In the wake of the sharp media focus on the spate of black teens shot by white police officers comes a rash of articles declaring that racism is not only alive and well in America but also ravagely rampant. Crippling if you’re a young black male.
One writer – a white man married to a black woman – admits he prays his son remains light skinned because black men are so limited in what they’re allowed to do and the darker you are, the more prejudice you face. At the conclusion of the article, he surmises his daughter will be even more limited because as she will not only face racism but sexism as well.
He is certain that his son will not be able to go shopping without being trailed as a potential shoplifter but misses the truth – that almost all teens (exclusive of skin color) face the same problem. He says that when black men succeed, everyone assumes it’s due to affirmative action but he neglects to mention that women hear it’s because they slept their way to the top.
He goes on to say that as a white man, he can loiter in wealthy neighborhoods. Ask any teenager about this and they’ll tell you that they are not allowed to loiter anywhere. We are a paranoid culture and anything that looks out of place raises our suspicions. If a black, Mexican or white person visits a neighborhood where everyone else is of a different color, it is an unfortunate reality that suspicions will be raised.
The author feels that anyone can lose their temper except darker skinned black teens. But the truth is that if you are tall, big and male you’re likely to look scary. If you are short, small and female, you’re likely to look silly. Regardless of who you are, if you have a temper tantrum in public, you’re not going to leave a favorable impression.
He lists other things that his black son will not be able to do – just because of race. And while his points may be accurate in some places, some of the time, his expectation that his children will be limited may become a self-fulfilling prophesy. We often get what we expect.
Perhaps the most powerful lesson we can provide to our children is that regardless of their age or race or gender, level of ability or sexual orientation, they will face challenges. And everyone – regardless of age or race or gender, level of ability or sexual orientation has strengths and advantages to leverage to make life work.
In every family tree there are people who have suffered, who have been victimized, who have made terrible decisions, who have triumphed, excelled and changed the world. It’s up to parents to decide which legacy to leave the children. Tell the stories. Tell the truth. But recognize that if you are here there is a spark of strength and health, brilliance and spirit that has been handed down like a precious, hidden gem generation after generation. It is a disservice not to help children see that in themselves and know where it came from.
As parents we have a choice when our kids complain about the lot they’ve been dealt. We can empathize with them so they feel heard. We can tell them it stinks so they know we understand. We can tell them about others like them who are also facing the same challenges so they don’t feel alone. And we can sit with them in that place for some time, but at some point we need to help them see that while they have some disadvantages, they also have a whole lot of advantages. After we’ve listened, we can ask them – where does your strength lie? What can you put to work for you? What did other people dealt the same hand do in order to succeed?
Or, we can tell them they’re a victim because of something they are powerless to change. We can reinforce that life is just awful for them and it always will and there’s nothing they can do about it. We can teach them that any failure they have is a result of how other people treat (girls, boys, blacks, whites, Asians, teens, children, the rich, the poor, the disabled, g/l/b/t). We can point out all the things that they can’t do that others can – simply because of who they are.
I cannot imagine a parent writing this article about a gay or disabled child – telling them what they can’t do because the world will never let them. What a disservice. How unempowering and utterly discouraging.
Parents need to decide every day in how they will help their children deal with discrimination. Will we help them to leverage their strengths or teach them that their lot in life is to be a victim? If we want our children to overcome the hurdles life places in front of them, we need to strengthen their advantages instead of pointing them down the path of victimhood.