Reflections on MLK, Middle School, and Racism

This weekend, I chaperoned a middle school retreat in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Though my own middle school years aren’t that far behind me, I seemed to have already forgotten much of the giddiness, shrieking, and overflow of energy. It was so interesting for me to see these awkwardly sized bodies filled with childlike enthusiasm that simultaneously try, at moments, to process ideas and concepts as young adults.

With a van full of kids in the back, the group coordinator looked over his shoulder and asked, “Do you think racism still exists today?” I wanted to pitch in, “Of course it does! I’ve experienced racism by my peers alone every single year of my conscionable memory.” I didn’t say anything, though, so that the kids could think about the question. The answers didn’t surprise me, but their honesty did. Some of the girls thought that maybe racism didn’t exist anymore but informal segregation did. One girl noted, “at my school, in the lunch room, there are some tables that the black kids sit at and no white kids really sit there ever.” Others nodded in agreement about their schools. She continued, “And I think it’s racist that there are more scholarships for black kids just because they’re black. . . But it’s also not fair that the black kids are expected to do not as well in school.” Because of my role as an adult leader, I didn’t think it was appropriate to express my own political views on affirmative action. Instead I asked her, “Do you think maybe that’s why there are certain scholarships for African-American students?”

The next day, we talked about Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that “one day [his] four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” We also discussed our dreams for the world. We talked about what the dream family would look like, a dream school, and a dream United States. In each of these separate spaces, we decided that they should be accepting and safe places for all sorts of people regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, size, shape, age, grades, or popularity. As we were brainstorming, the choppiness in their thoughts didn’t always produce the most articulate or eloquently phrased answers, but from the looks in their eyes and the pauses between statements, I could tell the right questions were forming in their minds.

My interactions with these 11 to 14 year olds made me think about my own middle school years and the racism I had experienced in school to that point. I thought of the the somewhat racy remarks these good-hearted kids made this weekend and realized that maybe some of the racism I had received from peers when I was young hadn’t come out of a place of deliberate maliciousness, but instead an awkward stumbling of new words and concepts. Despite the potential innocence behind the words, they hurt at the time they were spoken and made me feel ashamed and different, instead of the pride I currently feel about being Chinese American. In order to avoid this unintentional harm, I think it is imperative that parents and schools talk to children about issues of race from an early age.

Race is a hard topic for many to talk about, especially with children. Some fear that they will spoil their kid’s innocence or even that talking about race will instill racism in their children. In Gina Parker Collins article, “Five Myths of Talking About Race With Your Child,” she dissects these common myths and provides alternative discussion starters. Read the article here:

Screen Shot 2014-01-21 at 2.33.37 AMAnother interesting read is “Talking to Our Children About Racism and Diversity” by The Leadership Conference, which suggest that by age 12 kids have a complete set of stereotypes about every ethnic, racial, and religious group in our society. This article discusses the uses of the words “weird” and “different” and talks about race in the minds of different age groups. Toddlers naturally ask questions out of curiosity and observation, and talking about race can begin from the very beginning. The article cites the ages from 5 to 8 as critical years when children are able to begin to think about social justice issues but are still flexible.

One last resource I will mention is “How to Talk to Kids about Race and Racism” from the site Rage Against The Minivan. The author provides several books that talk about race, gender, prejudices, and inclusiveness sectioned off by age from two to ten years. The author additionally provides a list of ideas for creating a racially inclusive environment from toys to T.V. shows to checking our own prejudices.

I strongly believe in talking about race with children from a young age. A survey showed that black parents were nearly five times more likely to talk about race with their children than white parents. It is likely that parents of children of color feel the need to prepare them for the racism they will inevitably experience by others and to dispel inaccuracies they will see in the media. Additionally, I feel that race is something that parents of white children should talk about, so that they can understand their friends, neighbors, and country better. Race is such an important topic, especially for children being brought up in this country of immigrants, so often called “the melting pot” of cultures. If parents are able to realize their own flaws in their racialized mindsets and have open, meaningful discussions about race with their children, perhaps the next generation of children won’t carry the same prejudices or won’t have to face the same types of marginalization. While segregation and blatant hatred of people of color on a national level has perhaps ended due to the efforts of Martin Luther King Jr. and other great civil rights leaders, racism in the U.S. has certainly not ended. I have a dream that one day race will not be an issue people tiptoe around and ignore. I have a dream that safe and accepting spaces for people regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, size, shape, age, grades, or popularity will be the norm. I have a dream today. It is now our responsibility to carry out Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream and our own dreams for the United States.

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