By Nichole Guillory (WellAcademic Guest Blogger) - Mothering in Color
What is the KKK, mom?
[Readers: I’ll pause here so you can think about how you would respond if your nine-year-old son asked you this question and so that you might imagine the dread that came over me as I thought about a response.]
The question caught me off guard early one morning as we were driving to school. Nicholas heard it mentioned on NPR news coverage of the Charlottesville events. As with so many news events lately, I was unprepared for my son’s question. I fumbled through an answer and provided minimum details, mostly historical information: what the letters KKK stood for, when and where it was started, what its purpose was.
That was the easiest and least painful question Nicholas had for me that day. I thought my initial answers were enough, but harder questions came later.
What is white supremacy? Did the KKK kill black people? Do they still kill black people? Why did they hate Black people? Why did they also hate Jewish people? Why were the police members of the KKK? Are any police in the KKK now? How did they get members? How do they get members today? How can we find out who’s a member? Do you think anyone at my school belongs to it?
If you haven’t noticed already, Nicholas is curious and asks a lot of questions, and most of them don’t have simple answers. His questions always prompt me to think. They rarely shock me into silence.
But this is what has been happening more often since Friday, January 20, 2017. Tweets, executive orders, un-Presidential responses, non-responses, and equivocating responses complicate our conversations. I sputter through answers and hope that I’m providing some clarity.
I had expected a slow steady trickle of changes aimed at dismantling the modest gains in healthcare, banking regulation, justice reform, marriage equality of the last eight years. I was unprepared for—I can’t say exactly why—the rapidly running river of hate-driven, border-closing, rights-reducing policy decisions made in such a short amount of time. As a result, I have been mothering from a defensive position for the last nine months. That is, something happens, I scramble to make sense of it with my son, we take a family self-care break, and then repeat. This is a familiar cycle for mothers of color, especially now, but how sustainable is it for our own emotional well-being and our children’s? Charlottesville was a wake-up call. It prompted me to change how I mother my son through these difficult times.
l now refuse to let every ugly truth revealed to Nicholas define my conversations with him, define how I mother him, define how I teach him about life, especially about difference. Like all good teachers who don’t teach to a test handed down to them from people who don’t know (or care about) their students, I resist having a curriculum about race dictated to my child and me. Good teachers don’t use other people’s pre-packaged lessons on race and racism. They find openings where other teachers can’t to enact transformative teaching. The transformative approach as it has been applied to education, my academic discipline, requires that teachers “be willing to deconstruct their own existing knowledge, explore alternative perspectives critically, research and include voices and ideas other than those traditionally presented to us, and [for teachers who belong to the dominant culture] address their own roles in perpetuating racism and oppression” (Cumming-McCann, 2003).
And what are parents if not teachers? [Thanks, Roxanne, for reminding me of this.]
Mothers of color practice transformative teaching in our homes all the time. We help our children unlearn oppressive ways of thinking, think and question critically, and love ourselves and our communities. For my child’s sake, I’ve become more intentional about my transformative mothering because these times call for it. Every new troubling incident has the potential for what those of us in education call inquiry learning. That is, a problem comes up, Nicholas has a question he wants answered (also known as an inquiry opportunity), and we work together to unpack complex ideas so that he has more complete information to draw his own conclusions. This is a very different approach than the Heroes and Holidays strategy I used during the Obama years. [See “What’s a Mom to Do in the Age of Trump?”] Even for me—for someone who does “diversity” work in teacher education—this kind of mothering is difficult.
With the barrage of problems that comes up almost daily, I realized that if I’m feeling ill equipped to handle such big questions with such a young child, you might too. There are no simple answers or sure-fire strategies for such complicated matters. In my original ending for this post, I provided a list of resources that I thought might help moms navigate race and racism talks with their children. In the end, however, I decided that what is most important is to offer you my story. Sharing our stories is as important now as it ever has been. Audre Lorde (1984) reminds us to share “what is most important… even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.”
Imperfect, unfinished, and messy as it (and I!) may be, the story of the day Nicholas asked about the KKK helped me articulate and enact a process of transformative mothering. I hope it helps others to do the same.
What big idea conversations are you having with your children? I’d love to hear from you…
Nichole Guillory, PhD, is Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at Kennesaw State University. She publishes on the experiences of women of color in the academy. She is mom to Nicholas, the love of her life. We couldn't be happier that she has agreed to pen a new series for WellAcademic, Mothering in Color.