Why Teaching Our Kids About Racial Tolerance Isn’t The Answer


I’m frozen reading about another person of color shot by police officers. I’m frozen, yet my mind is hot, angry, and scared. “Not again. NO! Not again.” Then my thoughts drift to the life-changing split second when that trigger was squeezed, gunpowder exploded, and thick, life-giving blood drained out onto the filthy asphalt. In those moments a mother, who was a lot like me, shattered into a million pieces. I imagine when some of those pieces come back together, she will be a very different person.

Stories flood the news. African-American man shot by police. African-American man dies in police custody. Unarmed African-American child playing with a toy in the park shot dead by police. And then there are the stories that haven’t flooded the news: African-American women dying directly at the hands of the police or, subsequently, in police custody.

And deep at the heart of all the media noise are the women. I grieve the most for them. These mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts, wives, daughters who are all now irretrievably shattered by the loss of their loved ones. I think of the exhilaration in the moments when this now broken mother welcomed her wrinkled new baby into the world. Maybe she lay skin-to-skin with him and breathed in his beautiful new baby scent. Maybe she wept tears of joy as she gently stroked his head and sang to him.

And now I imagine that her tears flow abundantly and burn hot with rage and anguish at the people responsible for her baby’s death. She burns with agony at a society that doesn’t care or won’t do anything about her child’s death. Because he had no value to them.

What went horribly wrong in this child’s/mother’s life that led to this outcome? The answer is complex. But race is, no doubt, at the center.

I spent years as a civil rights attorney, but chose to stay home after my first son was born. So, I no longer feel like I’m “in the ring,” so to speak.  And, yet, I wanted to do something, anything.

And then it hit me.

Wait a blessed minute… I am doing something. Perhaps the most important thing any person can do. I am raising tiny humans who will affect the future, who will spread their ideas with the world.

My children, your children, OUR children can be an instrumental part of making the future better – but only if we teach them how! Don’t get me wrong, I’m not under some naïve illusion that talking to our children about race is going to end racism. Making things “better” doesn’t fix racism or eliminate what’s been institutionalized. But it’s a start.

Imagine what can happen when our children, conscious of institutionalized racism, go into the world and share their knowledge and ideas. Imagine the changes they can make.

But, the first thing I need to do (actually, the first thing everyone needs to do) is not teach children about racial tolerance.

Why Teach Children About Race At All? Don’t Kids Just Get It?

It came to my attention that white families don’t have conversations to teach children about race the first time I read Nurture Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. I hadn’t even considered it before. I just assumed that if we were nice to everyone, didn’t make any distinctions, the boys would see us modeling non-racist behavior and would just “get it.” Apparently, other white parents think that, too. If I just raise a “nice” boy, that will take care of it.

But, guess what, it doesn’t work that way. All children naturally classify people and things. The idea of teaching children that “we are all the same” or “color doesn’t matter” isn’t true and negates the life experiences of people of color. To be sure, if we are the sum of our life experiences, then teaching that “color doesn’t matter” negates who people of color are.

The fact is we aren’t all the same and color does matter. From an evolutionary standpoint, others who looked like you were assumed to be “safe.”  Children need to be taught that others who don’t look like them are not only safe, but valuable.

“For decades, we assumed that children will only see race when society points it out to them…However, child development researchers have increasingly begun to question that presumption.  They argue that children see racial differences as much as they see the difference between pink and blue – but we tell kids that “pink” means for girls and “blue” is for boys.  “White” and “black” are mysteries we leave them to figure out on their own,” argue authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman.

Indeed, why would children “just get it”? Sheesh! When my son was younger, I had to explain to him why he couldn’t throw his food on the floor. Of course children don’t just “get it!”

Why Teaching Our Kids About Racial Tolerance Isn’t The Answer.

According to Merriam-Webster, tolerance is defined as:

…2a :  sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own

2b :  the act of allowing something :  toleration

3:  the allowable deviation from a standard; especially :  the range of variation permitted in maintaining a specified dimension in machining a piece

4a (1) :  the capacity of the body to endure or become less responsive to a substance (as a drug) or a physiological insult especially with repeated use or exposure…

So when we teach racial “tolerance,” we teach our children to endure other races. We teach our children to allow other races to exist. We teach our children that white is the standard and other races deviate from our standard. Teaching tolerance teaches that we have the power and superiority over other races to allow their mere existence.

And so if we’re teaching racial tolerance, let’s face it, we’re doing more harm than good. Teaching children racial tolerance of people who are different is harmful. It can no longer be the standard.

What I Want to Teach Instead of Racial Tolerance

Diversity is a positive thing. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to hang around with 50 more versions of me. Let’s make “celebrate diversity” more than just a slogan. As mothers, let’s join together and teach children the value of diversity, the value of different cultures, the value of unique and different ways of doing things. It’s about teaching children the value inherent in the lives of other people.

That sounds great, but where do I start?

One way to start exploring and appreciating diversity right here at home is to start a conversation – a simple, complex, messy, sloppy, conversation. And have it often. Wrestle with those tough ideas. Be uncomfortable.

What if we remarked regularly on various aspects of race? What if we routinely asked our children hard questions like, “How do you think Andrew feels being the only boy of color at the party?” or “How would you feel if you were the only white boy at a party?”

The more that we imagine ourselves and our friends as that shattered mother, the more we can realize that we are capable of doing much more. We need to know better and we must strive to do better. As mothers, we must be courageous enough to take the first step. As mothers, as women, I know this is our calling. We can do this!

I challenge you to start that conversation with your child today!


Karen is a civil rights attorney turned midlife mama. She works at being an intentional, present, and loving mama to her two boys just as hard as she worked litigating civil rights cases. Karen’s boys turned her orderly, predictable, type-A practice of law into one big hot mess of hormones run amuck, genuine joy, and chronic imperfection. You can connect with Karen on her blog, www.themidlifemamas.com or on social media:
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