Honor a Superhero with Brave Conversations About Race

PHOTO BY DENNIS LEUPOLD

The following is a guest blog post, written by Erikson Associate Professor Tonya Bibbs, PhD, LCSW

On August 28, a real-life superhero, Chadwick Boseman, died of colon cancer at the age of 43. The man known for playing Black Panther, one of the first Black on-screen superheroes, was abruptly taken from us too soon. A generation of young people lost an icon. This loss compounded the grief and anxiety of parents across the nation who were already grappling with how to talk with young children about current affairs and topics including race and racism.

Indeed, 2020 has been like a scene from a movie. The world is suffering from a global pandemic. Those already racially and economically marginalized have been hit the hardest: the rate of Black and Brown Covid-19 infection is 3 times that of the white population – underscoring the effects of systemic racism. Then, like a true villain, violent acts of white supremacy against Black and Brown people sparked eruptions of mass protest across the country. Who can save us from further destruction? Now, more than ever, we need to channel Black Panther’s strength and begin having brave conversations with children about racism.

As a social scientist focused on racial marginalization and child development, I am often asked how adults can begin these conversations. I can describe at least three patterns that have emerged in my work.

First, children are comfortable talking about racism. Most of my work involves helping adults increase their comfort with the topic. Adults tend to shut down children’s explicit race conversations, and unwittingly dismiss their lived experiences. We do not want our children exposed to these events, but inevitably, they are.

Utopian spaces, like Black Panther’s fictional Wakanda, wherein race does not constrain or predict children’s outcomes, offers an opportunity to think differently with children. It provides a vision for how things can be different – a resilient pathway children can pave as they work toward their emerging sense of justice.

Second, adults struggle with bringing whiteness, both its history and ongoing structuring role, into the conversation. Historically, whiteness has been used to justify European superiority, the colonization of native people, and chattel slavery. It has never been a simple benign category of difference; at its inception, whiteness initiated acts of violence and subjugation. Critical conversations with children about race must name and confront current manifestations of white supremacy.

Rather than making whiteness visible, adults tend to focus on Black and Brown children as a problem to be solved or a risk to be managed, which has significant consequences to their psychological well-being. This framework has a negative impact on children’s learning and identity development, and is reinforced in media, school curricula, and everyday interactions. The invisibility of whiteness also affects the emerging identities of white children by preparing them to participate as dominant members of society. Because white dominance hides under the cloak of an undisclosed evildoer, it is not surprising that many white people reach adulthood without ever having thought about what it means to identify with whiteness.

Finally, adults have difficulty collaborating with children to imagine new social arrangements. As adults, we share an understandable impulse to resolve difficult conversations with easy solutions providing children tidy recipes for fairness; yet children are rarely satisfied by these discussions. In fact, studies show that children’s most profound conclusion is that adults do not want to talk about racism. As a result, they confine dialogue about these topics to private peer spaces.

Adults can collaborate with children in acts of critical thinking. We can refrain from offering explanations of inequities that conflict with their everyday experience. Instead, we should invite them to interpret the contradictions between what they are told, and what they observe.

We should, for example, ask them to consider how a biological or natural disaster, such as a virus or hurricane, could have such different effects on people. This thinking promotes children’s ability to form a radical concern for others – a foundational virtue lacking in our current public space. We should have developmentally appropriate conversations with children (explained in ways they can understand based on their age) as young as 4 years old that include historical explanations of whiteness, basic definitions of systemic racism, and examples of anti-racist role models.

Like the Covid-19 pandemic and anti-racist protests, the loss of Chadwick Boseman has been felt globally. His passing reminds us of children’s need for superheroes. Superheroes are, after all, ordinary girls and boys who experience early adversity, go on to develop unique powers, and rise to lead their communities by conquering evil.  When we enter brave conversations with children, we honor the legacy of Boseman and the Wakanda we’ve yet to create.