Just like many other parents, I spend a lot of time in the children's section of my library. Sometimes I have a hungry three-year-old with me, who doesn't always appreciate the privilege of an indoor place to play when the weather isn't optimal, but I am also there often on my own. Whether it's to borrow books and movies for my family or spend hours writing behind my computer, the library is an underrated destination for too many people these days.
But that's a different post.
This post involves me rushing through the library process one afternoon. I had a lot of errands to run and I didn't have my daughter with me to delay library proceedings with playhouse desires and puzzle requests. So, I didn't read through the books I picked out for my children. I flipped through them quickly, just to get the gist, and then stuffed them in the bag if they passed the rudimentary screening.
Typically, I go out of my way to make sure that at least half of the books in my bag contain characters of color. Sometimes, like when black history month roles around, those books have a very clear theme of anti-discrimination, but most times I simply aim to have my children consume media with equal representation. My hope is that by doing this, my children will have ample examples of people of color doing exactly the same things as them, experiencing life in similar ways (and more difficult ways too), and thereby limit their exposure to the silent and systemic racism they are sure to encounter as they grow older. I want my kids to be able to recognize racism when they see it and feel empowered enough to call it out.
There I was, picking up a cute book with a brown father and daughter on the cover, where the two pages I flipped through involved the daughter counting the things she saw in the sky. Okay, counting book. Great! Goes in the bag.
Flash forward to the night my kids bring that book to the couch to read before bed.
I start reading, and I realize pretty quickly that the book is NOT a counting book.
First, the little girl and her father are walking towards train tracks and are met by a large group of people waiting for the train. When the train comes, it doesn't stop for them, but the people run to catch it and climb on top. The girl and her father ride on top of the train with the others as long as they can, until the train stops and they are kicked off. During this time, the girl is telling us what she sees in the world around her. The clouds. Some Rabbits. A chicken.
When they leave the train, the girl and her father make friends with another family, and the girl plays with the little boy while her father works for the boy's grandmother. The story shows that they are living in a country that speaks Spanish, but it does not specify which one.
Then we see the father and daughter load up onto the back of a pick-up truck. They hunch down, under the coat of darkness, and hide from some unknown threat in the back of that red pick-up truck. The little girl is still telling us what she sees, and wonders why she has to hide. Her father tells her that they are trying to go somewhere where he can find work, somewhere safer for her.
The last picture of the book is that of a large wall, separating the little girl and her father from their salvation.
The book was Two White Rabbits, by Jairo Buitrago, and the very last page of the book is three paragraphs explaining what the book was about. Still written in age-appropriate terms, the author makes a statement about refugees and the humanity of immigration. Then, the author leaves the readers with this question,
"What can we do better to help refugees and immigrants coming to America for a better life?"
I posed this question to my three and six year old.
My three year old daughter suggested that we let them live with us. She said, "We have a sunroom and an extra bed upstairs and a living room couch. They could eat our food and live with us." I was sure to tell her how generous her suggestion was, and that we should think about doing something like that as a family, but also pointed out that her idea would only help one family. "How can we help them all?" I asked.
My son, at six years old, replied, "We could paint their skin white."
In that moment, my heart shattered. I knew that my son was well aware of racism, seeing as how we had just gone through black history month and it was fresh on his mind. However, the book never, NOT ONCE, mentioned anything about race. That was something he inferred with his knowledge that there are disproportionate amounts of people of color living in poverty today, and that many people who "need help" are people of color.
I wanted to hug him (and pat myself on the back like a girl with a white savior complex) for his awareness, but I also immediately recognized the harmfulness of his suggestion. I told him that while he was right, that if the little girl and her father had white skin it was far more likely that they would enter America with little problem (cough Melania's Einstein Visa cough), but that wasn't the real problem. The real problem is that people still see brown and black skin as inferior to white skin, and if we paint them white, we're agreeing with that idea. I told him that we have to tell people how beautiful brown and black skin is, not only so white people know, but also so little brown and black kids know that they are just as beautiful as he is.
My son proceeded to roll his eyes and say, "Mom, I know they're the same as me. The bad people just don't know any better."
And that's the thing. At this point in our nation's history, it's rare we come across overt instances of racism. It certainly occurs, far more than someone like myself could ever realize, but it's definitely better than it was before. Now, we are regulated to smiling and nodding to the older generation's inadvertent or "playful" racism. We are fed lies about how broken black culture is, and how the disproportionate representation of black men in prison is a result of individual criminal behavior. We're told that Latinos are rapists and murderers. The media confirms these harmful and incorrect stereotypes by relaying stories that fit the narrative that black and brown people are criminals. And because of certain legal limitations (Don't get me started on McCleskey v. Kemp or Alexander v Sandoval), there is little we can do to challenge the legalized system of racism that's been in place since Jim Crow was smacked down.
We are raising our children in a society that thinks systemic racism is dead, but if you look closely, racism is alive and well. It hides in every nook and cranny of our criminal justice system. If you're struggling to understand how that's possible, I recommend reading The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. No matter how "woke" you think you are, I promise there are things you can do better. I promise there is more you need to know.
We can do better as parents. We can do things like making sure they consume media that contains equal representation of race, religion, socioeconomic status, gender identity, sexuality, and ability. We can point out racism when it occurs, even it makes us uncomfortable to do so. We can EDUCATE ourselves, so we can educate our children.
I think if the kids from Parkland have proved anything, it's that our youth is definitely on the right track. They're driven, passionate, and educated, and we need to do everything we can to ensure that trend continues. We need to continue to instill the kind of values that make for good human beings, and make sure our children have the tools to implement those values.
Whether its anti-immigration, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia- there are so many issues that are plaguing America right now. Even if you only focus on ONE of them, you can do a lot of good. Taking a moment to talk about these issues in ways that children can understand is not only very important, but it is vital to a healing society.
I wasn't anticipating having an immigration and race discussion that night on the couch with my children, but when the opportunity arose I embraced the hell out of it and turned the moment into something they could carry with them.
So, the next time you go to the library, not only do I challenge you to make sure at least half of the books contain characters of color, I also challenge you to pick up a book that will set up a good family discussion about one of the major issues dividing America. They're written for children for a reason. And if you're thinking, "This doesn't have anything to with us", you're looking at this the wrong way. Educating your children about issues that don't involve them directly will help them develop the kind of compassion and understanding that many privileged children never receive.
And no matter who you are, I'm sure we can all agree that most Americans could stand to have a little more compassion and a little more understanding right now.