Our Story Begins:
Talking About Racism to Your Kids
My kids aren’t exceptionally athletic. In an unfortunate set of genetics, they seem to have all received the exact same amount of athletic ability as their father: none.
But growing up in the Midwest I didn’t really care; I played football in the fall, basketball in the spring . . . and in the summer . . . baseball. I’ll go ahead and date myself: I was a kid who loved the Kansas City Royals. I was in the era of George Brett, Willie Wilson and Hal McRae. If you don’t remember those names, it’s okay. Bear in mind that’s the team from the summer of 1985 and the Royals were at their peak. It was baseball, integrated, America’s past-time with teams diverse and truly teams, not individuals.
But my kids don’t have sports memories in their childhoods. I found it difficult to get their interest in it and for the most part it hasn’t done them much harm.
If you’re unfamiliar, this is more than a number. It’s the number on the back of a baseball jersey . . . the jersey of Brooklyn Dodgers player Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play major league baseball. Robinson’s number is the only number retired in all of baseball.
I realize here, for good or ill, race has not been a topic of discussion in my house. So when the movie portrays Robinson’s story – albeit in the dramatized, Hollywood format – the racism is front and center. A particularly terrible scene plays out when the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies stands on deck and pelts Robinson with racist insult after racist insult. My sons are visibly uncomfortable when they see it and I empathize, but still . . . I don’t change the channel.
“Why is he doing that,” my son asks more than a little disturbed?
“I can’t explain it easily,” I tell him, “but a lot of times when people are afraid they act badly. Some of it is they were scared. Some is pushed on them by their parents. It’s just bad. There were – and are – people who thought that way.”
“But he’s a really good player,” my son exclaims pointing at the number “42” on the jersey facing us on the screen.
“Our country wasn’t always the way it is today. We’re not even doing such a great job today,” I tell him.
In seeing this movie, the story of such a brave man who did such amazing things, I realize that race isn’t something we’ve discussed before. Not in these terms. We live in a suburb that isn’t very diverse. They don’t see the anger or hear anyone use the “n” word to describe someone. My twin sons were very young when we moved to California and even before then they never saw anything like what Robinson faced.
Add to this the fact that my kids have grown up with a father who is a musician steeped in American blues. On her 5th birthday my daughter met the King of the Blues, BB King. Abbi respectfully called him “Mr. King” and in return he called her “princess.” It is a source of pride for me that she tells everyone she befriends that he gave her his personal pin off his lapel. She never saw the color of his skin nor does she see a need to do so. To her he was simply amazing.
My sons weren’t appalled so much as confused by what they saw in the movie 42. It’s here I realize that the discussion about how they should behave toward others sometimes requires seeing how badly we’ve behaved in the past. Income discrepancies, mistreatment, discrimination, all of those things are still reality. Today it’s almost more dangerous in its subtlety, where there isn’t necessarily a man standing on the field shouting epithets for the world to hear.
This movie may not have been the best example of civil rights moving forward, but it’s a great way to talk about why people like Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks and so many others are so important, not for what they did, but for what we still need to do.
Do you talk to your kids about race? Racism? We just finished Black History Month, did you talk about the history and what it means for today?
Dave Manoucheri is a writer, musician and journalist based in Sacramento, California. A father of four, two daughters and twin sons, his blog, Our Story Begins is a chronicle of their daily life after the loss of his wife, Andrea, in March of 2011. Follow him on Twitter @InvProducerMan.