When Your Seven Year Old Asks If Slavery Is Still a Problem in America

This has been a difficult set of days in America.  It started with back to back point blank lethal shootings of two African American men by police officers last week. On the heels of that, a sniper in Dallas killed five police officers while wounding seven others during a protest rally organized against the first two killings.  Like many Americans I have been feeling helpless, hopeless, stunned, and, yes, a bit paralyzed by my privilege.

When the phone rang Friday morning with an invitation to head to the beach with my boys on a warm summer day, I gladly accepted.  The blue sky, the white clouds, the warm water, the golden sand, families of all shapes and sizes playing and relaxing — it all added up to the balm I needed.  It’s pathetic, really, that even as an insulated white lady, I still sought respite from the racial storm that is America these days.  My thoughts kept returning to people of color that don’t get to feel better or restored with a trip to the beach because racism follows them everywhere.

In the car on the way home, totally out of the blue, my seven year old asked from the back seat of the car, “Mom, is slavery still a problem in America?”  Whoa.  Where did that come from?  I quickly determined that he was referring to the slavery he knows about.  The slavery that propelled our country into civil war 155 years ago.  The slavery that he has read about in children’s books his liberal parents make certain find their way onto his bookshelves.

Illustration from the children's book "Looking at Lincoln," written and illustrated by Maira Kalman, Copyright 2012, published by Nancy Paulsen Books.
Illustration from the children’s book “Looking at Lincoln,” written and illustrated by Maira Kalman, Copyright 2012, published by Nancy Paulsen Books.

I could have responded with a quick, “Oh no, honey, slavery ended long ago with the Civil War,” but my boy is bright and that answer felt like a cop out.  I could have responded with a more candid explanation that slavery does still exist in America today, in the form of human trafficking, but the kid is seven and that seemed a bit sophisticated for him right now.

Instead, I used the moment to talk about racism, something all of us need to be doing more of these days.

I explained to my curious boy that slavery was once considered a lawful practice where white Americans owned black Americans and that those same black Americans were considered property, without rights, less than human.  Black slaves were bought and sold, traded and discarded, not unlike pieces of machinery, dehumanized.

My kid knows about the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation.  He knows, again, from the age appropriate, simplistic histories in children’s books that many people fought and died over the issue of slavery.  What he doesn’t know is what followed.  It’s not as simple as black slaves walking away from plantations into the sunset, free men and women and children living lives of instant equality.

So in that car last Friday afternoon, I tried.  I tried to explain that less than seven generations ago black Americans were considered property and that a race of people imported and mistreated for decades and decades and decades, relied upon for economic gain, are not simply treated as equals because they are freed. An entire race of people does not magically recover from being owned simply by the decree on a piece of paper.

I tried to explain the Civil Rights movement, an effort that resulted in legal equality for African Americans a full hundred years after the end of the Civil War, but that even legal equality does not result in true equality.  I tried to explain that even today, over 150 years after the Civil War, true equality does not exist for black Americans because of entrenched ignorance and bigotry.

I introduced the word “racism” to him, which I defined as treating someone differently because of the color of their skin, or believing that all people with different colored skin share qualities, better or worse, than others.  I talked about how racism makes life harder for people of color than for he and I with the fair, pale skin we live in.

It was too much for my kiddo, I know, as I spied in the rear view mirror that he was checking out.  I wrapped it up, my perhaps overly earnest and simplistic explanation of the connection between yesterday’s slavery and today’s racism.  The idea of racism, its reality and existence, is too much for many grown-ups to acknowledge and identify, so I cut my seven-year-old some slack.

But I will keep trying and keep talking and keep identifying for him, in bits and pieces, how life in America is different for people depending on the color of our skin.  We were pulling into our driveway at this time, a convenient end to an unexpected lesson in America’s past.

As a mother, I can’t stop indiscriminate killing of black Americans or police officers under sniper fire, but I can teach my boys the realities that exist.  I can teach them to understand that in many, many ways their lives will be made easier because of the color of their skin and how other children with different colored skin will have more difficult lives.  Kids easily embrace the unfairness of that reality.  I wish more adults could do the same.

RELATED:  6 Valuable Tips for Talking About Race with Young Children

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