Rochester Local

Raising Your Kids to be Like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

I want you to take a minute and honestly think: how has your life been shaped by your race? If you are a person of color, this may not be a difficult question for you to answer. As a white person, you may struggle to answer this.

My first memory of personally experiencing racism in America was the summer after fifth grade. My family had moved to America the year before and had, in a year, somewhat acclimated to the Midwestern American culture. Being from Madagascar but having spent the previous eight years in Papua New Guinea, we were obviously the “odd-ball” family in our all-white neighborhood, receiving strange looks and off-hand comments when we shared part of our culture that had previously not been experienced by our neighbors.

On that particular day in May, the sun felt like it was finally emanating considerable warmth so I grabbed a towel and went outside to sit and lie down in the grass. About ten minutes later, one of our neighbors, a white woman and the mother of some of the kids we played with, walked up to me and asked what I was doing. I told her I was laying out in the sun to enjoy it and its warmth, and without missing a beat, she responded, “Why? You’re already darker than the rest of us. Why would you want to get darker?” I remember feeling offended by her comment but my 10-year-old self didn’t know how to respond.

That wasn’t the only encounter of racism I’ve experienced in my life. It’s been 20 years and I’ve had countless run-ins with racism since then: everything from being told my skin was not dark enough to be black, to having my hair pulled to see if it was a weave, to encountering microaggressions in my conversations with “well-meaning” people telling me in bewilderment that I “spoke English really well for a person from Africa,” or skeptically asking me, “Where are you really from?”

I’m from Madagascar and I married a white man from Minnesota. I am a naturalized U.S. Citizen now. My husband Matt and I have three multi-racial children. Our children are fully embedded in their Minnesotan and American culture and identity because we live here. My husband and I work diligently to give them familiarity and comfort with their Malagasy identity. In our home, they are growing up hearing and speaking multiple languages and being exposed to various cultures to make sure that this is also a part of who they are. I have no doubt that at some point in their lives, they will have racist encounters because of their multi-racial identities. Before that happens, Matt and I are raising them to actively be anti-racist like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was perhaps the most well-known spokesperson and activist for the Civil Rights Movement until he was assassinated in 1968. Along with those leading the Civil Rights movement, Dr. King desired equality and human rights for black people in America. He led well-known events like the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the March on Washington and was famous for many speeches, most notably his “I Have a Dream” speech given at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. I cannot in this short blog post cover all of the important work that Dr. King was involved in; I hope you will take the time to read about it on your own, especially on this Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

This day gives us a moment to pause, to reflect on the mission of a civil rights leader who dreamed and worked for a better nation. His work did not cease upon his death; it is carried on by the little boys and girls whom he dreamed would live in a better America than he experienced. But we cannot expect the next generation to follow in his footsteps if we don’t make a conscious effort to instill his powerful words and actions in their lives.

How can we do this as parents?

1) Expose children to reading materials, TV shows, movies, music, and toys with characters of different races and cultures.

I remember being ecstatic when Disney’s Moana came out because finally – finally! – there was a Disney princess that looked like me and had the same Polynesian heritage that I did. I immediately went out and bought our oldest daughter, Gracelyn, a Moana doll because I wanted her to have a doll that looked like she did. My husband and I work to intentionally expose our girls to diverse characters because they love to read and watch TV. One of the shows constantly on rotation in our house when the girls get screen time is Doc McStuffins. When I check out books from the library, I look for characters from various races so my kids see that people of color can be doctors, authors, entrepreneurs, heroes, musicians, athletes, and teachers. If you’re looking for a list of books by black authors, this is a good place to start.

2) Talk to kids about race.

One night at dinner a few weeks ago, when we asked Gracelyn about her day, she retold the events and referred to one of the people at daycare as “the brown one.” My husband and I, curious as to what she was referring to, gently asked more questions. She said she heard someone refer to another person who was not white as “the brown one.” We asked if it was said in a mean way and she said “maybe.” This provided us an opportunity to talk about the various skin tones we had, even within our family and extended families, and how the different colored skin tones make each person unique, that being brown was not a bad thing and shouldn’t be seen as such. My advice to you here: don’t tell your kids “we don’t see color” or “all I care about is what’s inside.” As a black person, I want you to see my skin color and acknowledge that my skin color has shaped my racial and ethnic experiences. You may not want to see people’s race, but it exists. It is okay to acknowledge that people are different.

3) Expose children to non-white spaces. And do it regularly.

This can be attending a church service where white people are not the majority, attending global culture festivals in your city, or sending your kids to a daycare that provides instruction in multiple languages. Being of a different race meant I grew up in many non-white spaces. This has shaped my life in many positive ways. I’ve grown up in abundant and diverse cultures, I speak multiple languages, and even from the bad experiences I’ve had, I have developed an empathy for and interest in people who, like me, are deemed the “other.”

4) Be the example of anti-racism in their life. Racial discrimination will not be overcome by a passive response. Educate your children on how to stand up for people of color. And if your kids are white, educate them on how they can use their white privilege to stop racism.

Your kids are paying attention to what you’re doing, even when they’re young. They will emulate your actions, your reactions, and your attitudes towards many things in life, including the way you acknowledge and respond to racism. Don’t tolerate or laugh at jokes with racist ideas. Call out that relative or friend who says something racist. This work can be uncomfortable, but it sometimes takes a bit of discomfort to make the world a better place.

5) This last one is for you personally: do the work to learn more in-depth about Civil Rights pioneers like Dr. King, Rosa Parks, John Lewis, Fannie Lou Hamer, Hosea Williams, and Ella Baker, and why their work remains so important, especially for black people in America.

Seek out further education, book studies, spaces where you can hear from people of color who have agreed to share their stories so you can learn about their experiences, and what it’s like to live in America through their lens. Listen to this podcast. Read this book. Go and follow 10 social media accounts belonging to people of color. Next week, follow 10 more. Listen when a black person tells you about their experiences encountering racism and don’t minimize or diminish it. Challenge your microaggressions and implicit biases. It will be uncomfortable. You will become defensive. But sit with that discomfort and ponder why you feel the way that you do. Listen, read, learn. And like the white people who stood alongside Dr. King, let the discomfort of racism and the fact that it still exists today, even here in our city, move you to make changes in any and all ways you can. Even I as a black person am continually doing this. Daily, I’m digging deeper, challenging my thoughts and unconscious biases, learning more about what I can do.

It is no longer enough to be quietly non-racist. Now is the time to be vocally anti-racist.

The future of your children, and mine, will be impacted by it.

For more resources, check out Rochester Mom’s Give 5 series and Rochester MN Area BIPOC Owned businesses

This post was originally published in January 2020.

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