When our son Perry was young, South African apartheid was regularly in the news. One day in March 1986, the month he turned four, he saw me crying in response to a report of a brutal attack by white police officers on unarmed black school children. When I explained why I was so sad, he responded, "Is it the color of their skin that makes them do that?"
At just four years old, not only was our white son aware of skin color, but he was grappling with questions about racial dominance and injustice. Whether or not he saw himself as "white," it seems he had begun to absorb, and to puzzle over, a sense of white people being on the wrong side of history.
(As children often do, he also voiced so simply a profound question that can be unpacked on so many levels: Is our racial identity our destiny? Are we the unconscious victims of our socialization? Is whiteness like a toxin, instilling a tendency toward inhumane actions?)
All of our children deserve information on how racism works. It's essential knowledge for navigating our 21st-century world, for building relationships with all kinds of people, for becoming culturally competent, and for building a future with more freedom and justice for all. Children need basic guidance in separating the falsehoods of racism - in attitudes and words, actions and policies - from the truth about the common humanity and mutual dependence of all people.
But how do we impart this information without instilling guilt, anger or hopelessness? Crucially, we must not burden children with responsibilities that belong to adults. I never want to imply, "Something terrible is happening in the world, there's nothing I can do to stop it, and whether you like it or not, you'll get caught up in it."
Instead, children need positive messages of passion and power: "We want all people to be treated fairly. Sometimes people are mistreated because of their skin color. I'm working with other grownups to change that." Young people need to see that there are solutions and that adults are engaged in tackling the issue, within themselves and in the wider world.
Children also need affirmation that their actions matter. When we listen to them and support their impulses to act, they gain a sense of their own power to change things for good.
Perry's question was so striking that it's all I remember of the conversation that day. I don't recall how I responded. Today, I imagine I'd say something like: "No, our skin color doesn't make us do things. It's the way we think about skin color. Some people are very confused. They think that people with different skin colors aren't as good as they are. Really, they are scared of people who are different from them. That's why they act that way. But when we remember that people of all skin colors are one family, we can make a different choice. We can treat everybody well. We can stand up for each other."
I do remember what Perry did soon after. He announced that he wanted to write a letter to South African Prime Minister Botha. "Let black children and white children play together," he dictated solemnly. "And hire more black policemen. They will understand." We put the letter in an envelope and mailed it.
There's no evidence that Botha ever received the letter, much less that he was touched by it. But what matters is that this four-year-old acted positively, with passion and power.