It’s a strange time to be a white lady married to a Black man raising half-Black children in Texas. I’ve spent most of my adult life defending my state to out-of-state friends against claims of bigotry and extremism. Texas brought the world Lyndon B. Johnson, Ann Richards and Molly Ivins, among others. We get a bad rep when it comes to right-wing extremism, especially when you consider that every major metropolitan area in the state is solidly blue. I’m proud of my state’s long history of bucking political norms in favor of independent thinking.
But I find myself baffled and speechless on the topic of teaching “critical race theory” in Texas schools. Texas has been at the forefront of a national campaign to rid school curriculums of any material or instruction, particularly related to race and history, that might make any student uncomfortable. Never mind that this movement has latched on to a term (“critical race theory”) that doesn’t mean what they think it means. Taken to its tragically ignorant and tragically unsurprising conclusion, school boards are banning books by nonwhite and nonstraight authors and insisting that class discussions of all topics — including, say, the Holocaust — equitably present both sides of the issues.
Childhood should be a magical time of innocence and wonder. But when did childhood come to be construed as a time when kids aren’t supposed to feel uncomfortable? Doesn’t the very nature of beginning to understand the world around you entail the burgeoning knowledge that the world is confusing? Beloved and trusted grownups sometimes lie (to wit: Santa, the tooth fairy). Some people have to sleep on the ground and don’t have homes in the middle of thriving and affluent cities. Young, healthy friends sometimes get sick and die. As children meet more people and see more realities depicted in movies and books, they inevitably start to realize many people’s life stories are a stark contrast to their own. Isn’t this natural, and as it should be?
In my household, we started talking about the painful history of Black people in America earlier than I expected because the topic was broached by a white kid in my son’s kindergarten class. His teacher introduced Martin Luther King Jr. to the class in simplified, age-appropriate terms — a role model of kindness who fought for the fair treatment of all people. My son’s best friend’s parents, with the best of intentions for tackling difficult topics, took the lesson a good deal further at home. They talked to their son about slavery and the Ku Klux Klan, and their sweet, impassioned 5-year-old came to school the next day saying he would always “protect my son from the KKK.” Our little boy came home wide-eyed and confused about whom he needed protection from. Thus began his introduction to the long and complicated history of race relations in the United States.
“We do children a disservice by attempting to shield them from uncomfortable truths.”
As a biracial family, we were always going to have a lot of discussions about race, skin tone and hair texture, among other things. The conversations around race in our house are perhaps especially unique because my husband’s parents are from Ghana, West Africa. Before leaving Ghana to attend college in West Texas, his mother held a ceremonial role as a tribal queen, a matrilineal title that, alas, doesn’t come with a castle or crown jewels.
My family descends from poor white pioneers who settled in the southwest in the 1800s. We like to joke that our kids come from Ghanaian royalty and Scottish poverty. I’m fairly certain none of my close ancestors owned slaves simply because they were too poor to afford them. But here’s an uncomfortable truth: My husband’s father comes from an African tribe known to be heavily involved in selling other Africans into bondage when the global slave trade was active. So while my kids are unlikely to have slave ancestry or slave-owner ancestry, they are fairly likely to have ancestors who committed the atrocity of enslaving other humans.
I wish history were uncomplicated and people/governments/institutions fit neatly into “good” and “bad” columns. It just isn’t so. This reality is uncomfortable.
And an uncomfortable truth that I beg more white parents to acknowledge is that nonwhite children have never had the luxury of feeling comfortable every second of every day. Children are little sponges, and they pick up on every subtlety of the world around them. My husband, who attended an all-white religious school in West Texas, asked his mother at the age of 5 when he was going to turn white. All of my kids, in their toddler and preschool years, have made comments suggesting that lighter skin is preferable to darker skin. This is clearly a message they’ve gleaned in subtle ways from the world around them, despite the many conversations we’ve had at home about skin tone. At all of these moments, their confusion and discomfort are palpable. It didn’t come from a “woke” classroom lesson — it came from the world they inhabit.
As my sons have become teenagers, the conversations we are forced to have continue to get more uncomfortable. I wish, with every fiber of my being, I could spare them this discomfort ― but I can’t.
We do children a disservice by attempting to shield them from uncomfortable truths. Every child, even those in the most mainstream demographics, are confronted with hard truths about the world around them. Children deserve open and honest discussions about history, race and the countless ways in which their world is complicated. During hard conversations in our home, we always return to the conviction that people are more good than bad. I stand by my defense that despite the current political environment, Texas is more good than bad, too. But the actions of some lawmakers and school board members, fueled by misinformation from certain media outlets, have made it harder to argue the case. I implore Texas parents to demand better from our elected leaders — as a start, turning down the harmful rhetoric and implementing commonsense education policies. This mother is holding out hope and looking for the good, for the sake of all Texas children.
Joanna McFarland Owusu is a writer and editor based in Dallas, Texas. Joanna was a federal government analyst in a former life, and she’s a longtime policy stan and news junkie. When she isn’t reading the news or writing, Joanna spends most of her time Uber-momming two teenage sons and an elementary-aged daughter around town.
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