How can parents speak to their children about nationwide protests in response to police brutality?

How can parents speak to their children about nationwide protests in response to police brutality?

Across the region, protests in reaction to police brutality have pushed the Black Lives Matter movement to the forefront of the public consciousness. In the face of unrest, parents are seeking the best ways to discuss the realities of racial inequality with their kids. As a 2019 policy report published by the American Academy of Pediatrics attests, racism can undermine the overall health and development of children, specifically black children.

How early does racism begin to harm kids? How can a parent explain the history of racism in the United States to young children?

Produced by Kayla Hewitt


  • Clint Smith Writer; Poet; Emerson Fellow, New America; @ClintSmithIII
  • Jacqueline Douge Pediatrician; Member, American Academy of Pediatrics; @DrDouge


  • 12:00:03

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, Welcome. Later in the broadcast Kojo for Kids with Washington Wizards Guard Ish Smith, but first ongoing protests, over the last week in response to police brutality and racism, have made the Black Lives Matter movement a common topic of discussion in households across the region. However, for many black families conversations about the realities of racism in the United States have long been a part of daily reality. So what are the effects of racism on young children? What conversations are parents having with their children as protests continue to unfold? Joining me now is Clint Smith a Writer, Poet and an Emerson Fellow at New America. Clint Smith, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:00:47

    CLINT SMITHThanks so much for having me.

  • 12:00:48

    NNAMDIAlso joining us is Jacqueline Douge, a Pediatrician and Member of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Douge, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:00:57

    JACQUELINE DOUGEThank you for having me on the show today.

  • 12:00:58

    NNAMDII'll start with you Dr. Douge, this weekend we saw some of the biggest protests against racial equality to date here and across the country. What do you make of this moment?

  • 12:01:09

    DOUGEI think I make of this moment as a great opportunity for us to reengage in the conversation about the impact of racism not just on health, but other social determinants of health. As a pediatrician, we talk of social determinants of health as places where people live, grow, so the context surrounding them that actually influences their health outcomes, so education, politics, the justice system, the economic system, housing. So I think this is an important moment to look into all these systems to try to rectify and rethink how we're engaging in these systems to improve the health outcomes of children and their families.

  • 12:01:53

    NNAMDISame question to you, Clint Smith. What do you make of this moment?

  • 12:01:56

    SMITHYeah. This moment feels unique to what we experienced in many ways in 2014 and '15. I think there is a new language, a new framework, a deeper understanding, a more sophisticated analysis and a wider in the sort of public consciousness around issues of race and racism. I think I remember, you know, in 2014 the conversation -- you know, people barely knew what redlining was. People were barely having a conversation about housing segregation. And now we're having much more robust conversations around the larger systems and policies and the history that undergird so many of the manifestations of racism and white supremacy that we see today. And I think as a result you have a larger group, a larger swath of people who are invested in this movement. A larger group of people who are in the streets in a more interracial demographic of people in the streets in a way that is unique to what we experienced several years ago.

  • 12:02:51

    NNAMDIDr. Douge, you co-authored a policy report for the American Academy of Pediatrics on the effects that racism can have on children. How early does a child begin to pick up on differences with regard to race?

  • 12:03:02

    DOUGESo as early as six months children can notice racial differences. And then around the preschool age they can start to internalize racial bias. And then as they get older, those beliefs can become set in how they view the world and view others.

  • 12:03:21

    NNAMDIClint Smith, what conversations do you remember having with your parents as a child about racism?

  • 12:03:26

    SMITHYeah. I remember them very distinctly. You know, I grew up in a very mixed race and mixed income community. I had black friends, white friends, Asian friends. We were like the Disney Channel, you know, riding our bikes with theme music playing in the background and our hair blowing in the wind. And I remember that my father would tell me that I couldn't do some of the same things that my non-Black friends could do.

  • 12:03:47

    SMITHI remember they would, you know, we would be at a friend's house playing with water guns outside as the sun was going down or people would sneak over different fences, you know, the fence of the local school to like play football on the weekend when the field was otherwise closed. And all of these things that seemed small and like part of even somebody's childhood. But my father had to talk to me about how the implications of the decisions that I made, might be very different for me than they were for my other friends. And I didn't fully understand it then. And I didn't fully understand it truly until I had my own children.

  • 12:04:21

    SMITHI have a three year old and a one year old now, and I think that my children exist as both respite from so much of what is happening in the world and so much of the despair and tragedy that we see in the world, and also a sort of daily reminder of why the stakes are so high. And for me, higher than they've even been, because I don't want this to continue be an intergenerational conversation. The conversation my father had with -- or my grandfather had with father and my father had with me that I'll have to have with my son and my daughter about what it means to navigate a world in which you make a young person aware of the realities of the world while also attempting to make clear to them that they have done nothing to deserve it.

  • 12:05:01

    NNAMDII had the same experience. I became a single parent when my twin sons were 10 years old. And so I was raising two boys in the middle of the crack cocaine epidemic of the mid to late 1980s in Washington. And I can tell you there were a lot of talks held in those days. But Clint Smith would you mind reading your poem Counterfactual and telling us a little bit about it?

  • 12:05:22

    SMITHI'd be happy to. Yeah, so my poem Counterfactual is thinking about a moment in which I was on a field trip with some friends or with my school. And my father -- this was the conversation I was alluding to before. My father was talking about how I could not do the same things that my friends were doing. And I won't preface it too much. I'll just read the poem here.

  • 12:05:53

    SMITHWhen I was 12 years old on a field trip some place I can't remember, my friends and I bought super soakers, turned the hotel parking lot into a water filled battle zone. We hid behind cars running through the darkness that lay between the street lights, boundless laughter across the pavement. Within 10 minutes, my father came outside, grabbed me by my forearm and led me into a room with an unfamiliar grip.

  • 12:06:21

    SMITHBefore I could say anything, tell him how foolish he made look in front of my friends. He derided me for being so naïve. Looked me in the eye, fear consuming his face and said, "Son, I'm sorry, but you can't act the same as your white friends. You can't pretend to shoot guns. You can't run around in the dark. You can't hide behind anything other than your own teeth." I know now how scared he must have been. How easily I could have fallen into the empty of the night. That some man would mistake this water for a good reason to wash all of this away.

  • 12:07:00

    NNAMDIThat is Clint Smith reading from his poem Counterfactual. Here is Bernard in Capital Heights, Maryland. Bernard, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:07:10

    BERNARDGood afternoon, Kojo.

  • 12:07:12

    NNAMDIGood afternoon, Bernard.

  • 12:07:13

    BERNARDGood afternoon to your guests. Excellent program, Kojo.

  • 12:07:15

    NNAMDIThank you.

  • 12:07:16

    BERNARDI have a comment and a question. The answer to your question about the discussion on racism it was always emphasized in our household and in the neighborhood that if we were to accepted at all then we have to actually strive to be better than our competition. In this case, speaking racially we have to be better.

  • 12:07:40

    BERNARDMy question is this -- and your appearance on the program just before 1A, much of your observations were really spot on. I think a commission on truth and reconciliation really would go far. But my question is on public policy expenditure discrepancies. Is there any place in black American, you can start with D.C., Baltimore and just spread out, where publically financed hospitals outnumber publically financed prisons?

  • 12:08:19

    NNAMDIWhere publically financed hospitals outnumber publically financed prisons?

  • 12:08:23

    BERNARDRight, in any place in black America.

  • 12:08:26

    NNAMDII am not sure, but I doubt whether there's any place where there's any place where publically financed hospitals outnumber publically financed prisons. And you know that one of the problems that racism has caused is what is known as the school to prison pipeline in African American communities. I don't know if either of our guests would like to address this, Clint Smith or Dr. Jacqueline Douge?

  • 12:08:51

    DOUGESo this is Dr. Douge. I am not familiar with if there are more publically funded hospitals than prison systems in communities and black communities. But I think, Kojo, you bring up an important point about, again -- when I talk about health impacts of racism, right, there are direct impacts of racism to health, increased chronic disease disparities amongst black Americans, hypertension, diabetes, infant mortality disparities, maternal mortality disparities and we can go on and on in terms of the mental health. But there are also secondary impacts for racism to our health and wellbeing -- overall wellbeing. And one of those being the disparities in terms of incarceration rates for black men and black women, our sentencing.

  • 12:09:49

    DOUGESo, again, those tie into those other social determinants of health, right? And we also allude to the policies. What policies are in place that really disproportionately impact our youth of color? Black youth are proportionately incarcerated as well, so all those policies need to really be reviewed in terms of impacting our overall health and wellbeing.

  • 12:10:14

    NNAMDIThank you for call, Bernard. Chef Chep tweeted us to say, "I'm Jewish. My wife white. We have two little girls. The oldest is four. We expose our kids to all walks of life and they rarely ask anything. How young is too young to explain this stuff, and how to be an ally?" Clint Smith, your children are still quite young. When do you plan on starting to have conversations with them about racial injustice?

  • 12:10:38

    SMITHYeah. I think it's interesting, because racism is one of the things in which people feel as if they can't have a conversation with their children about it until they are much older, but it's different, you know, if we think about the environment, for example, or a conservation. What you do is you scaffold the conversation. You don't show up to your five year old and you say, well, global warming is an existential threat to everyone in the world and Bangladesh is soon going to be underwater. And the polar bears are going to disappear and the polar icecaps are going to melt. You know, that would be inappropriate for a five year old. It would probably scare them.

  • 12:11:12

    SMITHWhat you say is, it's important to recycle. It's important to turn the water off while you're brushing teeth from the faucet. It's important to turn the lights off when you leave your room. And you make the conversation age appropriate and you scaffold it based on like how old they are and how prepared they are to engage with certain ideas at a certain level. And I think racism is a similar thing where you don't, you know, explain to a five year old that white supremacy has been a fixture in the United States since 1619 and it's embedded into the political economy of the U.S., and has shaped every facet of housing and mass incarceration -- I mean, that would be inappropriate for your five year old.

  • 12:11:46

    SMITHAnd they'd probably walk away in the middle of you saying it. What you say is, you know, it's important for us not to be color blind. We shouldn't pretend as if we don't all have differences. We should celebrate those differences. We should lift up different cultures. We should learn more about people who are different from us. And have --

  • 12:12:03

    NNAMDIOkay. I have to interrupt you because have to take a short break, but when we come back we'll continue this conversation. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:12:28

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about parenting at a time of worldwide protests against racism with Clint Smith, Writer, Poet and an Emerson Fellow at New America. Dr. Jacqueline Douge, a Pediatrician and a Member of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Douge, how have you as a black mother yourself helped your children handle the effects that racism has had on their lives?

  • 12:12:49

    DOUGEOh, that's a very important question. I think -- I have two sons myself. They're now 18 and 21, and over a time I think first and foremost engaging in the conversation and not shying away from the conversation about race. Our conversations with them showed up in different ways, right? When they were younger there was a derogatory term that they were called and we had to address that with the family. And have a discussion about what that word meant and how they felt about that.

  • 12:13:23

    DOUGEAlso over time they've had issues. You know, there have been school incidents where there have been racial slurs, there have been macroaggressions. So again, we've had these constant conversations. Those conversations got deeper and broader as they began to learn to drive and then having conversations about how to act if they were stopped by the police.

  • 12:13:49

    DOUGEBut on the other hand, too, I think the other conversations I think that have been very much useful for our kids is the affirmation. We have artwork. Our family is Guianese and Haitian. So we talk about those cultural influences. We have artwork. We have stories. We have friends and family that model for them what black excellence is, and we also have real conversations about the programs and music that they listen to.

  • 12:14:21

    DOUGESo a lot of it is conversation, asking questions and listening. And, you know, I think all parents want the best for their kids. But when you have to now talk about racism, we want to kind of -- for me, I've kind of had to do both sides. Address the fact that this exists, but also providing opportunities to help them cope and deal and really be open to talk about how their -- if they're struggling or what questions they have, and just engaging in those conversations.

  • 12:14:48

    NNAMDIAnd you should know that my Guianese sister is also named Jacqueline. Here is Matthew in Southwest Washington. Matthew, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:14:57

    MATTHEWHi, Kojo. I also wanted to echo the comments that your discussion on the 1A was amazing.

  • 12:15:02

    NNAMDIThank you.

  • 12:15:04

    MATTHEWI am a white male, who was born and raised in Mississippi. And my parents started from a very young age, whenever we would hear anything on the news, Ted Kopple, or something like that about a racist incident that had occurred, my mom and dad would bring us into the living room and sit us down and say, "Now as white Mississippians we have an obligation to show the world that we are better than this. That we don't think this way anymore. That we don't act this way anymore," and it was really quite solemn and serious. My parents took it very seriously to let us know right away that we had an obligation to be better and to act better and do better than our past.

  • 12:15:49

    MATTHEWAnd I've lived in D.C. for 17 years and I'm frankly, I mean, the diversity of the city is really a love affair. I agree with your poet, who said color blind is stupid. I think that we should pursue the diversity of the cultures around us and fall in love with them. I think that just kind of washing them away is silly when there's so much richness there to be had and to explore and love.

  • 12:16:21

    NNAMDIThank you very much for sharing that with us. Here also is Lisa in Rockville. Lisa, your turn.

  • 12:16:29

    LISAHi, good afternoon. So I wanted to follow up on Dr. Douge's question or response. I wonder -- I'm a mixed race kid. My children are different mixed race. I married an immigrant and I'm a daughter of an immigrant. And I grew up in PG County. I didn't know there were places where there weren't black people, but as we moved around and my oldest son, who's 25, when we started getting to the age, we always had the talks also. I was thankful when he was stopped the first time driving a car and it was by State Troopers. And he was treated very well and doesn't have any negative impact or repercussions from his first real alone intercourse with law enforcement.

  • 12:17:27

    LISABut I wonder when we're talking to our children, do we who have more trauma around law enforcement project things on our kids? How do we make them cognizant without making them afraid?

  • 12:17:44

    NNAMDIDr. Douge?

  • 12:17:45

    DOUGEOh, I think -- thank you very much for that question. I mean, I too as a parent, right, have dealt -- not only as a pediatrician but as a parent dealt with duality of how do I not impose my fear and anxiety onto my kids or project that? I think first and foremost I think as a pediatrician as a healthcare provider I always recommend that parents check in with themselves first and foremost, right? Try to address any anxieties or fears that you have. And, you know, you might need to role play with a family member or a friend, right, to kind of figure out how to best have the conversation.

  • 12:18:25

    DOUGEBut I also think it's fine to -- when our kids are older of driving age 16, 17, 18 plus, right, they're in an age that they really can have really richer and deeper conversations and understand a little bit better, and I think it's fine as a parent. You know, you have those anxieties and fears. I mean, you can share those with your kids, right. I think it's fine to be upfront with them and say, you know what? This is what I'm doing to -- these are things you're going to need to be protected, right. I'm not going to be with you, you know, in the car, but I'm going to provide this information to you.

  • 12:19:03

    DOUGEBut I'm also going to share for you. I mean, I think you can admit to your kids, you know, I'm nervous about this, but I trust you enough. I'm going to work with you. Answer any questions you have and provide as much information as possible to try to keep you safe when you're on the road. So I think it's both. And I think it's okay to feel both and just be upfront and honest about your feelings and if you can maybe if you need to talk to someone about those anxieties, because you feel like it's too much, you're doing too much or giving too much information or imposing that fear on your kids, you may need to talk to someone, your healthcare provider, mental health provider.

  • 12:19:44

    DOUGEBut otherwise I think it's normal for parents to feel that way. I think the first time our kids ride a bicycle we do the same thing. I mean, it's a different scenario when there's a police involved. But again there's that feeling of anxiety. But ultimately we have to let them go and do it on their own, and hopefully that we've provided enough information and guidance for them to help them through the process and answer their questions.

  • 12:20:11

    NNAMDIClint Smith, as a parent what resources do you plan to supply your children with as they grow older? What role does generational knowledge play for you?

  • 12:20:20

    SMITHYeah. I think it's incredibly important. I think part of what I think all the time about is how -- you know, so for so much of my work I think about and study the history of race and inequality in this country. And I think we forget how -- you know, we have all these incredible books and there are all these incredible movies and films and documentaries.

  • 12:20:39

    SMITHThere are also -- you know, my grandfather was born in 1930 Jim Crow Mississippi and grew up in a town where the clan rode by their homes at night to intimidate the people in the black neighborhood, where a man, who was in his town of 1200 people was lynched, you know, when he was just a 12 year old boy, and has all of these experiences and stories that feel so distant. That are made to feel so distant in the way that we talk about race and racism today and it's mostly egregious manifestations. That actually isn't that distant at all, like those people are still alive. They're still here.

  • 12:21:15

    SMITHAnd so part of what I've try to do is recognize that this generation of folks who experienced Jim Crow and who experienced, you know, what was apartheid in America are still alive today, and are this incredible resource and even incredible opportunities. And I try to record those conversations and have those conversations. And, you know, I hope that my grandfather will continue to live many more years, and maybe those conversations with his greatgrandchildren directly. But if he's not that I've recorded these conversations. That these conversations can serve as a resource for my own children so that they have a better sense, a more intimate sense, of their history and where they came from. And how precarious the fight for progress in this country is and can be.

  • 12:21:58

    NNAMDIDr. Douge, we only have about 30 seconds left. But how can pediatricians help to mitigate some of the effects of racism on their patients?

  • 12:22:06

    DOUGESo the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations have included are creating a culturally safe medical home for children. And really being a safe space to have the conversation with parents and children about their experiences with racism.

  • 12:22:19

    NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have. Dr. Jacqueline Douge and Clint Smith, thank you both for joining us. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll be joined by Washington Wizard's Guard Ish Smith for kids only. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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