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How to Talk to Your Kids About Police Brutality

And how to talk to them about anti-racist protesting

Marjorie Ingall
June 09, 2020
Scott Heins/Getty Images
Demonstrators in New York City, June 4, 2020Scott Heins/Getty Images
Scott Heins/Getty Images
Demonstrators in New York City, June 4, 2020Scott Heins/Getty Images

Hi, fellow white Jewish parents! We have some work to do! (As some wise Jew once said, we aren’t obliged to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist from it.) It’s essential that we explain to our kids why people are protesting in the streets; this means interrogating our own choices and responses to what’s happening in the country right now. We owe this work to our Black Jewish family, to African Americans of all other faiths and no faith, and to our struggling democracy.

Like the Holocaust, the refugee crisis, the Yizkor service, and Bubbe’s mortality, racism and bias are subjects white Jewish parents often viscerally want to shield their kids from. But that’s our own discomfort talking. When you don’t help your child interpret the world, you’ve left a negative space in which other people will do your job. The TV, the car radio, the street, Instagram, other kids in Google Classroom.

So what do we tell our white kids about the whats, hows, and whys of today’s protests against police brutality? Before we talk at all, we need to listen. A good place to start is by listening to African American Jews

Kenny Kahn, an African American Jewish educator in Northern California and dad to Theo and Harris, told Tablet in an interview, “Both the Black and Jewish sides of my family are good talkers, but sometimes it can feel less attentive to say, ‘I have a remedy!’ than to listen and be present in the moment. Within both the Jewish and Black communities it’s important that we can’t call ourselves allies until we determine how each of us is oppressed. It’s not the same. Heschel marching with Martin is the easy reference. You have to go beyond that.” (He’s right, of course. There is a troubling Ashkenazi Jewish tendency to point out Jews’ participation in the Civil Rights Movement while ignoring the dictum of the great theologian Janet Jackson: “What have you done for me lately?”)

Kenny’s wife, Alex Kahn, who is also Black and Jewish, points out that anti-Blackness is complex and systemic, and we all carry biases. “All four officers complicit in George Floyd’s murder were not all white,” she told Tablet in an email. “Racism did not start with Trump nor will it end with his presidency. It also does not diminish with your political affiliation. It does not change if you have Black friends, a Black partner, or Black children. In order to combat racism we all have our own roles and work to be allies for and with one another.” She provided what she called a “starter pack” for white people, a treasury of helpful links making clear that anti-racist work is invariably an ongoing process that demands vigilance. Passivity and neutrality are not passive or neutral; by not taking a stand, you’re taking a stand. “Active violence is just as problematic and dangerous as silence,” Alex said in the email. “No child is too young to learn about being anti-racist. I have no choice in shielding my 2-year-old from seeing how the world treats my husband nor do I in preparing him for a world that will cause him pain. Your 2-year-old can handle developmentally appropriate ways in talking about racism.”

When explaining what’s happening in the news to young kids, remember that most are obsessed with fairness. They’re particularly compelled when the victims of injustice are other kids. Consider talking about the clear evidence that African American kids are targeted by police way more often and dehumanized way more profoundly than white kids. African American kids are 18 times more likely than white kids to be sentenced as adults, and kids sent to adult jails are eight times more likely to commit suicide than kids in the juvenile system.

Be sure to tell kids that protest has a long and proud tradition in American and Jewish history. Almost all the current protests have been peaceful; I urge you to take children (wearing masks) some sunny morning, for at least a short time. There is nothing like engagement to help feelings of powerlessness. Make an “End Police Brutality” sign together; bring hand sanitizer; be present. If you’re anxious about violence, know that pretty much all risk to life and limb is coming from the police, military, and anonymous hired white thugs in body armor (shades of Clara Lemlich’s experiences in the early labor movement!) who are not allowing people their constitutional right to assemble. The media does not convey accurately the sweetness, collaboration, and solidarity—spiked with righteous and targeted anger—of most protests. I attended a rally for Black trans lives at the historic Stonewall Inn, and it was the most hilariously polite protest I’ve ever been to. Gen Zers kept optimistically trying to hand out Clif Bars and Oreos and bottled water, but almost no one accepted, because everyone was wearing masks. I literally saw one person in thousands whose face wasn’t covered. At least the folks roaming through the crowd offering squirts of hand sanitizer had takers. (If fear of COVID-19 is stopping you from attending a rally, remember that like COVID-19, racism is also a disease. Both disproportionately kill Black people.) The loudspeaker at Stonewall wasn’t strong enough to reach all the people present; most of us couldn’t even see the podium. But everyone stood silently and took their cues from the front about when to cheer and chant. At the end, the crowd parted like the Red Sea so that gorgeous drag queens in sky-high heels, most of them waving as if on a glorious parade float, could depart before the rest of us. Kids love drag queens, I’m just saying.

When you talk to kids about violence and looting, make sure they understand that most of it is not coming from protesters. (My colleague Armin Rosen was attacked by cops on Wednesday night while he was sitting on his bike in Brooklyn; despite the press label on his bike helmet and the fact that he wasn’t actually participating in a protest, they hit him with billy clubs, called him a pussy, and stole his bike. Journalists, of course, are allowed to be out after curfew. He did not “provoke” anyone.) My neighborhood, the East Village, has certainly experienced looting. But most of it has been by small groups of people late at night who are not from the neighborhood, not protesting, but rather committing old-fashioned opportunistic robberies. A plywood sign on one business reads, “Please know 1. BLM. 2. The protest came here twice peacefully. Hours later a small group of people trashed 2nd & St. Marks. Agitators are not protestors.” The plywood on the former Moishe’s Bakery, now a fabulous French bakery run by two young sisters, sports a quote from Elie Wiesel’s 1986 Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” And yes, sometimes rage and grief boil up in “burn it all down” ways; we white folks do not get to judge.

So, at last, a short roundup of what to say to kids, tailored to your own kids’ age and maturity:

1. Racism is everywhere, and none of us is immune, but we can work on it.
2. We are all created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image. Our diversity makes us beautiful and divine.
3. Listen to Black people, and do not take over conversations and microphones. At protests, act like we white people are guests in African American people’s homes.
4. Justice is meted out unfairly in America. This is a fact.
5. The African Americans unjustly killed by cops—the people we’re mourning now—were real people who were loved and who are missed.
6. These are scary times, but also a hopeful indication that people are willing to fight for equality and justice and the preservation of our Constitution and Bill of Rights.
7. What’s more important, property or human life?
8. Why do certain politicians use words like “thugs” and “domestic terrorists” when white men with big guns stormed state capitols two weeks ago without repercussions? And when almost all people who attack synagogues and African American churches are white men? How can language and word choice (like, say “riot” versus “protest”) be used as a weapon?
9. It’s not on African Americans, Jewish and not, to educate us. They’re in so much pain right now and they don’t owe us anything. We white Jews need to do the work, read up, and educate each other.
10. What else can we do besides go to rallies? We can research where to donate tzedakah and do so; we can patronize Black-owned businesses; we can talk to our shuls about making sure they’re welcoming places for nonwhite Jews.
11. Talk about why journalism is important, what it has done well and what it has done poorly these last couple of weeks and over time, and how and why the police are targeting journalists now in a new and scary way.
12. What steps might we take to lessen police violence? (Some ideas here ... but as with all these questions, it’s cool to engage your kids by asking what they’d do and what they think.)
13. Protests work. The cops who killed George Floyd are being brought to justice only because people are demanding it. The same folks who get angry at protests that are loud also tend to get mad at protests that are wordless, like Colin Kaepernick’s. There’s no satisfying them, and that’s the point.
14. As the Jewish Theological Seminary put it, “Jewish tradition forbids us to remain silent in the face of racial injustice. ‘Do not stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is shed.’ (Leviticus 19:16) ... Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel [him again!] reminded us pointedly that ‘morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty but all are responsible.’”

As a parent, I understand the temptations of the “but”: “But my child is too young to understand X.” (For X, solve for “racism,” “protests,” “police brutality,” and/or “everything that’s going on.”) “But they’re looting.” “But not their tactics.” “But a few bad apples.” “But this isn’t how to go about it.”

But (but!) the “too young to understand” impulse may reflect our own anxiety and discomfort more than it does reality. A 2-year-old can recognize racial differences and racial bias. And studies show that 75% of white Americans don’t have a single nonwhite friend. That’s a reflection of the stark divisions of the world we live in, and even little kids notice. Similarly, the phrase, “I don’t care if you’re black or white or purple or green,” is problematic: Purple and green people are not real. Cops are not murdering innocent purple or green people in their beds. This phrasing diminishes a very real crisis to a cute abstraction.

As for the “but their tactics” and the “but looting” and “but this isn’t the way to go about it” reactions: If one’s response to the news is to focus on the destruction of property rather than on the murders of innocent African Americans, perhaps this deserves one’s internal scrutiny? If one drinks one’s coffee from a “well-behaved women rarely make history” mug, but deplores the protesters’ failure to be sufficiently well-behaved, isn’t that contradiction worth pondering?

Addressing the horrifying and unequal treatment of African Americans by police departments nationwide is essential for all Americans of consience. I’m not suggesting you show a 6-year-old the video evidence of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police or of Eric Garner’s murder at the NYPD, or that you provide tons of grim detail about the murders of Breonna Taylor or Manuel Ellis or Ahmaud Arbery. But an elementary-age child can understand that over the last five years, police in Minneapolis have used force against Black people at seven times the rate that of white people in the last five years. Around the country, similar studies have shown that Black people are way more likely than white people to be singled out by cops and treated brutally or killed.

Some white Jews invoke the words “Louis Farrakhan” and/or “BDS” as a rationale for staying out of spaces where they might conceivably see the words “Black Lives Matter.” Please excuse my Spock-like raised eyebrow. But as my pal Ma Nishtana, the African American rabbi and writer, wrote in Tablet, “I was as baffled as anyone else by the [BLM] platform drafters’ decision to dilute focus from the conditions of systemic racism here in America to wade into the murky waters of the Israel/Palestine debate. However, I was even more dismayed by those in the Jewish community who responded with strongly worded repudiations of the Black Lives Matter movement without having ever made the same spirited declarations of support for it in the first place.” You don’t get to reject something you never actually tried to engage with. And it is essential, as white Jews who believe in social justice, that we engage. We cannot stay on the sidelines any longer.

Finally: You know me; I can’t let you go without some children’s book recommendations. These titles can help facilitate conversations. And they’re not just good books about prejudice and activism; they’re good books, period. (I’m surprised and pleased to note that many of these titles are currently sold out on Amazon and at indie bookstores. That gives me hope!)

For kids under 5, focus on books that show the humanity and joy of people of color. You can never go wrong with Ezra Jack Keats’ beautiful, groundbreaking The Snowy Day. The Proudest Blue, by Ibtihaj Muhammad and S.K. Ali, illustrated by the brilliant Hatem Aly, is a well-written, lushly illustrated, and developmentally appropriate story about what happens (good and bad) when the main character’s big sister chooses to wear hijab. Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña is a gracefully written story about a San Francisco bus ride, urban inequalities, and the love of a grandma; illustrator Christian Robinson can do no wrong.

Kids under 12 can handle explicit talk about activism, racism, and the police. Try A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramée, about a rules-loving, 12-year-old girl dealing with middle school and her big sister’s BLM activism. Blended by Sharon M. Draper is about a biracial family, divorce, and police brutality. Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes is a powerful story about a 12-year-old boy shot by police who, in the afterlife, meets Emmett Till. In All American Boys, two first-person narrators, one Black and one white (Jason Reynolds writes Rashad’s chapters and Brendan Kiely writes Quinn’s) reflect on an incident of police violence affecting them both.

Young adult books that are great for adults, too, include How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon, about the struggle of an entire community to make sense of a Black 16-year-old’s shooting, and Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: Young Adult Edition, which loses nothing in its transition to a shorter, tighter format for kids. “We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing,” Stevenson writes, “Or we can deny our brokenness, deny compassion, and as a result, deny our own humanity.” And The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas richly deserves its mega-bestseller status. It’s about police brutality and code-switching and family and making tough choices, but it’s also a page turner, romantic and even funny to boot.

I am aware that calling all activism tikkun olam has become a bit of a cliche. But that’s what anti-racism work is: an attempt to heal a shattered world.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.