Why children can bear witness to social injustice, without losing their innocence

How much injustice is too much for children to bear, and are they losing their innocence in the face of the racially charged incidents that are happening in the US? The unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic has provided parents with more quantity time and a chance to see what our children have learned from the adults raising them. As a mother to mixed-race children, I have especially been concerned about how these issues affect my children's identity and how much of their innocence is lost as they learn about these distressing issues.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to bear witness to social injustice. The opposite of a witness is the spectator. Defined as a person who watches at a show, game, or other event, spectating comes naturally. It requires no further action but simply be visually stimulated and then left bereft and unable to act.

To witness is a call to action. It means becoming an active participant in life as it unfolds, and acknowledging the sensations evoked by an intense awareness of the present.

Once this transformation occurs, the spectator begins to feel connected to other lives. You begin seeing yourself as part of someone else’s story and become a contributing author to the ever-evolving narrative of our collective tragedies and triumphs.

The world is (becoming) too small for anything but brotherhood- Powell Davies. (Photo Credit: Pixabay)

Becoming a witness requires a kind of vulnerability that is often tucked neatly behind busyness. The adult experience slowly begins to strip us of the ability to recognize the similarities of our experiences with strangers. While drowning in life’s daily obligations, this disconnect with others is veiled under a disguised belief in helplessness. After all, one can’t save the world, let alone save oneself from the world.

But children are not wired to ignore this natural response to empathy. If a playground banter between two preschoolers turns unfriendly, witnesses will spring forward, ready to diffuse a volatile situation that has disrupted the peace.

They are also bound to dash to the nearest adult, seeking a quick resolution to restore order. This instinctive trust in grown-ups does not discriminate along any politically defining categorizations of human beings. Little hands just want to get back to digging in the sandpit.

The Corona parenting times have provided an unusual amount of quantity time with our children. According to this surveymoms are now spending an additional 3.7 hours per weekday with their children. That’s 49% more time with our children than we previously had, and a whole new level of intense parenting.

During this time, I have witnessed many battles waged between my four children ranging in age from 14 to 6 years old. In my home, the reactions to these events are dependent on personality and not age or gender.

The ‘book-ends’, as a friend once named them, are the oldest (big sister) and youngest (little brother). They are still waters, who silently witness their middle brother and sister spark an all-engulfing fire, ignited by a mutual sensitivity to changes in the social atmosphere.

The ‘fire-crackers’, as I refer to these two, seem to feel the heat’s intensity as though it were burning their skins. They loudly call out injustices and would likely march the streets bearing bold placards in solidarity with the afflicted. The ‘bookends’ would join them too if only to hose down all the little fires left behind.

While the reactions are different, both sets of children are not mere spectators. They are active witnesses to others’ pain, often looking up to adults to confirm that their discomfort is a mutual feeling.

As the extra parenting time provided space to contemplate the world in which our little activists are growing up, the borne witness theory was quickly put to the test. Racially charged events happening in the US began pinging through all our devices. Like other parents caught unprepared, I scrambled to provide an immediate buffer, buying the golden time needed to react appropriately. I felt an instinctive obligation to protect my children’s innocence, holding onto my guiding parenting mantra that once something is known, it cannot be unknown.

But the world that their childhood is being experienced no longer shields from ‘unknowing.’ We are all now connected virtually, tethered to a force much more alluring and far stronger than the protective embrace of all mothers and fathers worldwide.

I sat my Third Culture Kids down, fearing that their idealistic worldview, formed through more than a decade of growing up in different countries, would be broken. I wondered how they would be able to discern the nuanced political issues that had turned local US events into global crises, dividing their black and white identities into separate categories of human beings. In their Utopian world, a simple play-date with a few friends resembles a mini United Nations convention, where a passport is the only differentiating factor.

Children can see colour without seeing race- Wakanyi
(Photo Credit: Pixabay)

But the topic of racism had finally arrived squarely on all dinner tables. It was served hot and salty in our mixed-race home, beckoning us all to consider what our varying skin colours, from pale white to dark black, say about us to friends and family around the world.

I decided to turn it into a lesson plan, serving it as an anecdotal side helping of the story of my life as the only legitimate black member of our family. We read many books that prompted discussions about justice and freedom, what the Black Lives Matter movement means for our type of nomadic family, accustomed to being the expat minority, and being of black African and white American descent.

The debate on social injustice drew two factions. The ‘bookends’, owing to their even-kilned temperament, and usually inclined to mulling over the details, immediately went on a fact-checking mission before taking a neutral stand. The full extent of their half-white, half-black skin tones was equally represented like notes on a keyboard.

The ‘fire-crackers’ were instantly ignited, recharged by a strong desire to restore justice and fairness for the black populations that half of their skin colour represents. The 11-year-old who now has access to real-time news began paying closer attention to how these stories were presented. His voice grew even stronger when watching Lewis Hamilton open this year’s Formula 1 season with a shiny, black Mercedes and #BLM regalia.

We chose to open the floodgates of difficult questions and allowed several elephants to march into our living room. Racial discrimination, white privilege, you name it, were laid bare on the table. But it wasn’t until I removed the teacher hat, cleared the online order of diverse books, and began watching, and listening, that I finally learned what more than a decade of parenting my children around the world had produced.

Maybe for the first time, I was ‘seeing’ them. I saw how the 14-year-old had grown a head taller; her mind has become her own, and her views no longer an extension of parents or teachers. She had become a hybrid, an eclectic mix of two opposing racial identities, powered by diverse cultural values.

She silently devoured Jacqueline Woodson’s ‘Harbor Me’ and ‘Brown Girl Dreaming.’ She later revealed her truth, saying, “Sometimes our most obvious differences, like colour, aren’t what separates us. We are most isolated when we can’t find the space or the words to say and show how similar our life stories are.”

Let us remember: one book, one pen, one child, and one teacher can change the world- Malala Yousafzei. (Photo credit: Wakanyi)

This wisdom seemed to emerge out of a deeper place, subtly appealing to humanity’s better angels, without losing sight of the complex nature of her racial identity. Given the space to express herself, and without facing judgement, she echoed a truth that has been nagging at my subconscious on those endlessly long and silent nights spent solving global problems.

When stripped of all attachments to the labels that distinguish one breathing creature from the other, we are all reliant on the same life force. Whether consciously or subconsciously, we are aware that the reason for our existence on this planet is simply because we can breathe.

The unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic that is snatching lives without distinguishing skin colour is the most obvious proof of this breathtaking phenomenon. However, when the ability to recognize our vulnerabilities as reflected in others is lost, and when we fail to react to the injustices that disrupt our peaceful coexistence, we become spectators.

What spectating looks like. (Photo credit: Pixabay)

As the questions gave way to heavy discussions, I noticed a lightness in my children’s eyes. Their gazes did not harden. Instead, their voices grew stronger, relieved to finally be able to name the fear and cast away any doubt of not being heard or seen.

This has confirmed to me that even in our most divisive times when called to bear witness, children will choose to feel others’ pain first. But they are looking at us, imitating us, and desperately hoping to see a reflection of their vulnerability on our hardened faces.

Perhaps we need a little more courage to become as genuinely empathetic to actively diffuse any instances of social injustice and safeguard our children’s innocence.

In your own way, be a lion- Wiz

It takes courage to stand up and speak your truth- Wakanyi
(Photo credit: Julia Kuo)

About Waks

A curator of African folktales. A trained journalist and content editor. An independent Global Education Researcher. Partner to a guy I met on a dusty bus stop in Nairobi on a Saturday afternoon. Mother to four of the world's best backpacking Third Culture Kids. A self-proclaimed world citizen with strong Kenyan roots. A global nomad, always ready to stop over for giggles and a hot cup of tea.

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