As organizers of peaceful children’s protests on the Upper West Side, Amanda Fialk and Emmanuelle Saal-Fye strive to engage more kids and families in an ongoing conversation about systemic racism. As parents with young children, they are also mindful of the importance of addressing racial topics in an age-appropriate way. Amanda and Emmanuelle spoke with us about the necessity of sustaining an open conversation about race from an early age.
Amanda and Emmanuelle, who are white, both have a biracial family and are raising Black children. For Black families and families with Black children, having the talk about race is not a choice but a matter of emotional and physical safety.
“Life and death depend on having that talk. So, with my son, who is only three years old at this point, the dialogue around race, racism, and diversity began from the second that he was born,” said Amanda. “Right now, the world sees him as cute. Eventually, they are going to see him as a threat. And it’s my beautiful little boy.”
Similarly for Emmanuelle’s family, the talk about race took place at an early age. “We’ve always talked about different skin colors… My husband decided to talk to my son around five years old and explained that he might experience prejudice due to his skin color.
However, Amanda emphasized, “It is not the job of the oppressed to protect themselves from being oppressed,”
Instead of opting for silence or “colorblindness” on difficult racial topics, which perpetuates a racist status-quo, families need to actively teach their kids how to identify and respond to racism. Amanda explained that silence “reinforces unchallenged messages that children receive from a variety of socializing agents, like schools, playground, teachers, media, and entertainment. These socializing agents are constantly placing caucasians at the top of the racial hierarchy.”
She further emphasized the responsibility of parents, especially that of white parents. “We, with privilege and power, need to step in. We need to educate children.”
As much as parents want to shield their children from all the negativity of the real world, kids are perceptive and sensitive to what is going on around them. When Emmanuelle went out with a big Black Lives Matter sign, her six-year-old son asked what it meant. When there was a curfew in New York State, Amanda and her husband had to explain to their two girls, who are nine and ten, why it was safer for her to take the dog out at night. In balancing harsh realities with the need to educate their children about racial injustice, parents need to construct a communicative environment and speak about race in an age-appropriate manner.
Amanda and Emmanuelle are focusing on teaching broader concepts and introducing diverse materials. “We are teaching them about racism. We are also teaching them about Black history and great Black characters. When we organized our Juneteenth event, which was a book reading, we spoke about Ruby Bridges and John Lewis,” said Emmanuelle.
Likewise, in addition to teaching concepts such as empathy and justice, Amanda surrounds her three-year-old son with toys that look like him and books that celebrate wonderful Black figures. Professor of Early Childhood and Urban Education Fabienne Doucet at New York University also encourages exploring children’s literature and displaying diverse toys and images at home, which makes race something that is natural and provides a tangible way for kids to ask questions about race.
By the time children get to middle school, they have more access to news and information, especially with electronic devices. As a psychotherapist who works with adolescents and young adults, Amanda stressed how parents should communicate with kids after they see distressing content. “It’s important to understand that we can’t shield them from seeing it, but we can provide them with a safe space to process and to talk about what they are seeing. Because, while some of the content is extraordinarily traumatizing for white children, it is especially so for Black children. To see somebody that looks like their father getting murdered is a trauma.”
Talking to kids about race is not a one-time thing. Instead, it takes years of consistent and conscious efforts to maintain an open and flowing dialogue about racial justice. In addition to bringing diverse cultures into the home and creating a safe space for racial topics from an early age, Amanda and Emmanuelle suggest regular and purposeful use of family time that integrates multimedia resources.
According to Amanda, “You can watch Zootopia as a family and then talk about it afterwards – you can start a conversation at the dinner table. Amanda and Emmanuelle also credit many online educational resources, including the CNN/Sesame Street racism town hall and The Conscious Kid, an organization that is dedicated to promoting positive racial identity development.
Outside their homes, Amanda and Emmanuelle are also striving to sustain a conversation about race with more families through children’s protests. Appalled by anti-Black sentiment in online parent groups, they decided to take matters into their own hands. “Once a week, we want to really try to engage children and families in educating equality and fighting systemic racism,” said Amanda.
Emmanuelle stressed that although these events are family-friendly, they are not gatherings or kids’ activities but protests. “These are political events designed to fight racism.” They also frequently utilize their Instagram account to share resources. With these efforts, NYC Kids for Black Lives aims to keep the momentum going and usher in legitimate change.
Talking to kids about race can be daunting, and no one has all the right answers. But as a society, this is not a conversation we can afford to put off. As children experience evolving ages and stages of childhood, parents have the responsibility to educate their kids about race and equip them with tools to stand up against racial injustice. More importantly, it is up to parents to create a diverse space at home where kids feel safe to continuously engage with racial topics.
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