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Avis Jones-DeWeever's picture

As we stand on the precipice of the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, it is natural, almost reflexive, to look back and attempt to measure the extent to which we have come closer to that dream so beautifully articulated five decades before. Have we yet arrived at the day in which all of our children are judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character? Have we made this simple, yet strikingly beautiful dream a lived, breathed, reality?

As mothers, in our hands lies a special responsibility for breaking the chains of racism. A responsibility that we must recognize and act upon at the earliest moments in the lives of our children. A responsibility, that far too many of us neglect.

Many of us may believe that by acknowledging the issue of race we are somehow undermining the innocence of our little ones and perhaps breathing life into something that we wish would just somehow, magically, wither away. A study I ran across a few months ago confirms, nothing could be further from the truth.

Child psychologist and University of Maryland professor, Dr. Melanie Killen, specifically examined children’s perceptions of race by asking first graders to look at two identical images, switching only the race of the children involved. The images showed two children, one on the ground by a swing, and the other child, standing behind. After showing the images to the children and then asking them to interpret what happened, white children and black children “saw” two very different things. The majority of black children interpreted the picture of the white child on the ground to show that the black child standing behind was simply helping the fallen white child. In contrast, fully 70% of the white children who examined the very same image, believed that the black child had pushed the white child off the swing.

These stark differences in interpretation is not to say that 70% of white first graders are racist. Instead, the researcher notes that since white parents are more likely to assume that young children are “colorblind,” they are therefore, less likely to discuss the issue of race at home. What they fail to recognize is that children do not live life in a vacuum. Even the very smallest pick up on cultural clues that conflate “blackness” with danger, or even criminality, even if those words are never overtly spoken at their own dinner table. We must come to terms with the fact that American culture is still rife with racist elements. And as a result, failing to talk about race, actually undergirds racism, rather than helping to dismantling it.

As we face the sad, but transient reality that fifty years later, Martin’s dream remains a dream deferred, we must realize that if this reality is to change, that change must begin with us. It is a change that requires age appropriate, yet frank discussions about a history that is brutal, sad, and rife with pain. It requires discussions around contemporary challenges that continue to remain. It requires overt acknowledgement of the unfairness of life, and how some human beings are treated differently because of race, gender, religion, and a myriad of other markers of “difference.” But it also requires that we openly acknowledge that such treatment is wrong. And that we all have a responsibility to call it out when we see it, and do all we can to make such actions--one day--a distant, and grainy, memory from years gone by.

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