“Mom, I don’t even understand how that can happen. Its just not fair. It shouldn’t work that way.”

As I walk through the events of the past few weeks with my children, ages 10 and 13, I feel at a loss myself.  First, the queer community in Orlando, then the recent events of clear racial bias on the part of the police.  The POLICE.  Members of our community I encourage my children to trust and respect.

I recalled  one class in particular, in graduate school,  where the professor challenged us to look at our biases.  He refused to accept anyone who claimed not to have any.  “We all have them.  The danger is in not being willing to look at them and question them.”

And that is where I decided to take this conversation with my children.  Looking at our biases and questioning them.

Me: “I think these events come from a place of fear.  Of disconnection.  With ourselves and others.  People hurt other people when they are scared and feel a sense of distrust.  Often that distrust comes from a place of ignorance.  And from a lack of curiosity.  When we are curious about other people, about how they act, and why they act the way they do, as well as curious about ourselves, why WE act, or feel, the way WE do, it creates connection.  It also decreases fear.  Bias means that we assume things about other people, without even realizing we are doing it, and then we treat them differently, whether we mean to or not.  Curiosity helps us understand and question our biases so we can make a conscious decision about how to act in a fair and just way.”

My 13 year old, “So, we might not even know we have bias?”

Me: “Yep.  It happens without us even knowing it.  We live in Portland, which is a very white city.  We simply don’t have much exposure to people of color.  So, it sets us up for believing things we might see in the media, or things other people might say, or based on our limited exposure to individuals of color, and our experiences with that one person.  Then, we can easily generalize those ideas to whole groups of people, whether those ideas are actually accurate or not.  It happens without us even thinking about it.  Other parts of the country have less exposure to other differences, like homosexuality.”

My 13 year old: “I can see that.  In our neighborhood, there are mostly white people, in Daddy’s neighborhood, there are more black people and I do notice myself act differently.  I wonder why they act certain ways that I don’t understand.  And I wonder if I should be scared of them, or if that is just how they act with their family and friends.  I notice myself being more cautious and more scared.  I didn’t really think of that as bias before.  I’ve never had anything dangerous actually happen.  And when I’ve met the neighbors, I realize they are all really nice once I get to know them.”

Me: “Right.  That is you being curious about it.  It is important to listen to your alarm system to keep yourself safe.  It is also important to be curious about the behavior you notice that is different and decide if it is truly dangerous, or just different.  That is how you challenge your bias.  Seek to understand.  Be curious about your own feelings and actions.  Then, also, be curious about theirs.  Differences make life much more interesting.”

We watched this video together:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LBP2tcTLQrU  (Beware of strong language.  Watch first before watching with your kids)

My 13 year old: “So the police have bias too then.  Everyone does?  And they really treat black people differently than white people?  That is so wrong.  Those kids weren’t doing anything wrong.  They were just being regular teenagers.  So, if I were doing that same thing with a bunch of white friends, the police probably wouldn’t even stop and say anything, huh?”

Me: “Yes, that is what it means to have white privilege.  We don’t have to worry about the same things black people do.  Especially black men.  There is lots of bias against black men.  There is a big assumption, usually wrong, that they are doing something dangerous, or are going to do something dangerous.  So, the police, and people in general, treat them differently.  Most of the time, without even realizing it.  Just like you were saying you feel more cautious around them in Daddy’s neighborhood.  That is the same feeling that leads to the police acting unfairly against black people.”

My 13 year old: “So, to be part of the change, I have to be curious about my own biases?  And ask myself why I have them, why I am feeling that way?  Decide if what I am feeling is based on information about the person in front of me or on ideas I have that aren’t about that person at all?”

Me: “You got it.  If you are feeling nervous or scared of a person, ask yourself if it is simply because of the color of their skin, or behaviors that might be culturally different from you, or if they are truly doing something that looks dangerous.  Then, make a decision based on that.  That goes for assumptions you make about lots of things, not just race.  That goes for how a person is dressed, how they talk, what kind of car they drive, their religion, political beliefs, lots of things.  Our brains make quick work of assumptions.  It is up to us to slow that down and be curious about the situation and the person and make a conscious decision based on actual facts and information about THAT individual.  Imagine what would happen if each person took charge of doing that for themselves?  It would make a big difference.  We can each make a big difference.”

My 10 year old: “It all feels so complicated.  But when I think that there are things I can do, it feels better.   Like I can do something every day to make things a little bit better in the world.  I don’t like thinking that I have biases, because it feels like it isn’t nice to have them.  But, you said everybody has them, so it is ok to have them.  It is just important to know we have them, and to learn about them, so we aren’t mean to people because of them.  I like that.  I don’t want to be mean to anybody.”

Me: “This is big stuff guys.  Even adults have trouble understanding it all and making sense of it. Talking it through is important.  Speaking up when you see things that aren’t fair or right is important.  And, yes, being curious about our own feelings and trying to understand them is super important.  I feel better when I know I can make a difference in just the choices I make every day.  That helps me know I am doing my part to make things better.  Not talking about it, and pretending it isn’t happening, never helps.”

Children need to know about  things that happen in the world.  Especially as they get older.  They hear things whether we talk about them or not.  And, they need to know we are aware of the world.  And that we are a safe and open space to discuss hard topics.  Even when we don’t have perfect answers for them.  They need to know that complicated problems exist.  Problems without easy answers.  But that the world goes on, and we can have a positive impact with our day to day choices.  That we CAN make a difference.

So, we are talking.  And being curious.  And challenging our beliefs.  And doing the best we can each day to make the world a better place.  One person at a time.