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I Want My Kids to Be More Than Just 'Not Racist'

“Bryan and I play superheroes every day,” my 3-year-old son announced two weeks into his preschool career. Theirs was an instantaneous love affair forged on a mutual love of all things Batman and, because all great relationships need a common enemy, a mutual disdain for Power Rangers. My son offers scant information about how he spends his days at preschool, but he is always forthcoming about who he sits next to at the snack table and who he plays with outside: Bryan, always Bryan.

About a month into school, my son announced his unsurprising plans for the day from the backseat of the car. “Bryan and I are gonna play Batman.” Then he added, “He’ll be Lucius Fox because his skin is brown.”

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I craned my neck so I could see my son in the rearview mirror. “Honey, what if he wants to be Batman?” I said.

He shrugged. “We’ll take turns, I guess.”

“That’s a good idea. Just because Bryan has brown skin doesn’t mean he has to be Lucius. He gets to be whoever he wants.”

In the silence that followed, I debated about whether to say more. Should I tailor a semi-lecture about using race as a proxy for character, status, ability or potential? A jolt of urgency surged through me. I wanted to get this conversation right. Before I could resolve the inner conflict, we pulled up to school, and my son heaved his Spiderman backpack on his shoulders and scrambled out of the car.

What if instead of inoculating my son against pernicious racist ideologies, I introduced them?

The whole way to work that morning I could not shake the shame that my son had given me an opening to talk about race, and I’d said too little. I balked. I did a disservice to him, to his best friend, to my community. After all, it’s my responsibility to teach my son about race — how to talk about it, think about it, understand it.

My paltry words felt like a sin: cowardice.

It’s not like I haven’t had hard conversations with my kids. We’ve covered sexual abuse: I told them that no one is allowed to touch their private parts and that they should never keep a secret on behalf of an adult. Thanks to the panhandlers in our city, they know that some people don’t have homes and that poverty is a real thing for lots of people. After we watched "Annie," we had a long talk about how sometimes — not very often — parents die and kids have to find other homes with family members or stay in an orphanage. They’ve come home from school after “safety” drills, so we’ve had the heartbreaking, post-Newton conversations about “bad guys with guns in schools.”

None of those talks were “comfortable.” They came up organically, and I plunged deep into the complex issues with as much love and compassion as I could muster, walking that razor-sharp edge between informing my kids and terrifying them.

So why was I clamming up around race?

Because I was afraid of saying the wrong thing. I was terrified that, in an effort to teach my son about equality and diversity, I’d be the one to tip him off that prejudice and discrimination exist. I’d be the snake that spoiled Eden. As of now, he knows nothing of Ferguson or People Magazine’s offensive tweets about Viola Davis’s new show or the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. He just knows he has a best friend who loves Batman and has brown skin. What if my words marred that for him and Bryan? What if instead of inoculating my son against pernicious racist ideologies, I introduced them?

I want my kids to be part of the generation that moves our stricken society beyond Ferguson and racial profiling and invidious discrimination.

For me, it’s not enough that my kids grow up “not racist,” any more than it’s okay with me if they’re simply “not illiterate.” I’m aiming higher. I want my kids to be part of the generation that moves our stricken society beyond Ferguson and racial profiling and invidious discrimination that leads little girls – of all races — to choose a white doll over a dark-skinned doll because the white doll is “prettier” than the brown doll.

I know that morning’s conversation about Lucius Brown won’t be my only chance to have a dialogue with my son about race. But simply hoping passively that he ends up the kind of just, wise, civic-minded man I want him to be will not do. He deserves my active engagement in a dialogue that will span his entire childhood. He deserves a mom who speaks bravely, clearly and honestly on all topics, including and especially race.

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At bedtime that night, I asked: “Did you and Bryan take turns playing Batman today?” I’d planned to read my son’s signals and go deeper than we had this morning if his answer touched on race.

I held my breath as my son strained to recall what had happened six hours earlier. “No, we found a bird’s nest with eggs in it and showed it to our teachers. Tomorrow, we’ll play superheroes again.”

Maybe I’ve said enough for now. But next time, I’ll say more.

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