Natalie Quiring-Oleson considered herself open-minded about race. But George Floyd's killing by Minneapolis police exposed what she calls her "blinds spots" about racism. She began reading books, such as "How to be an Antiracist" by Ibram X. Kendi. She listened to podcasts and watched documentaries, including "13th." And Quiring-Oleson, a social worker at Jewish Family and Children's Service of Minneapolis, channeled her soul searching into an article titled, "How to talk to your white kids about racism." She reflects below on her childhood, her desire to play even a small part in deconstructing structural racism and why it's OK for parents to embrace their shortcomings.
Q: What did you discover about yourself in the process of writing this article?
A: Most of my blind spots originated in my upbringing and my education. I am a white person. I was raised in St. Cloud by very well-meaning, liberal parents that were middle class and comfortable. And we didn't talk about this stuff. This was a time when "color blindness" was the goal: Treat everybody the same and everything would be fine. I went through my adulthood thinking that was good enough. I didn't outwardly hold overtly racist views. And even when I think back to what my school taught me, it sort of made me think that racism was over. You study slavery, you do your two or three days on the civil rights movement, but you didn't talk about anything of the racism that exists today.
Q: Is that why you wanted to write a how-to for parents? To get people talking?
A: Nothing against my parents; they were just doing what they thought was right. But I do believe that if I had been raised talking about this, I would have known more. I kind of put that hat on and said, Let me just talk to other white people. When is it appropriate to talk about racism and centuries of injustice and unfair laws? Well, all of that is really a privileged way to think. You get to decide when, if ever, to talk about systemic racism with your kids. But communities of color don't have that option. Police were never scary to me. They were helpful. That is not the case in many, many other homes where kids have to learn all these rules. I was never told rules. It's embarrassing to say now. I just didn't know. I didn't understand.
Q: So, how do you talk to your white kids about racism?
A: Start by educating yourself. This is the same whether you're talking to your kids about sex, divorce, depression or any other difficult conversation. Ignorance and racism go hand-in-hand. If you don't really understand it yourself, there's no way you can easily explain it. And start small. It's OK to talk to your toddlers about diversity. But explaining systemic racism to a 2-year-old is probably not going to work.
Q: What makes it so scary?
A: Parents think they have to have all of the answers. Don't let your own discomfort keep your children ignorant. Do some research together or say you don't know. That's a great thing for a kid to hear: I am not sure why people made these choices, but they did. Now we're here. It's always OK to circle back to something. Parents think that if they don't say it absolutely perfectly the first time, they're out of luck. It's OK to say, "I thought more about that and I forgot to say this." Expect questions. Whether it's that day or the following week, your kid is going to think about this and stew on it and they're going to come back to you and want to talk more.
Q: So, keep the conversation going?
A: The best way to raise anti-racist kids is to be anti-racist yourself. Are all of their toys white? Are all of their books white? Do you show them movies that portray people of color? Do you have people in your life who are not white? Do you have them spend time with other kids who are not white? All of those things you can start doing from birth. Maybe when you're watching a TV show and all the characters are white people, casually bring that up with your child. Or if there is a Black person on screen, how are they portrayed? Is that good? Is that not so good? It can come out in all of these other non-obvious, non-direct ways. All of us carry some racial bias. Anti-racism is the active process of noticing, addressing and correcting racism.
Q: How can oversimplifying things harm the way kids understand racism?
A: We sometimes try to present the world in absolute terms to kids, because it's easier. I've heard people say, "It's bad guys who steal stuff." But at some point we're going to have to complicate that. Because it's not only bad people who steal things. Lots of people end up breaking laws. Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were breaking laws because they were unjust laws. Explain to your kids that bad laws get changed because brave people break them, and are often punished for doing so. George Floyd was suspected of breaking a law. But I still don't believe he deserved to be murdered for it. The world is not one or the other, people are not all good or all bad. Good people do bad things all the time.
Q: What has it been like for you to step into this difficult subject so publicly?
A: After the article came out, I was asked to give a workshop with a colleague on how to raise anti-racist children. It felt a little odd. I will never be an expert on racism or anti-racism. It is not my lived experience and it will never be my lived experience. I don't want to be at the forefront of anything. But I also don't want to throw up my hands and say I can't do anything, either. It's not 100% on Black people to educate us about racism.
Q: Some readers will be disappointed that you don't offer more specifics.
A: The feedback from the workshop was that we had spent too much time on education. I think there were parents who thought I was going to hand them a script: "This is what you start by saying." You know your kid better than I do. You have to trust that you will know how to do it. I can give you some general guidelines. But you work by knowledge and intuition, which is so much of parenting anyway, no matter the subject.
Q: Beyond finding ways to talk to their children, what else can parents do?
A: I think our educational systems are becoming a lot more aware and hopefully it's shifting. But if all your kid is learning about is Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, while those are two very important people, that is not the whole story. I had a client who is part Native American. On Columbus Day or Thanksgiving, she heard her kindergartner was learning about it in a very whitewashed way. She sent an e-mail to the teacher and said, "This is upsetting my child." And the teacher was quite receptive to it, saying, "I should be teaching this in a different way." So even getting involved with the school system can be helpful.
Q: Are there other helpful resources you can suggest?
A: A website called booksforlittleones.com has a great "Anti-Racism for Kids 101." EmbraceRace.org has a list of diverse books aimed at children. An article in USA Today provides a helpful explainer on microagressions. Many articles have been written highlighting books for adults, but I like the one in New York Magazine's, the Strategist. I also found "The New Jim Crow" by Michelle Alexander and "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" by Beverly Tatum to be great resources.
Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335