Kids absorb the normal behavior and routines of adults around them; they’re unwittingly and constantly taking in our habits, culture, and our perception of the world. My 4-year-old daughter is learning more than just the content of my words. The way I say something lets her know that I’m not happy with a situation. My reaction is transmitted to her as an appropriate way to respond to what I dislike. I’m also planting the seeds to shape her future behavior. This dynamic where children mediate normalcy through their parents’ eyes is transferable to all facets of our world, including our politics.
In 2018, I overheard my neighbor’s daughters talking one morning before school. The eldest asked the middle daughter, “Is Donald Trump racist?” I knew that the answers offered in that discussion would inform and formulate their foundational understanding of more than just the President, but those answers would also provide the basis for perceptions of racism and its relationship to politics in general. There was so much at stake in just that one question. So much of how we understand our role as citizens and how we are civically engaging with our democracy is shaped by these organic inquiries.
Donald J. Trump has been a controversial figure since he launched his bid for the presidency in 2016. A prominent figure of the birther movement, which challenged president Barack Obama’s nationality, he had also been behind a controversial ad calling for the death penalty for five Black NYC juveniles accused of raping a white female jogger in Central Park. All of the Central Park Five were later exonerated after unjustly serving years in prison, highlighted in the Netflix movie When They See Us. He’s also been involved in multiple lawsuits concerning claims of sexual assault and racial discrimination.
President Trump has been recorded mocking a disabled reporter, questioning a judge’s ability to decide a case fairly because of his Mexican heritage, telling duly elected American congresswomen of color to “go back” to their country, and calling Black Lives Matter, the organization responsible for sparking the largest civil rights movement in history, “an emblem of hate.”
During the first presidential debate of the 2020 election year, on the salient election issue of racism and with a history of, at best, problematic implications of racism, Trump was given the opportunity to unequivocally look Americans in the eye and say without hesitation that he denounces white supremacy and white supremacists. He did not, instead taking more shots at the Black Lives Matter movement, despite the FBI and DHS reporting that white supremacists groups were the greatest domestic terrorism threat in the country.
So what does any of this say about those who refute that Trump lost the 2020 election? Those who will not concede that Joseph Biden, Jr. is the just winner of the election?
Like many parents, before I allow my child into someone else’s home without me, I run through a mental rubric to assess the safety of that space. Safety isn’t just confined to physical well-being but extends to mental and emotional health as well. As the parent of a Black daughter, these considerations include issues of race and gender. Is this a home where my child is likely to overhear insensitive jokes or stories? Has this family discussed race and racism explicitly with their children to ensure a shared framework from which these children (their child and my child) can engage each with each other with minimal racial identity harms?
But how can we, individually, determine what is racist behavior? I challenge you to interrogate yourself regarding that uncertainty. If racially conscious sensibilities aren’t built into your child rearing practices, then it’s likely you haven’t cultivated a safe space that I’d feel comfortable sending my daughter into. You cannot actively oppose racism while supporting those who espouse racism.