Dear White Parents,
Today is the day this country has set aside to celebrate Martin Luther King. Likely your kids are home from school and you are off of work. Likely you slept in. Maybe you are going to a place to celebrate the legacy of Dr. King by picking up trash or packing sandwiches for your neighbors in need. That is good. I am glad you are doing that. I need you to know that isn’t enough. This year, to honor MLK you need to, at the very least, tell the truth to your children.
Martin Luther King DID have a dream, and I am glad that they know that, but they need to know that that dream STILL isn’t realized. If their school is primarily white, they need to know that was probably not some kind of happy accident. They need to know that schools that are primarily brown and black are not being supported in the same way their school is. Yes, I mean your kindergartener. Yes I mean your senior in high school. Kids know about not fair, they understand that everyone should get a turn, and the same amount of stuff. They get that. What they might not know (because you haven’t told them) is that things ARE NOT fair EVEN NOW. They might now know that the system didn’t magically fix itself, things are basically as unequal now as they were then.
Martin Luther King was well liked now but was hated when he died. He wasn’t popular. He wasn’t seen as a peacemaker. He was seen as an agitator who wasn’t going about racial justice the “right” way. Very many people who believed that his ideas were good, also believed he should ask nicer, and be patient. Sound familiar? It should. This rhetoric is used today. If you want to honor Dr. King today, tell your kids that saying someone isn’t asking nice enough is a classic power move. It is used to not have to give people what they deserve.
Martin Luther King was not BFF with white people. He was seriously irritated with the white moderates who told him they liked what he was saying but were absolutely unwilling to give up any of their power or privilege. If they are up for it (they probably ARE) read them letter from Birmingham Jail. Or you read it and break it down for them.
We have to stop white washing Dr. King and his messages. We have to stop telling our kids the things that we wish were true, and avoiding the uncomfortable. We need to tell them the truth.
When one of my girls was in Pre-K she came home and told me that the reason MLK was important was he allowed her to go to her majority black school. And can I tell you that for a minute I thought about letting her think that? That MLK was for her and her friends being nice to each other. But that wasn’t true. And so I let her know that because of our privilege we would be fine, but her friends wouldn’t. I told her that he was fighting for black people and their rights, and I told her we could fight too, if we wanted, but we weren’t at the heart of his dream. She got it. She could handle it.
If you are still willing to say that your kids aren’t ready to hear any of this, then I need you to think about yourself, about where you fit in. Why not? We have to be honest with our kids, and that honesty starts with ourselves. If you are unwilling to give up power and privilege for a more just society for all, then say that to yourself. Dr. King, and your children deserve that much.
Reminds me of when my son came home from second grade at Rockbridge Elementary in Dekalb county (and we liked this school a lot). His social studies book had a big sidebar about Harriet Tubman. Of course he was excited because he already knew a lot about her. The second grade social studies book told us that Harriet Tubman helped her people to get more freedom. It didn’t address issues like, who were her people, and why did they need more freedom and was anybody trying to keep Harriet from doing this.
Daniel was eight years old, but when we asked him if he noticed anything missing from the article, he said, “Well it doesn’t talk about slavery…”
Luckily his teacher was just wonderful and she filled the kids in on a lot of information, but what if she hadn’t?