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Jesse Williams Pays It Forward with BET Speech

I would like to give a standing ovation to Jesse Williams’ parents. When Williams took the stage last night at the BET Awards and delivered truth bombs in rapid succession, I heard years of parenting that had gone into his education. Both of Williams’ parents are educators, and clearly, their star student is their son. Any social conscious educator in the United States will tell you that our schools get a failing grade in teaching real history. The workshops I developed at Transracial Parenting are designed to help parents compensate by including real history talk into their parenting tools. When children are not taught real history, they fill in the gaps, and often what passes for facts becomes convenient truths or myths grabbed from an inelastic web of half-truths. White Americans, in particular, are addicted to a narrative where there is no malevolence in our nation building. U.S. History taught in schools is a convenient and beloved truth that mighty men built an empire in a land destined for them, and them alone. Them are white folks, more specifically white men. The truth is radically more complex. 

A lot of our own parenting in the U.S. comes from how we were parented. We often repeat what our parents told us, don’t chew with your mouth open, say thank you, don’t talk back. While parents of children of color also incorporate praise and admonishments that white children don’t hear such as you are just as good as anyone else, make sure you get a receipt in that store so no one can accuse you of stealing, the Talk (read: when the police stop you keep your hands on the steering wheel and look straight ahead). The difference in parenting is acute to me as a Spanish, Jewish mother of an African American son. There was little in my parenting experience that prepared me to raise a Black son, which is how I came to be an auto didact on African American studies, which segued to doing the work of helping other parents in transracial families. Williams’ parents, a Swedish mom and African American father, must have given him tools to navigate his experience as a mixed race man. Their very life as an interracial couple and a transracial family must have been a lesson. Williams also studied African American history in college, but it was his parents, who “made sure [he] learned what the schools were afraid to teach,” who formed his opinions on race in America. Williams said in his BET acceptance speech. 

We’ve been floating this country on credit for centuries, and we’re done watching and waiting while this invention called whiteness uses and abuses us. Burying Black people out of sight and out of mind while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment like oil. Black gold.

Here Williams shows a clear understanding of the history of white dominance extracted through the free and cheap labor of people of color. Yet, he ends with “Black gold,” showing he is unapologetically Black, and knows his self-worth. I know that parenting went a long way to Williams’ self-actualization. A white parent’s ability to instill Black pride in a Black son is a tricky business. There is no clear roadmap except a willingness to explore the gaps in our own education, and diligently work to fill those gaps in your child’s education. Anti-racism parenting involves intentional insertion of facts, ugly as they might be, into everyday conversations. When we talk about fairness, we insert where this country has not been fair to some people. When we talk about oppression of people of color, about racism, we speak about resistance and those who chose to stand apart from the status quo. When we talk about the American Dream, we make sure our children understand exceptionalism and how systemic racism makes the Dream untenable for many. 

New parenting tools are what our country could use more of right now, not just for children of color but for all children. According to the U.S. Census by 2043 the white majority in the U.S. will be gone. In the past, where white parents of white children could educate their children in schools that ignored our racial history, this pedagogy no longer stands. In order for any child to be competent in our rapidly changing society, they need to also be culturally competent. Many millennials mistakenly believe we live in a post-racist society, which is why they have difficulty understanding our loud outcries that echo back to the Civil Rights movement, which has surfaced in social media and is informing mainstream media. How many of my white friends have unfriended me on Facebook for engaging in a dialogue that seeks to balance real history with current events? Too many. Not understanding history leads to a bubble of ignorance, fear, and denial.

In Williams speech last night, he thanked civil rights activist for “realizing that a system built to divide and impoverish and destroy us cannot stand if we do.” I echo Williams’ call to stand against racism and up for people of color. There is a way to incorporate this into your parenting toolkit. Williams’ message is an inspiration to all parents. His own parents, Johanna Chase and Reginald Williams, must have filled in the gaps so thoroughly, their son grew to be a man who, with eloquence and intelligence, dropped the mic for real last night on the BET Awards. 

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