“Slavery was a long time ago;” An awkward moment at the grocery store

by guest blogger Sara Leo

My daughter turned four a few months ago and we have recently begun talking about this country’s racial history in more specific terms. We have been using the book “Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans” which I love but have realized is bit too advanced for her. We have only made it as far as the first few sections, which focus primarily on slavery.

The history of slavery has made quite an impression on my daughter. A month ago we visited our pediatrician, who is from Ghana. As soon as the doctor walked in, my daughter proceeded to tell her all about slavery.

“White people stole Black people from their homes, and it was a very terrible thing,” she reported.

As soon as she opened her mouth my heart started beating fast and I started sweating, worried about what she might say. I had to resist the temptation to stop her. But I know that making kids feel weird or bad for talking about race is exactly the opposite of what White parents should do.

Then, yesterday, my dad shared an interaction he had with my daughter and a young Black man at the grocery store. Apparently my daughter (who loves all people and freely talks to pretty much every person she encounters) went up to this young Black man, introduced herself, and, after getting his name, nonchalantly mentioned to him that slavery happened a long time ago.

Cue the awkward record scratch!!

My dad was embarrassed and tried to smooth it over and apparently the gentleman said it was fine. Lacking direction from me, my dad decided not to say anything more to my daughter about it after that.

Later, my mom asked for my advice in case anything like that happened again. And, I must admit, I felt a little mortified thinking about it. My White fragility kicked in and immediately I started thinking about how my daughter’s comment probably communicated to the man that we were a family who thought that since slavery happened so long ago, Black people should just ‘get over it’ and move on. I was half-relieved not to have been there and half-upset that I wasn’t so I could have said responded to my daughter in this moment.

So, what would I have said? Hindsight is 20/20 and it’s entirely possible I would have choked and quietly led her in another direction, but I like to think that I might have said something like:

“Yes, we have been learning about history lately and some of the bad things that White people have done. We have a lot to learn still about how White people can be better and love other people more.”

It would have been uncomfortable, for sure, but White parents need to understand that raising race conscious children is a challenge that will likely be full of awkward moments. The key is seeing all these moments as a learning opportunity. In this case, I want my daughter to know that learning and talking about slavery is a good thing. But I also what her to know there is a time and a place for those conversations.

Right now she lacks the big picture. She knows about slavery and that it happened a long time ago, but she isn’t yet able to place slavery inside a larger narrative of continued oppression and racial division in this country. As such, it’s not the best idea for her to just walk up to random people and start talking about it. Since I didn’t get the chance to say something in the moment, I decided to bring it up in conversation today:

Me: Did you meet someone new at the grocery store with Grandpa yesterday?

My daughter: No… (suddenly a little bashful)

Me: Did you introduce yourself to someone?

My daughter: Um… yeah… no… I don’t know…

Me: Did you meet a Black person?

My daughter: (perking up) Yes!

Me: And what did you say to him?

My daughter: I don’t remember…

Me: Did you talk to him about slavery?

My daughter: (perking up, again) Yes!

Me: What did you say?

My daughter: I told him that slavery happened a long time ago.

Me: OK, well, I want to talk about that a little. It’s true slavery did happen a long time ago. But, how do you think it makes Black people feel to think about slavery?

My daughter: I don’t know.

Me: Well was slavery a good thing or a bad thing?

My daughter: A bad thing.

Me: And so how do you think Black people feel when they think about it?

My daughter: Bad… they probably feel sad.

Me: Yeah… and here’s the thing… Black people are really smart… and they already know about slavery. They don’t really need White people to tell them about it.

My daughter: Yeah…

Me: But you know who sometimes doesn’t know a lot about the bad things White people have done is other White people. So sometimes it can be a good idea to tell them about it. But, probably not in a grocery store when we don’t know them. In a grocery store, or anywhere we meet new people we can just introduce ourselves and ask about their day or their favorite things, but we don’t need to talk to them about slavery.

My daughter: OK.

Me: But, you know what is important for us to do. If we ever hear a White person saying mean things about people because of their skin or saying anything bad about Black people…

My daughter: (interrupting, loudly) I can say STOP THAT! Stop saying those mean things!

Me: Yep, and…

My daughter: (interrupting, again) and I can say “Black People Are Important!!”

Me: Yes. That’s a perfect thing to say.

I’m still learning about exactly what kinds of things her little four-year-old mind can process and comprehend, but I was grateful for this opportunity to talk to her and I’m even looking forward to more awkward, but teachable, moments to come!


Sara Leo is an educator, mother and PhD candidate in the Curriculum, Instruction and Teacher Education program at Michigan State University. Her areas of study include media education, public pedagogy, and critical issues of race, gender and sexuality, particularly as they relate to young children, parents, and the intersection of schooling and society.

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