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Talking about MLK, Race, and Diversity with Kids and Why It’s Important

Talking about race and diversity with our children can be hard, but it is so important.

Talking about MLK, Race, and Diversity with Kids and Why It's Important

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With each step on my morning run, “nasara, nasara, nasara!” chimed in my ears. I needed no music to pace my steps, just that lyrical chant punctuated with giggles and small footsteps. Children surrounded me, smiling, gawking, chasing as I ran down the street. Men stood smoking and talking and watching me from doorways and courtyards. Women were absent, in line with cultural norms.

On one hand, twenty year old me thought (almost) nothing of the chants and stares. I had gotten used to it. On the other, I was a student studying abroad in N’Gaoundéré, Cameroon; only one of a handful of white people in the entire region. I was conspicuous everywhere I went, and I knew it.

Nasara literally means “white person,” and my fellow study abroad companions became just as accustomed as I to hearing that chant nearly everywhere we went. I may have heard it more on my not-so-typical-for-the-area morning runs (especially as a woman, living in a Muslim city). Coming from children, it was endearing and radiated curiosity. Coming from adults, however, it sounded like—you’re different, you’re an outsider, you don’t belong . . .

Talking about MLK, Race, and Diversity with Kids and Why It's Important

And that, in brief, was my first experience with racism. I hesitate to call it racism as such, because this was eleven years ago, and the world has changed. I also hesitate to call it racism because it’s not exactly the dictionary definition of racism. But most of all, I hesitate to call it racism because nothing happened to me—sans a sense of antagonism from some based on the color of my skin. While I ran, it may have also been because of my action and my gender. However, it happened at other times too, alone as well as in the company of my fellow white students. At its core, even words and actions and chants as innocuous as this have some degree of racism involved, I believe.

What does this have to do with Martin Luther King Jr. Day?

Typical white girl, you may be thinking. Wrapping up HER experience with “racism” (cough, cough) with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. How absurd. But is it?

The truth? I don’t know. I don’t think so. My experience was not as severe (understatement of the century) as the legacy of discrimination, racism, Jim Crow, slavery, and oppression felt by generations of African Americans in this country. But it did teach me something—more than all the classes I took semester after semester in college and graduate school relating to race issues, African and African American history, discrimination, and social justice.

It taught me that MLK’s work for justice and peace was more important that I ever could have realized for our country. For four months I “endured” taunts related to my skin color. But I also met many, many people who wanted to get to know me. As a white woman, I may never understand the depths of what Dr. King and the other heroes of the Civil Rights era did and the hope their work brought to many. I pray that their legacy will not be undone by the politics and actions of recent years and the past election cycle in particular.

No matter what happens in Washington however, we need to teach our children about the importance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his work of reconciliation. We are at a volatile time in our nation’s history, or so it seems, and teaching the next generation right from wrong is crucial. Even if it’s uncomfortable. Our children deserve this.

Ways To Teach Your Children About Dr. King

My son is still a baby—all he says is “ba ba ba.” It will be years before I can have an in depth, meaningful conversation with him about race and diversity. But I am already thinking about how I will be teaching him, even in the smallest of the small ways, about the legacy of Dr. King. About why we choose peace and equality. About respect for MLK Day, that it’s not just a day off but a day to remember an important man and a movement.

There are many different age appropriate ways to talk to your children about Martin Luther King, Jr. and all he stood for. Reading books together is a great way to jumpstart the discussion if personal anecdotes are hard to come by. Fun activities and service projects have lasting impacts too. No matter what you do, don’t let this day pass you by without letting it at least start the conversation in your household.

One Unconventional Way To Teach Yourself About Dr. King

Maybe before you teach your children, you want to teach yourself. There are many books, documentaries, and other resources available online about Martin Luther King, Jr. One unconventional suggestion I have is to read (or listen to! #IHeartAudiobooks) the newest Jodi Picoult novel, Small Great Things. Written from the perspective of a Black nurse, a skinhead father, and a white public defender, this novel will challenge you to grapple with your views on race and prejudice in America today. I promise. This is a powerful novel.

The title of Picoult’s book is a nod to a quote often attributed to Dr. King: “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” In the book, the nurse and public defender have a significant conversation about talking about race with their children. The white public defender confesses she always bumbles through it and is impressed with how the nurse handles it with her son. To this, the nurse replies, “Practice makes perfect.”

How do you discuss race and diversity with your children?

How will you celebrate MLK Day this year?

* Note: I realize that this conversation about Dr. King and conversations with our children about race can be expanded to discuss tolerance in many areas. However, I chose to just focus on race and diversity in that realm since that was the original intention of this holiday.  

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