- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Stephanie Ward drives her two biracial children to a black school an hour away to give them a break from their predominantly white neighborhood in suburban Dallas. Yet it’s hardly enough to eliminate racism from their lives.

Some of her neighbors in Plano, Texas, won’t allow their children to speak to her 4- and 6-year-olds. “They act as if we’re from Mars,” she says.

Though the rebuff can be stressful — on the children and mom — Mrs. Ward was outraged when she learned that a private swim club in suburban Philadelphia recently revoked a summer membership for 65 mostly black and Hispanic campers. Several campers reported hearing racial comments the first time they showed up at the club, and some members pulled their children out of the pool. The camp’s $1,950 fee was refunded a few days later.

“The Philly situation angers me and reminds me that I’m still black in America,” Mrs. Ward says. “I won’t tell my children about this. I refuse to pass on the legacy of paranoia and the sense that they’re not good enough.”

In the Detroit suburb of Canton, Kim Crouch also was angered about the treatment of the camp group June 29 at the Valley Club in Huntingdon Valley, even though the club’s president said overcrowding — not racism — was the reason the children of color were turned away. The club has since invited the campers back.

The explanation sounds like business as usual to Mrs. Crouch, who has been educating her 7- and 10-year-olds about handling racism since preschool. In third grade, her oldest son was told by a classmate that “she wasn’t allowed to talk to him because he was a brown kid.”

With the election of President Obama energizing a new generation, racial conflict can be even more confusing for minority youths.

Mrs. Crouch, who wrote a book called “Mother to Son: Words of Wisdom, Inspiration and Hope for Today’s Young African-American Men,” says jumbled signals from peers and the world at large can be hard for children to interpret, but she and her husband think that facing racism head on at a young age makes sense.

“What we’ve learned is that you can’t wait until your child is the victim of racism to teach them about it,” she says. “It’s important to teach them that even though life is unfair, the unfairness is not irrevocable and they can’t allow themselves to become jaded or subjugate themselves to the victim mentality.”

One of the first things Shelly Cadamy did when she became a mother of three black children was sign on as PTA president at her oldest child’s school.

“One of the programs we instituted via the PTA last year was to have men of color read to the kids on Friday mornings because we really wanted the kids to see that dads of color are willing to be involved with their kids,” says Miss Cadamy, who is white, single and fostering to adopt the three children, ages 10, 7 and 4, in Oklahoma City.

Parents also can encourage schools to hold regular assemblies about racial tolerance and organize families to share information and tackle race-fueled conflict together.

Sharon Thomas, a child and family counselor in Westmont, N.J., suggests that parents stick to the facts when engaging their children in conversations about racism.

“Share age-appropriate examples of race relations in America and/or their local town that [give] some honest examples of how some people … think and behave based on fear, cultural conditioning and other social, political and economic factors.”

If a child is confronted by a racial remark or incident, offer reassurance “that it’s OK to feel whatever he/she may feel,” then let the young person decide how to respond after talking it over, Miss Thomas says. “The child doesn’t have to think and feel the way the parents do; they are not you and haven’t experienced what you have experienced, so their thoughts and feelings are going to be different.”

Faith Ayers, a black mother in Atlanta, says she believes in noting differences between races early so they are not internalized negatively.

As her 2-year-old daughter grows up, she plans to “inform her that she is a black person” descended from Africa, while “many of her friends are descended from Europe, Asia and South America. I’ll let her know that culturally we are different but we are all people who should be respected.”

Parents also can strive to provide activities and attend events where children can meet and befriend others who look like them in a meaningful way.

Miss Cadamy says her 10-year-old foster daughter “expresses a desire to look more like Barbie than herself,” so Miss Cadamy has encouraged her to learn more about black history and the civil rights movement as a way to foster racial pride.

“I’ve finally convinced her to wear her beautiful hair naturally, in a short afro, with a headband rather than trying to straighten it or wrangle it in some way. So, hopefully, we’re making progress,” Miss Cadamy says.

Parents also should reinforce in children that racism “is wrong and should not be tolerated by anyone,” Miss Thomas says. Encourage them to inform you, teachers or other supervising adults when situations arise that make them feel uncomfortable, she says.

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