Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, June 12, 2020

'This isn't a new conversation for us'

Parents explain how they discuss racism with their non-white children

Rene Syler remembers having to confront a South Carolina shop owner for targeting her daughter for “shopping while black.”

Damien and Christina Charley remember that after a high school football game their daughter was told to go back to picking cotton.

And Margie Quin recalls the day her daughter, of Guatemalan ancestry, came home and told her a classmate said that after the 2016 presidential election she would be sent back to Mexico.

The assignment was to write a story about how to talk to your children about racism. It’s way more complicated than that depending on the color of your skin. For many families, it’s a conversation that has gone on for centuries.

And it’s exhausting because it’s a conversation that has carried down from mothers and fathers to sons and daughters for years. The clinical term is systemic racism. But how do you find new words to have a very old, very tragic conversation?

If you are white, even the most well-meaning white person, this is an academic conversation. You’ve never feared for your life after being pulled over for speeding. You’ve never been followed through a store by security guards because of the color of your skin.

A string of deadly violence against unarmed African Americans has led to more than a week of protesting worldwide and far-reaching conversations about whether this country can finally come to grips with and overcome racism.

On Feb. 23, Ahmaud Arbery was killed by two white men while jogging in Glynn County, Georgia. Most Americans didn’t know about it until May 5, when a video of the murder went viral.

On March 13, Breonna Taylor was shot and killed by Louisville police after they burst into her apartment executing a botched search warrant.

And May 25, George Floyd died in Minneapolis after a white police officer knelt on the handcuffed man’s neck for almost nine minutes while he pled for his life.

The only difference in the three cases was that in the case of Floyd, America and the world watched the entire incident unfold on video in agonizing real time. In the case of Floyd, the children were watching.

“The problem I see that people do with their kids is, yes, everybody is ‘the same.’ We are all created to be equal,” says Denise Nutt-Beers, a self-proclaimed Southern middle-class white woman who is mother to one Peruvian and one Bolivian child.

“When they say that awful phrase, ‘I don’t see color,’ I understand that some of the sentiment is to say I see you and accept you for who you are. We have to teach our children that the world does see color. You have to teach children to understand there is systematic institutional racism and rage that has to be dealt with.”

How black families and those with children of another race talk about racism is vastly different from how white families, or most white families, talk about it. The examples of six families – three black, two with children of a different race and one white – illustrate the difference.

‘We’re really good actors’

Damien and Christina Charley have four children, three boys and a girl – Nate, 8, Jonathan, 13, Jordan, 16, and Mikah, 18. Damien is the family minister at Harpeth Christian Church, and Christina is a holistic health coach and fitness trainer.

They’re both graduates of Vanderbilt University and live in Franklin, where Damien’s church is located.

“This isn’t a new conversation for us, sadly,” Damien says. “We’ve often had to talk to our kids about different things that are now in the news, but also things they’re dealing with on a day-to-day basis. With the death of George Floyd, it was just another conversation we had to have. It’s definitely not isolated. It’s very painful.”

The family moved from Antioch, where Damien’s previous church was multicultural and where the hard conversations were had but not as frequently as now. The Charleys are grateful for the opportunities afforded them and their children in wealthy Williamson County, but they are the only black family in his church, and the children go to predominantly white Battle Ground Academy.

“There’s a lot of offhand things that are said, and there is so little sensitivity,” Christina adds. “The sad thing is so many things are said and not even thought to be wrong. We try to teach them to be resilient and to understand that some of the things that happen to them are not as much a personal attack as it is ignorance.”

The term microaggression is one common among families who deal with racism on a daily basis. It’s the disdainful look, a white woman clutching her purse as a black man approaches, a careless reference. In the South. a cotton plant is a common decoration in homes. To African Americans, it’s a reminder.

“As children, they’re in a world where they have to survive and appear that things don’t bother them,” Damien says. “Even in school, the teachers were given some decorative cotton plants, and one of the kids referenced to (his daughter), ‘Oh, you know what this is all about.’”

“All of my kids have had incidents at school,” Christina say. “From my youngest, every one of my children have dealt with different things. Especially with your youngest, you want them to maintain their sense of innocence, but he’s also very resilient. Every kid deals with it differently. Our older kids aren’t just going to sit back. They’re very opinionated, wanting to see revolutionary change.”

The Charleys stress they have seen some positive change. Mikah is the president of Bridges at her school, a club that builds a bridge where inclusion, tolerance and understanding are being talked about. Micro aggression and blatant racism also are on the agenda. The school has also hired an inclusion director.

“You’re trying to help your kids be authentic,” Damien says of his role as a parent. “But everything we’re talking about, we understand the backdrop of America and what you have to do to be successful. You don’t teach that by talking to them; you teach them by the nuance of your life. There’s a comfort to going to BGA to get the tools you need but also to be the change agent.”

Still, the Charley children really cannot be their authentic selves out in the world.

“My daughter said this the other day,” Christina recalls. “She said, ‘We’re really good actors. I’ve had to act my way all the way through school. We know how we need to act, how we need to talk, so we don’t stand out too much.’

“She said it in a way that stung. At the same time, they have good friends they love. There’s a complexity there for sure.”

‘They didn’t turn white?’

Denise Nutt-Beers, a retired minister who lives in Spring Hill, adopted her oldest son, Daniel, 30, from Peru when he was six months old. She then adopted her daughter, Maylen, now 26, from Bolivia. She went on to give birth to Jackson, 25.

She’s quick to say that she didn’t adopt children from a different culture for altruistic reasons. She just wanted to have kids.

Even before the children came, she faced ignorance among her own parishioners. “I was a pastor at a very small country church,” she says. “A parishioner asked me, ‘So the baby you’re going to get he’s going to be black?’ And I said no, he’s Peruvian. She said, ‘Oh, he’ll be all but black.’

“Another instance when he was small,” she continues. “I had spoken in church about now that my children were there the congregation was integrated. A lady said she didn’t know what I meant. And I said my children are Hispanic. She said, ‘So when you adopted them they didn’t turn white?’”

Nutt-Beers, as all mothers should be, was fiercely protective of her children as they grew. She made sure the kids had culturally affirming books and toys.

But they inevitably felt racism around them.

“Daniel, even in a store I’m very familiar with, was being followed around by someone saying, “Go back to your country.”

She made sure she only frequented businesses where diversity was on full display.

“In a restaurant, are there people of color in management positions or in the front of the house, or are all the people of color in the back of the house? I have to see if anyone looks like my children.”

She recalls another time when Daniel was the passenger in a car stopped by police who told Daniel to step out of the vehicle but not the white driver. “That’s a microaggression.”

Like other families who deal with racism on a daily basis, Nutt-Beers says it’s exhausting.

“It’s exhausting but not nearly as exhausting as a black family navigating the world,” she explains. “It’s important to stand up publicly and not just have these discussions at home behind closed doors. It’s important that people know where you stand. You have to call other white people to account. You can’t just say, that’s my racist uncle.”

Always take the sack

Tina Calahan Jones of Franklin is a historian who documents African Americans in Williamson County. She also has headed the Spring Street Ministry at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church for 20 years, an outreach to a community of older African American women who live near the church. Her family is white.

She says she couldn’t watch the video of George Floyd’s brutal death.

“Our girls are 13 and 15, and we didn’t watch it. But we’ve seen the still pictures enough, and I think our family is a little different because of the nature of what I do. We talk about race and racism a lot. But we are white, and we don’t have any African American family members so we haven’t had to have the talk that black families have do.

“We have talked about this event more because it’s been everywhere. But I think in our situation it’s been an actions speak louder than words. We’ve always modeled friendships with people who don’t talk like us, look like us.”

Her girls, Mary Claire and Erin, grew up reading books about other cultures and developed a keen understanding of racism. They also developed close personal bonds with people not like them.

“We don’t have any immediate family in this area, so I started bringing them to Spring Street from their infancy,” Calahan Jones says. “These were their grandmothers. These were the first older women they got to know. And I was conscious as I made more friends that didn’t look like me … they go to a school that’s largely white.

“So I encouraged those relationships even though I didn’t force it. We made sure we had them in our home. Kids see. They watch. You have to make it not a forced thing; you have to make it real.”

Another passion for the girls was environmentalism. In an unlikely scenario, Earth Day taught them a lesson in racism.

“When the girls were little they were learning about Earth Day and environmentalism,” Calahan Jones remembers. “They wanted to save the world and encouraged me to eliminate all plastic bags and reduce the use of paper in our house. They explained to me that I should never take the plastic bags from stores and should instead put small items in my purse or use a reusable shopping bag. They also said that I should decline the receipt to save the paper.

“They also wanted me to get all the senior citizens in the (Spring Street) program at church a reusable shopping bag. I thought that was a wonderful idea, until I asked one of my senior friends if she would use one.

“Her response was this: ‘Oh, no. I could never use one of those bags. I never buy so much as a piece of gum or a pencil without taking the receipt and the sack (the store provided). They might accuse me of stealing if I didn’t have a receipt and the sack. And I always tell my grandchildren - ‘always take the sack.’ And that is an example of white privilege. It never occurred to me to take the sack, or to tell my kids to.”

Mary Claire and Erin have had different reactions to the Floyd death and its aftermath of sometimes violent protests.

“The older one is ‘it’s time for the revolution.’ The younger one is a little afraid of what is going to happen. She’s afraid that America is not resilient enough to withstand this. They are literally watching history being made. I think everybody’s a little scared. I am just hopeful that it will cause enough people to finally pick a side and make some real change.”

Leave your hands still

Barbie and Jon Dansby relocated their family from Nashville to Portland, Tennessee, they say, to take advantage of cheaper land and a better lifestyle. They have eight children in their blended family. The move has been good for the African American couple of 15 years.

“When we first moved from Nashville to Portland there was a big adjustment,” Dansby says. “My oldest was in high school at the time. She did not want to move here. Everything was different for her to the point that she thought it would be very racial and she was scared. But when we got here we liked it. It was safer. The school bus picked her up right in front of the house.”

Dealing with racism is still part of their lives, but for the Dansbys it’s been easier than living in the city.

“You have some that don’t want their kids to mingle with anyone outside their races. But I told her that’s a taught behavior. You have to pray for them, but if it gets out of hand let me know and I’ll talk to them at school. But simply stay away from them.

“My son hasn’t had any problems, at all. But, it has made him sad just to learn that there are people who really do not like people of his color. And it saddens me in that way. There’s a difference when you’ve been raised outside of the city than inside. Whenever we go inside the city, there’s a difference.”

‘Driving while black’ is still an issue, even in the country. Jon Dansby was driving home from Bible study at his church one night when he got stopped by police. His son, Jonathan, was in the back seat.

The officer asked for his driver’s license and registration, and Dansby pointed to the glove compartment, afraid to actually reach over to retrieve it. Another black man in another city had been shot for doing as much because police thought he was reaching for a gun. Instead, he asked the policeman for permission.

“His dad has talked about that with him,” Dansby says. “When you get stopped, don’t question it. Leave your hands still, leave your hands up. “Don’t give (the officer) any reason to escalate the issue. Those are things we have to teach our children, especially our sons.”

Dansby feels there’s a lot of education needed to really make strides in overcoming systemic racism.

“We do have to have a conversation,” she says. “It has to change on both sides. Ultimately, there’s a lot of learning to be done. I think we have to get back to the basics. Respect is on the top of the list. Communication, wisdom knowledge and understanding. But respect is first and foremost.”

‘The other’

Margie Quin sits in a unique place. Her daughter, Josie, 13, is of Guatemalan heritage. Quin’s background is as a law enforcement officer who led the Amber Alert program at the TBI before becoming the CEO of End Slavery Tennessee. She is acutely aware of both her daughter’s exposure to danger because of her skin and the perception of police as being part of the problem. Quin is white.

“When we went through the adoption process, we went through classes because we were going to raise a child who was ethnically different from us,” she says. “When President Trump ran for office, she had schoolmates that said if he’s elected they’re going to send you back to Mexico. People look at her and see dark brown and automatically assume she’s Mexican. It plays into that bias of people who look at them as ‘the other.’”

Like Denise Nutt-Beers, Quin has been careful to provide Josie with books and toys that speak to her heritage.

“Image is really important,” she explains. “It goes to self-esteem so important for young girls. Things as simple as when you give her a babydoll don’t make it a blond, blue-eyed babydoll because that’s what she’ll think is beautiful. Reinforce that her black hair and brown eyes are beautiful.”

Josie has been lucky in that in both her elementary and middle school she has a diverse set of friends.

“There was a good bit of diversity in her class,” Quin says of Josie’s elementary school, Sylvan Park. “Her best buddy was another Hispanic child from Peru. She’s now at St. Ann’s, and there are quite a number of Hispanic children in that school. And one of her best friends is from Colombia.

“She is attracted to people who look like her. For her buddy from China, it’s the adoption part of it that resonates with her. But even her two friends who are Caucasian just have a lot in common.”

Quin’s emphasis with her daughter has been communicate, communicate, communicate.

“Josie and I have a constant dialogue about all manner of things, probably more than she would care to have,” she says. “All the work I did with children though the Amber Alert program and trafficking led me to talk to her early and often. It’s fostered a relationship where she’ll just come talk to me about stuff or what’s bothering her.”

When Josie became very upset over the recent violent protests, Quin had her look up an article about the Watts riots in 1965. “I wanted her to understand the level of anguish in the black community,” Quin explains. “I needed her to understand the historical relevance of that and have some context to it. Kids are smarter than we give them credit for and information is power.

“It’s important for parents to keep an eye on their kids right now and assess the level of grief, sadness and anger they may be feeling over these events,” she continues. “And to talk really openly and let them ask questions. Hiding the information or refusing to talk about it in a really open way just exacerbates and prolongs the problems we’re having.”

‘The talk’

The subset of overt racism, micro aggression, came to Rene Syler early in her life. As the 10-year-old sat in her elementary school in Sacramento, she listened to other children describe their ancestries in a class exercise. But when the teacher got to Rene, she was passed over. It was obvious, the teacher said, that Rene was from Africa. Never mind that Africa is a continent and not a country. And never mind that Rene also has Native American roots.

The former CBS anchor and author of “Good-Enough Mother: The Perfectly Imperfect Book of Parenting,’’ has worked hard to make sure her children’s social circles are far wider than her own growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood.

Her children - Casey, 23, and Cole, 22 – grew up in affluent Chappaqua, New York, also predominantly white, and that reinforced Syler’s determination that they needed to see people of other colors and lots of them.

“It’s important for children and adults to have very diverse social circles,” she says. “It is on the parents to make sure that happens. We live in communities that are more homogenous than diverse. To make sure that children’s circles are diverse is going to take a conscious effort on the part of parents. How do I make sure that our children understand other holidays that are celebrated, that they grow up with a diverse palate in terms of food, art and education?”

That’s the hopeful part. But racism is never far from Syler’s doorstep.

“Racism needs to have a broader understanding,” she points out. “Racism is prejudice that’s backed by legal authority and power. We deal with this every single day. There’s never a time when we’re not aware of our blackness. Never. In some places you have to make decisions based on that. And that’s what I tried to get my children to understand.”

For her daughter, that process has been quieter. “I never had to have that conversation with her – that you will be treated differently. She seemed to have an innate understanding of that. She gets that this world is very different for people who look like her.”

For her son, she had to take a much more heavy-handed approach. With black sons of driving age, it’s sometimes called “the talk.”

“I had to tell my son as he got older and was driving around a big car that you don’t get away with the same things your peers get away with,” she remembers. “If you’re doing something that’s going to cause a problem and you are with your peers you’re going to be treated differently.

“I told him if you ever get pulled over to record it on your cellphone. There needs to be a record, but look what’s happening when there isn’t. I do that myself. When I try to make people understand white privilege and racism I say when you are pulled over by the cops are you concerned about coming out of it healthy and whole?”

More information

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