For a list of 18 Powerful Children’s Books About Race and Racism, go to The Barefoot Mommy blog.
A child is never too young to learn about racism and how to fight it, says a Memphis minister and author.
The younger the better, says the Rev. Rebekah Gienapp, who believes in putting white kids as young as toddler-aged on the path of racial awareness — the better to avert beliefs of racial superiority.
“White kids are a lot more likely to live in completely white neighborhoods and go to mostly white childcare centers. And they can get the idea because we don’t tend to talk about it that white is normal and then be more likely to look at a child who is black or Latino or Asian, and really focus on how they’re different,” said Gienapp (pronounced Gee-nap), a white Episcopal minister who lives in Memphis.
“But if instead, we talk about the ways that we all have different shades of skin and many different colors that normalizes talking about race so that as they get older, they’re more willing to ask questions,” she said.
It’s the premise of her ebook, published in November, “Raising Antiracist Kids: An Age by Age Guide for Parents of White Children.”
The book, with sections for toddlers, preschoolers, elementary-age children and middle schoolers, focuses on ways to teach children to be conscious of race and the impact perceptions of race has on people’s experiences.
In Memphis, one of the nation’s poorest cities, the impact is great. The poverty rate for non-Hispanic black people is 33.8% compared with 11.8% for non-Hispanic whites, according to the University of Memphis’ 2019 Memphis Poverty Fact Sheet.
Poverty is a strong predictor of outcomes for people’s lives, according to data analyzed by the Opportunity Atlas, a U.S. Census Bureau collaboration with Raj Chetty and Nathan Hendren at Harvard University and John Friedman at Brown University. The atlas compares the 2014–15 incomes for people now in their 30s, who were raised in certain ZIP codes.
For instance, the average 2014–15 income for people who grew up in the South Memphis ZIP code 38126 was $17,000, while the average income for those who grew up in the Germantown ZIP code 38139 was $48,000.
Local schools reflect the disparity: “A little more than half of Memphis schools are highly segregated, in which 90% or more of students are black,” according to an analysis by Chalkbeat, a nonprofit newsroom that focuses on education. “That’s up from about 40% in 1971 when a Memphis judge used those statistics to call for a plan to end school segregation.”
How race fits into people’s experiences wasn’t taught to her generation as kids, said Gienapp, 42, who for three years has blogged about parenting through a social justice lens at The Barefoot Mommy.
“For millennial and Gen X white parents, a lot of us were raised in this era where people thought it was a good thing to try and be colorblind, so we didn’t really get talked to about race in helpful ways as kids,” she said. “If we’re telling them to be colorblind, we’re really telling them to ignore racism because if you’re not supposed to see race, then you can’t call out racism when it’s happening.”
Parents awakened, energized by Trump policies
Requests for more information about talking to children about race and perceived white superiority from her mostly white blog readership prompted Gienapp, who had left work as a community organizer to be a stay-at-home mom, to write the book.
The election of Donald Trump as president and accompanying emboldened cases of racism, an era of migrant children being detained by the government and frequent police shootings of unarmed black people have activist parents like her trying to figure out how to translate issues into kid-friendly language, Gienapp said.
“I started to feel like I needed to be doing more social justice again and thought about how I could be doing that with kids,“ she said. “Compared to even 10 years ago, there’s a lot more white parents realizing you can’t wait until children are in high school or college to start having these conversations about race and racism.”
The Rev. Edith Love sees the need.
“Race is very possibly the most compelling issue that divides people across the world, unfortunately,” said Love, who is white and the mother of five children, including a 4-year-old African American daughter. “The only way we’re going to be able to shift this mess is if white people step up.”
“White people should be talking to each other and educating each other about all of the horrible things that we have perpetuated as a group and what we’re still benefiting from,” said Love, a Unitarian Universalist minister.
She was offended when neighbors stereotyped a group of black boys who physically attacked her 16-year-old white son in January as violent thugs. Her son had given one of the strangers a dollar when asked but was beaten when he didn’t give them more money.
Love characterizes the incident as bullying, in which race wasn’t a factor.
“There’s been underlying racism and racial hatred and the illusions of racial white superiority that’s been around since before the country was founded,” Love said. “But our current administration has ripped the veil off and made people more bold with their hatred and their nastiness and their animus.”
“It’s way past time for white people to step up and say, ‘I don’t want to participate in this. I don’t want to keep benefiting from this. I don’t want to keep pretending that this is not going on because you’re not doing your kids any favors and you’re not doing society any favors,” Love said.
How to move forward, kids in tow
Embracing antiracism — understanding the system of racism and how to root it out — is explored by Ibram X. Kendi in his best-selling book “How to Be An Antiracist.”
“What we say about race, what we do about race, in each moment, determines what — not who — we are,” Kendi writes.
With that in mind, Gienapp, Love and others are taking action.
Parents and educators can learn about talking to children about race and injustice at a workshop at 10 a.m. March 28 at Evergreen Presbyterian Church, 1567 Overton Park. Atlanta psychologists Marietta Collins and Marianne Celano, co-authors of the fictional “Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice,” will lead the workshop.
“We continue to need this kind of education with white parents basically acknowledging their privilege, and also trying to make changes starting within their families and within their own neighborhoods,” said Collins, who grew up in Memphis. “It’s really important that both black and white parents, as well as parents of other races, raise race-conscious children as opposed to children who are colorblind.”
“By race-conscious, it means that they are aware of their race and they are aware of other races and differences. … It doesn’t prevent us from establishing relationships or friendships,” she said.
Again, that should start with the tots, Gienapp said. Toddlers need to know it’s OK to notice skin tones.
“Instead of getting nervous when your kid points out in public that someone has a different skin tone, let it flow into a natural conversation: ‘Yeah, his skin is different than ours. Isn’t it interesting how we come in so many different shades?’ ” she said. “Young kids have all these misconceptions, things like skin color comes from the foods we eat. So have a discussion about melanin and what that is and where it comes from.”
Middle-school age is a good time to talk to white kids about issues like the societal privileges that benefit white people, such as enjoying a trip to the mall free of targeted surveillance by shops or the expectation that all the teachers at a new school will be the same race as the student, she said.
And preschoolers would benefit from exposure to books with children of color as main characters engaged in everyday activities, as well as those touching on social issues and events, such as the civil rights movement, Gienapp said.
That’s a tactic she’s used with her son, now a 7-year-old attending a predominantly white private school.
“He started making some connections since we did a little bit at a time,” Gienapp said. “We can have some pretty complicated conversations now that he’s 7.”
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation, the Southern Documentary Project at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, the American Journalism Project, the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, and Community Change.