didn’t necessarily know what to do or whether to step in, but she let the situation play out.

“I stood there frozen because I had to evaluate how important is it? Do I embrace this entirely or do I let her guide me to what she needs? I did not say anything to her at that exact moment because I did not know if she had even heard it in the first place,” Need explained. “The worst thing I could have done, in my opinion, was ask her ‘Did you hear what was said? How do you feel about that?’ So, not only would I be calling out what was said, I would be calling out her feelings in a public setting.”

Need waited. It wasn’t until they got in the car that she prodded lightly about whether Josephine had heard the comment.

“I looked at her and oh my gosh – I have said to her constantly since she was born how beautiful she is and how strong she is – and just like any other day, ‘I said you are so beautiful,’” Need recalled. “And to be honest, I was doing that to test the waters. I was trying to ask her without asking her. She knew. In a heartbeat, she knew, and I knew. And she just lost it. I have not…oh my goodness. You know, a 3-year-old has tantrums and all of these other emotions. But to watch my 3-year-old be so deeply sad.”

Need said it was then that Josephine started to question her beauty.

“She has been filled up so much. It never occurred to her to question her beauty. And to suddenly question herself, question her beauty, that other people see something different than what she sees?”

Need told CBS4 her family has experienced racism before. Most of it hasn’t been as obvious, but implicit bias more than anything else.

“We were walking into the library one day, and an older White gentleman looked at me one day and said, ‘Now where did you find her?’ And I was like, ‘Thank you,’ and I just kept walking,” she said.

Need started talking about racism with her daughters at an early age. With her biological 9-year-old, it’s about education. Need talks with her about slavery, Dr. Martin Luther King Junior’s legacy and Rosa Parks, but also about a lot more.

“That’s all I learned when I was in school, and I’m about ready to turn 37, so that was a really long time ago. The fact that that education has not evolved with us and with our times, with our people, with what our people need?” Need exclaimed. “As the parent, it’s my job to not only fill in what she hasn’t learned but to listen to what she has learned and correct her if it’s wrong. A lot of the things these kids come home with is either way beyond what they need to be told or not nearly enough.”

Need is also trying to balance how to raise two children of two races.

“I am teaching and raising a White child and a Black child. I am not only trying to teach a Black child how to be safe in this world, I am teaching a White child how to be safe in this world but care for her Black sister,” she went on. “Every day of my life is now about race.”

Need wants other parents to talk to their kids about racism and social injustice.

“They cannot live inside their bubble. They have got to push through that bubble,” she urged.

Arron Patterson is taking a different approach. He has a 3-year-old son and one on the way.

“I told my wife I wouldn’t want to talk to him about that until he’s 10, 11, maybe even 12,” Patterson said. “I want to keep them out of judging someone or being judge outside of your being, your characteristic traits of who you are.”

Patterson told CBS4 about his youth and teenage years. He said he experienced racism early on in life.

“Seeing the ‘n-word’ written on bathroom doors and understanding what it meant,” he said.

When Patterson was 8 or 9-years-old, he said he had his first run-in with police.

“I was jogging in my neighborhood, and I got stopped by a police officer. I asked him, ‘Why are you stopping me?’ And he told me shut up. And I was like, ‘What did I do?’ And he said, ‘You stared at me when I drove past.’ And I was like, ‘I didn’t know it was illegal to look’ and he was like, ‘Are you being a smartass?’” Patterson recalled. “And I was like, ‘Listen man, I just want to jog.’”

Patterson said it got to the point where he didn’t like the color of his skin because of the negativity he was facing.

“I wanted to be lighter,” he explained.

Patterson is now part of a bi-racial family. He said while people have stared at him and his wife before, no one has made obvious comments.

“It used to bother us in the beginning,” he told CBS4. “But we can’t let that deter us. We can’t let that affect our emotions. We can’t let someone else’s belief of what we are affect who we know we are,” he said.

He hopes to teach his kids the same thing. 

“Human beings are more than one aspect like color or sexual orientation or religious belief,” he said. “If you judge someone, judge someone based off their whole characteristic trait.”

Patterson is optimistic seeing the worldwide protests. He hopes that it leads to a societal change and that eventually, he won’t even need to have a conversation with his children.

“Let them be children,” he said. “Hate is taught. They don’t anything about that. You’re teaching them out of the gate. If you start teaching and giving them books, then it’s going to put it in their head, ‘Okay, there’s a difference between me and this person because they have a different pigmentation.’”

The Director of Interrupting Racism at Child Advocates feels differently. Jill English said children learn racial hierarchy between the ages of two and four based on our behaviors and that parents should talk to their kids as young as possible.

“Our children know what is going on,” she said. “Avoiding the context is not assisting. It is perpetuating the situation.”

English says parents should create space for an open conversation. She said if adults don’t have the answers, they need to be honest about that with their kids.

“It’s the messages we receive everywhere, whether it’s the media you allow into your home, the educational tools you use, whether you’re walking through a store and picking up band-aids that are made for one complexion of people,” she said. “Children receive the message, subtly, consciously or unconsciously so if we don’t talk about it, someone is going to speak to them.”

This summer, English will host six, two-day workshops called Interrupting Racism for Children. The program will provide tools on how and why racism exists and how Americans can address it head-on. She confirmed that following the protests, more and more teachers, business owners and community members have asked to attend.

The program is open to the public.

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