I’ve just watched and re-watched a powerful video of the former dean of Stanford University, writer and speaker Julie Lythcott-Haims (who by the way is bi-racial African-American and white British, living in the US) being interviewed by Sir Ken Robinson’s daughter Kate (who by the way is white British-French and living in the UK).
Until the 25th May 2020, when George Floyd’s brutal and senseless murder by a US policeman rocked the world, we had spent several months mainly concerned with managing Covid-19 pandemic-related stresses, precarity and uncertainty. Robinson and Lythcott-Haims talk about urgent lessons in anti-racist parenting and educating today in this new George Floyd era. It has struck me, as it did Kate, that we may now be trying to juggle a double dose of anxiety and confusion. It’s important to face this head on as we continue trying to raise happy, courageous, confident, principled children.
Kate first asks Julie: How can I be a parent who does not simply expect that by being non-racist I will raise a non-racist child, but rather as my child’s biggest role model, sincerely embody the change I wish to see in the world, starting at home?
Julie preceeds her reply with the horrifyingly gentle reminder: “Let us not presume everybody listening is white”. Boom! I was caught out.
She goes on to remind us that black parents in the US simply don’t have the luxury of deciding whether to talk about racism with their young children. It’s literally a matter of survival. As a child of 3 or 4 years old, she learned about racism “from the looks of strangers on the street”. Parents of children of colour have a more challenging, yet all the more important task to ensure that their children feel:
You are unconditionally loved.
You are precious.
You are worthy of kindness and love and dignity.
At the same time, parents of children of colour have to prepare their babies for a world where some people will presume they are criminals, violent, lazy or uncivilised, just because of their skin colour or features.
Young children notice sameness and difference and they notice their parents’ behaviour. So rather than rushing an embarrassingly direct toddler out of the supermarket when he or she loudly observes racial difference, we can diffuse a potentially awkward situation with gentle kindness and model some great parenting for onlookers, whilst exploiting the opportunity to teach our child about the wonder and joy of diversity.
Julie: “There is nothing wrong with difference. In fact our remarkable differences as a human species are beautiful and real and valid. Our task is to ensure that our children do not attach value labels, value judgements to those differences.”
This pulled me straight back with whiplash to my “closlieu” alternative art studio dream, where we paint-play together in our diversity and solidarity, where no value judgements are made and we celebrate each individual’s uniqueness.
Kate wonders: “Where does racism come from?”
Julie: “It comes from attitudes, beliefs, ignorance, lack of exposure to people who are different or very biased exposure to people who are different. As parents, we need to examine our own assumptions and presumptions, actions, behaviours, reactions. Our kids are listening to every word we say and they are watching everything we do. So we as parents have to ask ourselves, “Do I love black people?” “Do I see black people as being equally human to me?”
She continues: “Coming to you from America, where we dehumanise black folk, because we do not see black folk as equally human. They enslaved us because they didn’t think we were human – and I know I’m speaking to my former colonialist empire here (Kate is British). They ripped us from the arms of our parents and children on the auction block as we cried and our cries were met with no mercy, because they did not see our family bonds as rising to the level of their family bonds.”
As a white person, some of the questions I need to confront are the following: Do I see different coloured people as equally human? Or do I see stereotypes? Do I have friends of different races? Do I actively seek out places, organisations, opportunities to connect with people who are different from me? If the answer is no, then there is a message here which is not entirely anti-racist, which I am tacitly and implicitly transmitting to my children.
Reading edifying books, watching critical documentaries, having those fundamental conversations, all this is great, but I must also be brave enough to ask, “why have I chosen to live a life where I am usually surrounded by white people?” I need to continue to be curious about places where I might have blind spots and actively connect with people of all colours, locals, migrant workers, refugees, whatever the dynamic is where I live.
These are just a few of the salient and sobering points Julie Lythcott-Haims brought up in the interview. I urge you to listen for yourselves here:
Stay safe, stay strong. #blacklivesmatter