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Opinion: How Do We Talk to Our Children About White Supremacy?

Opinion: We are at a cultural crossroads, and though it's hard, we can't afford to stay silent about racism and white supremacy. We need to talk to our children.

by Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve /
Image: White nationalists carry torches on the grounds of the University of Virginia, on the eve of a planned Unite The Right rally in CharlottesvilleSTRINGER / Reuters

PHILADELPHIA, Penn. — Families of color have never had the luxury of considering whether to talk to their kids about prejudice and racism. However, with the divisive and racist language of Pres. Donald Trump, the normalizing of white supremacy and the neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, families across America are realizing that they can no longer sugarcoat racism nor shield their children with privilege.

As a sociologist and scholar who specializes in the study of race and racism, I know that we are at a cultural crossroads. We are in a post-Obama era where the myth of a colorblind or post-racial society has been exposed as a lie. Brewing in our culture was an undercurrent of violent, racial hatred and resentment that is now being emboldened by our President. Hate crimes against people of color are rising; according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there were 900 hate and bias incidents alone between Election Day and the 10 days after that. In addition, the number of hate groups in the United States rose for a second year in a row in 2016.

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With the election of Donald Trump, white supremacists are violently coming out of the shadows and their hoods are now off. If we want to create lasting cultural change and move the tides of politics towards racial equality, it is essential to teach our children that racism is violence.

As parents, we are responsible for speaking out against it. Our children must know our values and be empowered to discuss racism rather than deny it. There is no way to sugarcoat it, not doing it only perpetuates the hatred and pain.

Recently, I began talking to my son, who is seven, about Charlottesville. I will admit that despite being an expert on the study of racism, talking candidly to my child felt devastating and uncertain.

When I was little, I remember the late Fred Rogers saying that whenever something tragic happens, "always look for the helpers — there will always be helpers." It is through identifying and showing the "helpers" that we can give our children a sense of peace and safety in this confusing world that not only feels unsafe but is unsafe for families of color. We have to talk about racism and violence while reassuring them there are “helpers” in this world.

I showed my son a censored clip from the new VICE documentary on Charlottesville — only the first minute and a half to avoid the more overt violence. It opens with white supremacists holding torches and chanting hateful messages.

My son said, "Mama, I feel scared for people of color...so scared." I admitted that I felt scared too because these men are hateful and dangerous and that would make anyone scared — even “the big people.” I continued to show the video where the heroic protesters were resisting the white supremacists by standing in solidarity with linked arms. It shows people of color and white advocates standing in resistance, chanting messages of love, including that “black lives matter.” I told my son: "Those are the helpers, mijo. They are the good in the world.”

We ended with a long discussion about the bravery of the "helpers." I reassured him that kids do not have to fight these battles; it is the adults’ role to protect them. I explained that there are many ways to fight racism and white supremacy, including donating to charities that help support peaceful protesters or as in my work, writing and exposing injustice through research, activism and advocacy.

 Scholar, author and educator Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve. NBC News

I listened and fielded questions about his own racial identity, how he fears for his friends with “darker skin” and his friends of the Jewish faith. We ended by talking about how he could be a “helper” to his own classmates if he ever saw someone being bullied or mistreated for being different.

Parenting is an uncertain journey. If there is any lasting legacy that I want to impart upon my sons, it is the message that they are the ambassadors of goodness in this world. I want them to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with a clear moral compass — regardless of who occupies the White House.

Staying silent to our kids about racism is a type of complicity in these times. We must all work to be the “helpers” in this moment and it begins by raising the next generation of “helpers” to come.

This article is dedicated to the lasting legacy of Fred Rogers, who was a teacher and peacemaker and still inspires my scholarship and parenting to this day.

Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve is Assistant Professor at Temple University in the Department of Criminal Justice. Her award-winning book, Crook County: Racism and Injustice in America's Largest Criminal Court was an NAACP Image Award Finalist, a two-time Prose Award Winner and a recent winner of three “Best Book” distinctions by the American Sociological Association.

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