We live in a racist, sexist, classist, generally prejudiced world.
I grew up in that world, like we all do, in the south specifically. And while I was taught to value equality by my mother and by many teachers, I was also taught to see people of color as “other” or less in a million little ways and men as the ones in charge, by family members and by the culture around me. As I grew up, I tried to fight against those cultural lessons and for understanding racism, sexism, and intolerance. And I was lucky enough to have experiences attending diverse schools and traveling that helped me better understand other perspectives than my own. And as better language about privilege and implicit bias and consent has come into being, I’ve adopted it the best I can and tried to apply it to my little corner of the world.
But I’m not a native speaker of that language. And I never will be.
Here is a funny thing I’ve come to realize in the last year or so. My kids have internalized critiques of sexism and racism much more clearly than I can ever hope to. They are native speakers of the language that has evolved to talk about bias and oppression.
Let’s be clear. I have two privileged, middle class, white boys. And none of us are perfect by any stretch of the imagination. While I’m about to sing my kids’ praises here, I’ve also seen them slip up and say ignorant things about other people. All of us are works in progress. All of us are beneficiaries of a system that favors us. And while I would love it if our homeschooling circles were more diverse, they’re not, so that’s something we deal with.
But in the last few months, I’ve been seeing how Mushroom and BalletBoy call out incidents of sexism and racism and bias like it’s something they can’t not see. And they do it in a way that comes incredibly naturally to them. When we read aloud an older book where a boy plants an unwanted kiss on a girl’s cheek, BalletBoy stopped me practically mid-sentence and wanted to know, “Haven’t these people ever heard of consent?” When talking about “Sleeping Beauty” with the Husband, Mushroom observed, “The Prince basically assaults her in her sleep. Why is that supposed to be romantic?” When seeing a smiling slave in a picture book, Mushroom observed, “That’s not right. Would they really be smiling?” When told it would be okay if he was friends with someone who hated Muslims, BalletBoy fought back by being appalled at that notion. “No it wouldn’t! That person would be racist.”
When the boys were little, I really tried to take to heart the idea that the research says we have to be explicit with kids about race and that holding up colorblindness to kids as a value simply isn’t useful in combating racism. I’ve tried to keep the conversation about sexism in similarly clear terms, bringing up basic ideas about consent when they were very young with the idea that if it’s done naturally then that’s the best thing for raising kids.
And we’ve tried to read books and consume media that is diverse in many ways, with protagonists of different genders, races, and cultures. That has meant reading books like One Crazy Summer, that tackle racism head on in a very modern way (even if it’s a work of historical fiction) but also being willing to read quality older books and notice when race or gender isn’t dealt with well. One of the boys’ all time favorite series is The Great Brain, and it’s hardly a hateful series, but in books like that with older attitudes toward immigrants or First Nations peoples, we have tried to talk about how times have changed. And we’ve tried to read books and be willing to, in a kid appropriate way, study topics like the Civil Rights Movement or the Suffrage Movement or even tougher topics like the Holocaust or the legacy of Colonialism.
We haven’t had a unified curriculum or anything like that. And none of this has felt like a burden to me. Sometimes, I try to think, oh, have we been reading all male authors for awhile, maybe we should change things up, or vice versa, trying to loosely make sure we’re keeping a diversity of perspectives in our reading and media viewing. But mostly it’s been teachable moments, something that I think comes naturally to most homeschool families, and really to most thoughtful, engaged parents. However, part of doing this has meant being willing to have awkward conversations about race and gender even with young kids. The teachable moments are only obvious when you’re willing to have an uncomfortable conversation that acknowledges that things aren’t perfect or that racism isn’t over or that not everyone recognizes consent.
But the payoff is big. The payoff is kids who are native speakers of a new language. And for my kids, white males, it means they see privilege with acknowledgement and awareness but not resentment of the need to do that. They aren’t attached to some conception of masculinity that requires that they not express emotion. They don’t assume that a story about a Black girl or a Muslim boy or an Asian family isn’t for them so they’re open to listening.
Right now, my hope is that kids who were raised this way are our future.