Day 9 – Introducing Structural Racism to Kids

In History by Caris Adel11 Comments

She looked out into the quiet, sunny streets, and for the first time in her life, she hated it all – the white city, the white world.  She could not, that day, think of one decent white person in the whole world.  She sat there, and she hoped that one day God, with tortures inconceivable, would grind them utterly into humility, and make them know that black boys and black girls, whom they treated with such condescension, such disdain, and such good humor, had hearts like human beings, too, more human hearts than theirs.James Baldwin, Go Tell It On the Mountain

White people don’t do this. We protect our kids. We move into HOAs and put our kids into tons of activities. We shield them from the stove, from tools, from death – from anything that might hurt or upset them.

And here I am with a book and m&ms, getting ready to shake their world. Am I doing the right thing in challenging the myth of America with them at such a young age?

But in the end I figure if black kids have to have The Talk, and face the unfair realities of the world, then so do mine.

So – this is how I introduced the concepts of structural racism and power to my kids, ages 6-13. I explained these concepts underlie everything else we’re going to learn in history this year, and underlies how the world today works.

This might look long, but it only took an hour – which is probably too long, but I wanted to get through it all at once.

I separated the m&ms into brown, blue, and the rest of the colors. Blue were the landowners/politicians/rich white people, Colored were the poor/middle class whites, and Brown was black people.  The premise was, colored m&ms are better than brown m&ms, because brown look just like chocolate. You can’t tell it has a candy shell, so it’s inferior.

I also had a copy of Zinn’s A Young People’s History of the United States and read parts of chapters 2 and 3.

On a dry erase board lying flat, I drew Europe, Africa , and America and showed landowners coming over, white indentured servants, and slaves, with the m&ms.

The kids are already getting squirrelly and goofing off of course. This lesson was peppered with ‘sit still and be quiet!!!’

We talked about how at first some black people were free and treated fairly equally – some even owned land. And then how the landowners were getting rich and there were the Native Americans, and discontent was brewing in the people. Which led to Bacon’s rebellion, and here we mixed the colored and brown m&ms together and showed how the blacks and whites working together were a threat to the few blue m&ms.

And how after Bacon’s Rebellion, white people got corn, money, and weapons, while black people got nothing.
We talked about how the leaders were in power and needed to do what they could to keep their power, and as the country formed, who wrote the laws, and who do you think the laws were designed to work for?

Then I asked them who the one person is that we depend on most to keep our way of life going in the house – that without this person/industry, our house would be filthy and smelling, crawling with bugs, rodents, and diseases – the garbageman. (Husband said head of sanitation dept., which is also true!)

It’s probably a slight stretch of an analogy, but it got the point across that we depend on people we don’t know to do the dirty work and keep our house in order.

Which led into how the north and blue m&ms in general depended on and profited off of the slaves, with the loom industry, etc.

I laid out the m&ms in 3 rows – blue on top, colored in the middle, brown on bottom, and talked about how the way of life in general was built on the backs of black people.

And then we talked about how that didn’t have to be the case. What if after Bacon’s Rebellion, all the people were given corn, money, and weapons? What if people were paid to work in the fields and treated nicely?

Then we jumped to the end of the Civil War and Reconstruction. What do the blue m&ms, and even colored m&ms do with people who have always been controlled? If you believe that brown m&ms are not real m&ms, then of course you have to come up with a way to handle them. So we talked about Jim Crow, and also how most people kept working in the cotton fields, basically as slaves, because if you are poor, uneducated, and know nothing else, what are you going to do? That led a little bit into inheritance and building of wealth and how it was harder for black people to do that.

Throughout all of this the kids have been giggly and squirrely and begging to eat the m&ms. After a very brief overview of Jim Crow, my 11 year old pipes in with, ‘but that’s back then. It’s all over now.’

This is when I got frustrated and yelled, ‘no! It’s not over. That is the entire point I’m making! This still goes on today.’
That got their attention.

On the whiteboard I drew a road with houses (squares), and in each space put a colored m&m. In the corner I drew squares super close together and put all the brown m&ms up there.

We talked about how hard it was to move out of the apartments and inner-city, but sometimes a black family could buy a house (talked about the banks giving worse loans, no loans) and move into a neighborhood. So one brown m&m moved in.

And then I gathered the colored residents around the brown house and we talked about how they bombed the house.

And then I told them how our realtor tried to get us to live in a white subdivision outside of town instead of where we do, and they were shocked to see that it was real.

To finish it up, I talked about how the system is built on the idea that being white is better. That colored m&ms are better.  And then I tried to get my oldest to say colored m&ms are better, and she refused because she knew I was making some kind of point. So then I told her she couldn’t have any to eat unless she said it, and instant tears.

And kids, that is how power works. We talked about schools – how after desegregation white people withheld their money and support and ended up leaving the schools, because, oh no, what if colored and brown m&ms ended up being friends?

And the day before , my 11 yo had pressured the 8 yo into playing a video game a certain way, and I keep telling them ‘you don’t have to listen to him’, and he said ‘but its so hard not to.’ And he cried.

So we talked about that – how it’s so hard to stand up to power, and how it’s so easy to misuse what power you have.
And then we ate m&ms, and then I saw this story pop up on Twitter and read it to them.

‘Mom, what can we do to stop it?’

Maybe more white people should do this.



Day 1 – Go Out Into the Wild
Day 2 – Links To the Wilderness
Day 3 – The Freedom of My Mind
Day 4 – Songs for Saturday
Day 5 – Self-Care Sunday
Day 6 – #Ferguson
Day 7 – Links for Anti-Racism Work
Day 8 – The Way the World Works



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  • Kendall

    Brilliant approach! I’m deciding how to broach the topic with my kids too.
    1. I’d be curious to see how their absorption varies given their age range. What types of questions did they ask along the way (or in the days following the lesson)?
    2. And how would you respond to someone who would object and say, “You’re teaching them racism”, “You’re making them afraid of minorities”, or “Your kids are being made to feel ashamed to be white.” ?

    • Caris’ DH

      Kendall, I’m sure their absorption will vary not just based on their ages, but their personalities as well.

      As far as responding to those who might object, I’d say the world already teaches racism, overtly, covertly, in the dynamics of who they see serving them food at restaurant, to who they see as heros/heroines in movies. There’s a great line in “A Few Good Men” where the defense attorney asks a soldier to find the page in the manual that tells him where the mess hall is. The soldier replies that it’s not in the book. “You mean to say in all your time at Gitmo you’ve never had a meal?…I don’t understand. How did you know where the mess hall was if it’s not in this book?” This is what I mean when I say the world already teaches them. We innately follow the crowd and try to fit in (most of us at least).

      To the question of “You’re making them afraid of minorities” I’d say, How? How is moving into a predominately black neighborhood, teaching them about power dynamics, and letting them experience some of it for themselves “making them afraid?” Would keeping them away and ignorant to it all make them more afraid? Isn’t our greatest fear as humans the unknown?

      And lastly, “Your kids are being made to feel ashamed to be white”. No…just no. We’re not teaching them to be ashamed of who they are, but we are teaching them to be AWARE of it.

      • Caris Adel

        And I would add to #2, about being ashamed of being white – that that is a legitmate fear, I think. I think that’s partly why we’ve waited to teach them anything. When you become aware of all of this there is guilt and shame over being white, and I think I needed to work through that so that I wouldn’t pass that on to them. And, I also struggle with how to do this in a way that doesn’t make them feel pity for our neighbors and the kids they play with at the playground. And I also don’t want to teach them in a way that ends up making them feel like white saviors, either.

        I haven’t even shown them anything about Ferguson, because it felt graphic and I struggled with what if this makes them afraid of police, but I think the older two at least need to know, and be able to see the continuing pattern that we’re all watching now. So some of the stuff is going to be taught based on their age differences, I think.

  • Emily Heitzman

    Caris, this is SO good! I’m sharing this with families in my ministry! Ever think about doing a series on different ways of how to teach children/youth about structural racism… Have guest posts… Can you tell this is a request…? :)

    • Caris Adel

      The thought crossed my mind. And this is good peer pressure to not get lax as the school year goes on, haha.

  • Kayla

    This is good stuff! I get so overwhelmed and frustrated with people who “don’t get it” — we live in a primarily white community and one of our sons was adopted and he is black. This is so important to talk about. Thanks.

    • Caris Adel

      Right after this I witnessed a horrible conversation on FB among some of my white friends so…..yes, I feel that overwhelm and frustration.

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