Teaching Kids to Talk About Race
I took my eleven-year-old on a walk through the woods the other day. I’m not an avid hiker and I would never go on an obscured path, but this path was so well marked even I felt confident.
We had a delightful time chatting about what seventh grade might be like and then, as 11-year-olds do, he asked a question out of the blue, “What do you think about Uncle Tom’s Cabin?” I wasn’t even aware that he had read that novel. He admitted that he hadn’t read it, but he had heard about it, and he knew that it would be insulting to be called an Uncle Tom.
I told him that though the Uncle Tom character is imperfect and problematic, the book was very important at the time. He protested and said that Uncle Tom was too… too… obedient! I took the opportunity to teach him a new word and said, “You mean obsequious?” It was delightful listening to his tongue stumble over itself as he tried to say that word and I told him that enslaved people had to be obedient or risk torture, but Tom was overly simple and servile, overly fond of his enslavers and unrealistically happy.
Nevertheless, I told him, the book did something very important: it brought to the hearth of genteel Northern women the reality of the brutal slave system. I told him about another character, Simon Legree, who was ruthlessly cruel; he raped and beat slaves with impunity, and since there was no internet back then, those in the North could remain conveniently aloof to the vicious nature of slavery. But Stowe created a word picture that was impossible to ignore. Her book aided the Abolitionist Movement as white people were more comfortable reading the words of a white woman than a Black abolitionist, and the only book to outsell it in the 19th century was the Bible.
Such conversations teach critical thinking. Stowe hated slavery, but she was also a white supremacist; she believed white people to be superior. And yet, her book was used for good. How important is it to know that things can be complex; they can be both good and bad! How many kids, how many adults, realize this?
We might not all know about the intricacies of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but most of us hear the news and we have a choice. We can read broadly and teach our kids that poverty springs out of a complex web of problems - and that many poor people have a profound work ethic but have been shut out of opportunity. We can teach them the motivation and the positive influence of movements like Black Lives Matter, even as we are honest about the parts we may consider troubling. We can tell them that of course systems can be racist (systems are created by people and people can be racist!), that there is no doubt that aspects of Critical Race Theory are true, even if we believe that parts of it are false. We can teach them the good and bad of both political parties and refuse to demonize either.
In other words, we can make sure that we are raising and educating a generation of kids which think critically, compassionately, and wisely. Isn’t that what we desire in leaders?