Doesn’t “I Can’t Breathe” mean a person is about to die?
Yes, your kids are going to ask this —and yes, George Floyd did die in the hands of police officers who are there to protect American citizens. This also happened to Eric Garner in 2014 who uttered the same three words, “I Can’t Breathe,” before dying in a police chokehold. In this world, not all American citizens are treated equally.
We have to talk about the 400 years of oppression against black lives in our country. We have a systemic problem, which means that these are not isolated events but a problem within our entire system. We are not UNITED, we are not being treated equally, and black lives are STILL dying because of the color of their skin. George Floyd is not the first black man to die in America in the hands of white police officers.
We also have “stand your ground laws” that protect citizens from getting arrested by claiming “self-defense.” This was the case in the Trayvon Martin case when George Zimmerman was found “not guilty” for shooting someone that he thought looked “suspicious” because he was black and wearing a hoodie. This is because our laws actually protect the people who are racist and discriminate against blacks.
We can’t shield our children from these concepts. Ignorance is not bliss. We need to talk about how we are each positioned in these discussions about race. I am a brown mother of color, and my kids know we will also be treated differently in society. Yes, white kids can jump all over couches and talk loudly in movie theaters and stores, but my kids will not be one of those kids. We are still seen as immigrants who are often told to “Go Back To Their Country” when someone doesn’t like the way we dress, talk or look. While Asian Americans have dealt with discrimination, black people have dealt with much, much more. We are not on the same playing field.
In the United States, the “model minority” stereotype was used to pit Asian Americans against blacks. To use “Asians” as the “good minorities” who could overcome the struggles of other minorities (i.e., blacks, Hispanics) living in America and achieve financial success. This was to prove “American meritocracy” and that minorities could achieve whatever they wanted if they worked hard. However, this completely ignored the fact that the Asians who were coming to America were educated, professionals. Through this discourse, there has been complex Asian American and black relations. A recent article by NBC highlights these issues: The officer who stood by George Floyd while he died was Asian-American. As children get older we need to go further in our discussions. The group #Asians4BlackLives originated in the Bay Area to tackle these types of issues and to “support the safety, justice, and resilience of black communities—so all our communities can prosper.”
My children are now older and they know how our struggles are different from the struggles of blacks in America because I make it a point to talk to them about it. I also bring up the ugly realities of race as it relates to how we are positioned in society as a brown American. Many times, in America, we talk about race as a black-white binary discussion. However, it is much more complex and nuanced.
I talk to my children about how Asian Americans can also be racist. Asian Americans also need to tackle the issue of anti-blackness by unpacking the biases that exist within their own communities.
In my family, we have talked about how Indians are racist against one another based on the color of their skin. Lighter-color Indians are racist toward darker-colored Indians, and this discrimination has existed for years and still does. Many Indians believe skin color determines a person’s worth in society. Indians even have a whole beauty industry dedicated to helping dark-skinned Indians make their skin a lighter color: Fair and Lovely.
We all need to disrupt these conversations. Mindy Kaling recently featured a dark-skinned Indian girl in her sitcom, “Never Have I Ever,” because media has only exposed us to Indian characters who are like Princess Jasmin.
Children can pick up on race and color as early as infancy. Research shows that babies as early as 3 months tend to look at the faces of people who match their caregivers’ race longer. As they get into the toddler years, they may pick playmates based on race, and as early as 5 years of age they start drawing their own conclusions about an individual’s race.
We have to have these conversations early with our children. As a parent, I know this can be awkward to point out, and I still remember the day my 4-year-old son went up to a lady in his preschool and announced to her, “You are black,” and she politely stated, “Yes, I am!” This was one of the only African American families in our pre-school, and at that time I was reading him a book about Martin Luther King, Jr. I explained this to her and, of course, she understood because verbally or non-verbally it was a difference that was being acknowledged by not just him—but by others in our communities and in our schools.
Race is just like that. We all notice it and we all have our own thoughts and opinions about it. I know these topics are difficult to bring up, but today, I’m glad that I’ve exposed by children to race and have had these discussions.
My kids and I recently watched “All American,” which is a Netflix drama inspired by a true story. A black football player from South Crenshaw, Spencer (Daniel Ezra), moves to Beverly Hills to play football. He lives with a family whose kids are half-white and half-black. The complexity of living life as a black man is highlighted in many scenes. In one scene, when the black boys both get pulled over by a white police officer, Jordan ((Michael Evans Behling), from Beverly Hills, speaks back to the police officer. Spencer from South Crenshaw knows better. Later, Spencer approaches Jordan’s dad, coach Billy (Tae Diggs), to alarmingly ask, “Why haven’t you told him?” Spencer knew how fast that situation could have escalated and that their lives were in danger. Coach Billy then has to have “the talk” with Jordan about “the ugly side of being a black man in America.”
I think it’s important that we all have these ugly conversations with our children as our children get older and when it is developmentally appropriate. To start with, you have to talk about race with your children. You just have to address the differences children notice when it comes to race and be there to answer their questions. You cannot be color-mute or colorblind.
Children are feeling a host of emotions right now, and they may be coming up to their own conclusions about why this happened. They also may be afraid of the police at this, or they may have been told by their parents that George Floyd was to blame. Your children will be exposed to what other parents are telling their children.
We need to bring these conversations back to our own values, and explain to children what we see is happening in the world and expose them to this systemic and persistent racist problem within the UNITED States of America. This has become a global issue now as most of the world views the killing of George Floyd as a human rights issue and a symbol American hypocrisy.
(Dr. Amita Roy Shah is the founder of My Social Edge.com and Hybrid Parenting.org. She is an adjunct professor at San Jose State University in the Department of Child and Adolescent Development. The Indian American educator is also the author of It’s Time for Holi!, Lights, Camera, Diwali!, and Brain-Based EQ for Kids! She has a doctorate from Teachers College, Columbia University, and a master’s degree in education from Pepperdine University.)