One of the most often-quoted, and the most poignant, moments in Martin Luther King Jr.’s legendary “I Have a Dream” speech was his stated wish that “my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
As the nation marked the 50th anniversary this week of King’s speech, there has been much reflection on the progress made, and that still to be achieved, since he spoke those words.
When we talk about the civil rights movement, and the progress that has been made, we talk a lot about institutions. We talk about the civil rights legislation that was passed not long after King’s death. The Supreme Court’s recent action to strike down portions of the Voting Rights Act has put that issue back on the table in a big way. And the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman case prompted a lot of talk, too.
Martin’s death prompted many black writers to recall “the talk” — a conversation parents have with children to introduce them to racial discrimination. “The talk” warns children that the color of their skin may one day pose a problem for some people; that their actions, or even their presence, can create tensions for people of other races. It is a sad commentary on the state of our nation, and on the status of Dr. King’s dream, that such talks are so commonplace.
White parents, by and large, are not having “the talk” with their children. But we should. Never mind that the conversation would go somewhat differently.
In 2006, Birgitte Vittrup attempted to conduct a study to find out if white children’s attitudes about race changed after having explicit conversations with their parents about racial differences. However, the study was derailed when only six of the 100 families actually had the conversations they were directed to have. Five other families quit when they were told what the study entailed.
Writing for Newsweek, author Po Bronson noted that the study revealed the damage wrought by the myth of a “color-blind” society: “In this supposed race-free vacuum being created by parents, kids were left to improvise their own conclusions — many of which would be abhorrent to their parents.”
Most parents have had that awkward grocery store moment, where a young child makes a loud and tactless observation. (I think mine was, “Mommy, look at the chocolate man!”) Sometimes these observations reveal those “improvised conclusions,” like a child wondering if a dark-skinned person is “dirty.”
Our instinct as parents is often to shut those conversations down, not-so-subtly shaming the child by admonishing that it “isn’t nice” to say such things. But is that really the message we want to send — that noticing racial difference is somehow a shameful act?
We spend the formative years of childhood teaching our children to notice difference. I do this all the time with my daughter. “What shape is the balloon?,” I ask her. “Can you hand me the red crayon? Show me the picture of the dog.”
My daughter goes to day care with children of different races. If she’s not aware of those differences now, I know she will be one day. When she does become aware of them, I know she’s going to ask that wearying question that all parents have to answer thousands of times: “Why?”
In his Newsweek column, Bronson writes about experiencing this moment with his son. The 4-year-old boy then walked around pointing out black people on the street, saying loudly, “That guy comes from Africa. She comes from Africa, too!”
Bronson was embarrassed, sure. But he also realized why his son was making such a big deal about it.
“It was obvious this was something he’d been wondering about for a while,” Bronson wrote. “He was relieved to have been finally given the key.”
As our children get older, the questions get more difficult — like my 6-year-old nephew asking why most of the baggage handlers and security guards at the airport were black, while most of the people working at the airline counter were white.
I hope that I will have the courage as a parent, not just to answer these questions, but to get out in front of them by having my own version of “the talk” with my daughter. Until we can all — white parents, too — talk about race openly and without shame, it’s tough to imagine how King’s dream will ever become reality.
Emily F. Popek is assistant editor of The Daily Star. She can be reached at 432-1000, ext. 217, or firstname.lastname@example.org.