Editor’s Note: Melanie L. Harris is associate dean of diversity, equity and inclusion of AddRan College of Liberal Arts and the School for Interdisciplinary Studies at Texas Christian University; and the author of “Ecowomanism: African American Women and Earth-Honoring Faiths.”
Jennifer Harvey is a professor of religion at Drake University and the author of “Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America.”
Right now, all over the United States, Black families are teaching the next generation of Black youth with intention and care.
Every month is Black History Month for Black families and their allies.
It’s always time to consciously center and celebrate Black empowerment and achievements, as well as the legacies of strength and struggle against racism. We can honor the whole of Black history, rooted in rites, rituals and intellectual traditions from across the African diaspora every month of the year.
From a Black perspective, it’s necessary to take the time to acknowledge Black beauty, pride and incredible faith and fortitude despite living through more than 400 years of oppression.
Rather than just taking a moment to educate all about the heroism of Harriet Tubman or the genius of cultural anchor Hank Aaron, Black History Month is a celebration of Black brilliance, community values and commitments to justice that are lived out 365 days a year.
So, what does it mean to teach White youth with intention and care?
For White families this might feel trickier. White people parenting today may not have been raised with a focus on Black history, so they may not feel like they know enough or know what to do. Some parents may know it’s important we all celebrate Black excellence but worry that participating at home might be a form of appropriation. Others realize that legacies of racial inequality and White privilege are the reasons Black accomplishments are so remarkable. Acknowledging that might feel complicated, even overwhelming.
So where to begin? We want to suggest you start where you are. Here are 12 ideas for what to do (and a few things to avoid). You can make a commitment to practicing a new idea each month.
Lift up many Black figures
While Black History Month is a great time to make learning about Black excellence an ongoing part of family life, you can start any time of the year. If you only know a handful of famous, accomplished Black people, this is the time to broaden your kids’ horizon, and yours with it. Pick up a resource — there are many good ones — and every night at dinner read about two people you’ve never heard of before.
Children get excited when they hear about other children. But also, kids receive so many messages implying they have to wait until they are “grown up” to make a difference. It’s not true. What a perfect time to learn about Black youth who have made change while teaching White youth they can participate and do so, too.
Embrace the ‘both/and’
Focus on Black children and youth who have been freedom fighters
When we celebrate Black history there is a risk of sending a message that what we’re celebrating isn’t also American history. It’s important we explain clearly to White children that one effect of racism is that not enough of us have been taught about Black excellence and that’s why we need Black History Month, which takes place in February. This also means we need to value and talk more about Black history all the time; because Black history is American history.
Celebrate Black joy and Black love
The struggle against racism isn’t the only feature of Black life. It’s important White youth aren’t inadvertently taught Black people are defined by racism. Find a resource that highlights Black cultural celebrations such as Kwanzaa, the history of Black intellectual thought and the glory of Black dance in America, and learn about it as a family.
But do teach about the struggle honestly
When we celebrate “firsts,” it’s important to show why someone was a first. Talk about the structures of inequality that have blocked Black Americans from full access to their full rights in American democracy and where those barriers still exist today. Without this context, White youth may conclude President Barack Obama or Vice President Kamala Harris, for example, are firsts because Black people were somehow behind. Be explicit about ways racism gets in people’s way. Black history isn’t just a story of the past. It’s being made today.
Choose 12 books by Black authors
Invite your kids to make these selections and read together between now and next February. Doing this broadens your knowledge and supports Black literature, art and creativity. It also makes dialogue about race and learning Black history ongoing parts of family life.
Commit to a Black-led organization
White children should learn that justice doesn’t grow without people coming together to make that happen; this is just one of many truths of Black empowerment. Honor Black history and achievements by finding an organization where your family can join with others to create a more equitable world and plug in for the long haul. Find a local chapter of Black Lives Matter or the NAACP, or join voter advocacy and criminal justice reform efforts being led by Black faith communities.
American education systems have never provided a full, diverse, celebratory account of Black contributions. Parents can make it a habit to ask specifically what kids are learning in school. This creates opportunity to correct, clarify and expand what they are learning. It might even help you identify a role in supporting your school in offering fuller accounts of our shared racial story.
Ask your kids what they are learning in school
Amanda Gorman, the first youth poet laureate who gave a brilliant recitation during the presidential inauguration, talks about her family almost every time she speaks. Stacey Abrams, the organizer from Georgia, was just nominated for a Nobel Peace prize. She constantly reminds people her incredible accomplishments are the accomplishments of many Black women. Black empowerment and achievement is a story that emerges from community. Helping White children appreciate this truth also helps them think about who they can be in community with as well.
Not every Black person excelling is famous. There are people leading with courage right where you live. Who are the visionaries, justice workers and Black Americans who helped to shape the community you enjoy and experience today? Ask this question with your children. Celebrate the answers. And then, find ways for your family to support those leaders.
Black people are diverse
Celebrate Black leadership in your local community
Black people are also women who experience sexism. LGBTQ peoples are part of the Black community. Support White youth in developing critical thinking skills by exploring the intersections between identities and justice movements. The Black Lives Matter movement, for example, was started by three Black women who are also queer. It is deeply inclusive and constantly recognizes intersections between racial, gender and environmental justice, disability rights and more, creating pathways toward equity that honor the innate worth and dignity of all Black life.
Reject the perfectionism trap! We all have more to keep learning. It’s easy to get stuck if you believe you have to know or be able to perfectly explain everything. Just start where you are. In fact, it’s important White youth see adults model humility and curiosity. Youth benefit when parents say, “I’m not sure. Let’s find out”; “I never learned this and am glad I’m learning it now with you”; and even “I thought I knew but it turns out I was wrong; I am grateful for a chance to understand differently.” Next thing you know, they’ll be modeling such behaviors, too, and teaching the adults things about Black history.
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White families can celebrate Black history and accomplishments in ways that are genuine. When they do, they contribute to the multiracial invitation to raise a generation of youth able to honor Black excellence and participate fully in the journey of growing democracy and justice for all.