MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child but maybe you just need a few mocha moms. We visit with a diverse group of parents each week for their comments and some savvy parenting advice.
Today we want to talk about how this historic presidential election may be influencing the conversations parents are having with their kids about things like race, ethnicity, religion and gender, especially over the past few weeks as the campaign has gotten more intense. Now some parents may choose to shield their children from these things but others may find that they cannot or they prefer to use this as an opportunity to engage their children and challenge them to think about how to deal with these issues.
Let's let the moms weigh in. I'm joined by our regulars, Jolene Ivey and Leslie Morgan Steiner. I'd like to welcome back Renee Amoore and welcome guest mom Joan Countryman, who's also an educator with a great deal of experience in multiracial and multicultural environments. Welcome, ladies, moms.
Unidentified woman: Hey, Michel.
Unidentified woman: Thank you, Michel.
Unidentified woman: Thank you.
Unidentified woman: It's nice to be here.
Unidentified woman: Good to be here.
MARTIN: Recently, I moderated a symposium on the abolition of slavery in Rhode Island. Joan was there. In the middle of this, one young woman in the question-and-answer session mentioned that she was sick of the campaign because she said it was hurting her feelings. You know, all these stories about how people are not going to vote for Obama or may not be willing to vote for Senator Obama because he's black. That was the particular issue that was troubling to her, but she said she just found it painful to listen to, and she particularly found it painful having to explain to her son why someone might not want to vote for him because he's African-American.
Now we put a lot of attention on the whole question of the upside of people saying how exciting it is to have the first African-American major party nominee, how exciting it is to have the second woman major party nominee on the Republican side. So I wanted to ask each of you, what kinds of conversations are you having with your kids? Has this come up for any of you? Leslie?
LESLIE MORGAN STEINER: Well, I have three young kids, and they are all really interested in politics, probably because we live in Washington and because I'm interested, but I have to say that my 11-year-old is the one who's most interested. And he has watched the debates - in fact, last debate he came running in from basketball practice and said, is the debate on? You know, I can't wait to watch it, which is just a delightful thing to see in an 11-year-old.
And you know, and I should say because we're on the radio, I am white and my kids are white, and in a white family, at least in my white family, the luxury or perhaps the shame is that we don't talk about racial issues very much. We're not forced to. And my kids don't have to confront racial issues on a daily basis. And we have talked about race very little in this campaign. My son has always been for Obama since the very beginning but we've never delved too much into his candidacy as a black man.
MARTIN: Jolene, what about you? Five boys.
JOLENE IVEY: Well, five boys but we...
MARTIN: And a husband in public service, and you're in public service yourself.
IVEY: And we're all black.
MARTIN: And you're all African-American, yeah.
IVEY: Yeah. Well, I think that living in Prince George's county, Maryland, which is a home of a huge black population, and the people in power primarily are African-American. So you're just not in the situation where we feel like we're in the minority. We feel like we're in the majority. So we're OK. And it's very exciting for my kids to watch this campaign. They do feel very engaged, even down to the youngest who is only eight. He is really into watching all the debates. He would not go to bed until the last one was over.
MARTIN: Has any of this negative stuff in recent weeks registered with him?
MARTIN: The things that political reporters have talked about.
IVEY: They have heard it, and I hate to have to say, but it hasn't really impacted them that much because it's really not that unusual in America. So it's not really new.
MARTIN: Renee, you're the mom of a grown daughter. You're the deputy chair of the Pennsylvania Republican Party, and I'm just curious what this has been like for you, both as an African-American Republican, McCain supporter, you spoke at the convention in support of John McCain's nomination. Has this been interesting for you?
RENEE AMOORE: It's been more than interesting, Michel, let me say that. We get hit a lot. We're dealing with a lot of racism here. We've been threatened because we are supporting John McCain.
MARTIN: You think that's racist or is that something else?
AMOORE: On one hand, it comes from people from the other persuasion, white liberals that have an issue with us not supporting Obama, because I'm African-American and he's African-American. But then on the other hand, you have people out West that we've even had - you know, the Ku Klux Klan is very popular out here in Pennsylvania, especially out West, the (unintelligible) County on up. And so you have a lot of racist comments, you know, around there. The N word being thrown, you know. You can't go into the White House because you're black, you know, that whole thing.
MARTIN: You have people say this to your face?
AMOORE: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. We've had a lot of things going on here in Pennsylvania and in Philadelphia, in particular. Threats, you know, our telephone where we had to get traces so people know who's threatening us, that whole thing, the police being called. So we have a lot of difficult things going on right now in Philadelphia, in particular.
MARTIN: How are you talking to your daughter about that? I know she's older than some of the other kids - kids of the other parents on our roundtable.
AMOORE: Yeah. She's 24. You know, she works 24/7. She has worked with us in the past as a lobbyist, so she's real clear and understands what's going on. She's real disappointed because of, you know, her friends having some serious issues with her because she does not support Obama. She has some different ideas, values. She feels that he's too liberal for her. And when she tells her friends, they're very upset with her because she's not voting for Obama. It's not like we're not proud about Obama winning, you know, running. We really think it's a good thing, but we're just not where he's at, asfar as our platform and things that we're about.
So she gets criticized quite a bit at work, you know, with her friends, so she's getting it all around. But her biggest thing is we had an incident where she had a Palin sign in Philadelphia, and someone, as she was transferring it to my car, someone actually jumped out of the car and said, how dare you, you know. How dare you support them? You know, you're a token. And they went through all these whole, you know, negative words, curse words, the whole thing. So, you know, especially in Philadelphia, you have to be really careful of what you're doing, to the point that I've had to have security.
MARTIN: Joan Countryman, you've been an educator for many years. You also worked to help start the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls. Obviously, we're very interested in this because, you know, the racial situation in this country has been fraught at times. And South Africa is also dealing with race and ethnicity and has had some sort of difficult times. I'd like to ask, as an educator, how would you deal with this with young people? How would you encourage people to think about this and talk about this with their young people?
JOAN COUNTRYMAN: One thing about South Africa is that it's easier to talk about race there. What excites me about South Africa is the willingness to talk about the past. And I think that's what has been missing in this country, is that we've been afraid to talk about our history, about slavery, about how we got to the situation that we're in. And my own experience - and I would say I'm an educator but also a parent and a grandparent. I have four grandchildren and I have two children. And what I learned early on with my own children was that we had to talk about race. There's no way you can ignore it. The children pick it up. And whether - certainly, if they live in a multi-cultural world, which many children, not every child but most children in United States have some experience of many races, they notice. They notice, and I think talking about it and listening to their insights will help them understand how to respond to the fact that racism does exist.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm talking with the Mocha Moms about the issues of race and gender and ethnicity and religion in the presidential campaign and how parents can talk about this with their kids. One of the things, though, that I've noticed, though, is that with some whites, if you bring up the question of race, they interpret it as divisive, as an effort to introduce division into the community. And if people feel that way, how do you respond?
COUNTRYMAN: Well, I think you have to talk about the fact that they feel it's divisive. Again, in my experience in South Africa was that white South Africans, black South Africans, colored South Africans, Asians, all tended to say, we have to acknowledge that we have had a very difficult history in this country. We need to move on, but we also need to acknowledge that there are differences among us.
MARTIN: Leslie, do you have any thought about that?
STEINER: You know, what I see happening is that in my family, we think that we're being somehow politically correct and nice by not mentioning race. And I think this is really misguided. And I'll give you an example. This morning, my son asked who Colin Powell was because he's come out to endorse Obama. And my son thinks that's great. But then he said, but who is that? And so my husband was explaining, and he was saying, he's a great general. He's a Republican. This is very significant. And he never said, and he's black. And I though afterwards, I thought, why is that that we're reluctant to come out and say that?
And I think it's because we have too much of a sense of political correctness, and it will be far better, as Joan was saying, is if we just talked about the realities of our lives and the realities of our history and why this is so significant that a black Republican is coming out to support a black Democrat.
MARTIN: What about the basic question of Senator Obama's being African-American himself? Your kids have never brought that up?
STEINER: You know, I know it's amazing, but they have never mentioned it. Now I think part of it is that Senator Obama is - in their eyes, he's partially black. He's a slightly different color. But they don't see it as the way that I think adults come to see it, as either you're black or you're white. And it's in part because my son plays on a basketball team where he is one of the only white kids, but the other kids are not. They're all different colors of shades of black, and he doesn't see it in such a black and white way, which I think is great. And I hope it's something that he carries forward with him into adulthood.
MARTIN: Joan, you wanted to say something?
COUNTRYMAN: Yes, Michel. Let me tell two quick stories. One, when my son was about three, he and I were walking down the street and we ran into an African-American boy whom I had tutored who had had a lot of difficulty. And I saw that my son was picking up that there was sadness in this young man. And after we left, I said, that was James. He's a friend of mommy's, and he's had a lot of trouble. And my son said, why do green people have so much trouble?
And I said - when I told that story to my husband, I said, you know, he hasn't got the colors right yet but he knows about the trouble. Children do understand that there are things going on, and I think we have to talk about them because they are picking up on them. If we don't talk about them, they don't - they wonder why we are not. Is there something wrong?
MARTIN: And speaking of that, I want to pick up on something I was particularly interested in, whether your kids picked up on, was this whole question of whether Senator Obama is subjected to an addition level of threat because he's an African-American, Jolene,particularly because you and your husband are both in public life. But I don't necessarily think that that's a predicate for being concerned about this. I mean, there has been a subtext of concern among many people of color about whether Senator Obama would be the target of threats. And indeed, there were people arrested in Denver who had some lame plot to kill him. He was given Secret Service protection at the earliest point ever for a candidate.
I want to play two clips from the debate, which a lot of kids watched. The first, I think, is from Senator McCain, who was complaining that the whole question of sort of race and race baiting and stuff for which he'd been criticized goes both ways. And I then I want to hear - and then I want to play Senator Obama's response to that.
(Soundbite of 2008 presidential debate)
Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona; 2008 Republican Presidential Nominee): Congressman John Lewis, an American hero, made allegations that Sarah Palin and I were somehow associated with the worst chapter in American history - segregation, deaths of children in church bombings, George Wallace. That, to me, was so hurtful.
Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; 2008 Democratic Presidential Nominee): If we want to talk about Congressman Lewis, who is an American hero, he, unprompted by my campaign, without my campaign's awareness, made a statement that he was troubled with what he was hearing at some of the rallies that your running mate was holding, in which all the Republican reports indicated were shouting, when my name came up, things like terrorist and kill him. And that your running mate didn't mention, didn't stop them and say, hold on a second. That's kind of out of line. And I think Congressman Lewis' point was that we have to be careful about how we deal with our supporters.
MARTIN: Jolene, has any of this registered with your boys?
IVEY: Oh, yeah, absolutely. And you know what, John Lewis was absolutely right. I mean, he absolutely was right when he pointed out that Palin didn't do anything to intervene when her rally started getting out of hand. I mean, if someone were in my home and started acting crazy like that, I'd say, whoa, stop. You know, you cannot behave like that. You cannot say things like that. It's hurtful. And she didn't do it, and she was the person in charge.
MARTIN: Well, obviously, what we teach our kids is going to have a lot to do with what our own values and perspectives are around these issues. But in the couple of minutes that we have left, I'd like to go around and ask each of the moms, what do you think the most important lesson you can teach your kids or what you think you are teaching your kids about race in connection with this election, given that everybody, you know, at the table is interested in this - at least, if not politically active, then certainly politically deeply interested. Renee, do you want to start?
AMOORE: Sure. I think that we need to be open and honest in communicating, you know, with our children. Also, not just hearing them but also listening to them is really important about who they are and how they feel about how they really feel about the whole process. What do they think is really happening? And I think that's really helpful for them just to get it out because we don't know what they're dealing with in school all the time, what the other kids are saying. You know, what's happening or even out of school, in their job, as far as my daughter. You know, where she - there's three Republicans that sit in an office. It was real interesting. And then they had all the Democrats in another office instead of like, wouldn't it be better to mix and match? You know, those whole things. So I think it's important, again, the communication, and really just actively listen to each other.
MARTIN: Leslie, what do you think you're teaching or want to teach the kids about race?
STEINER: One of the things I want to pass on most to my children is to look at all these issues through other people's eyes, not just through our own. For me, the turning point when I was able to let go of Hillary and move into the Obama camp fully was a day at my son's basketball practice when one of his friends was just on cloud nine. A really happy kid, but this day he was just bouncing around the court. And I said, you know, Kyle, why are you so happy? And he said, today I got a letter from Barack Obama, and he might be our next black president.
And this little boy was just glowing with it. And to see hope, you know, just radiating from a kid, to me, it changed me. And I talked to my son about it. He was right there, and he heard what had happened and we talked about it later. And I just tried to get him to see how looking at any sort of issue in this country from somebody else's view can be very life changing and powerful. And that's what I hope on to pass on to my kids.
MARTIN: Joan, What do you think?
COUNTRYMAN: One of the gifts that Barack Obama has given us, I think, is that - is the insight that the past is not past. That we can't pretend that our past didn't happen, and that in fact, by engaging with each other and acknowledging it, then, as the South Africans say, then we can move on. And I think that's a wonderful gift. And I think that will help us and help our kids to make a stronger country in the future.
MARTIN: Joan Countryman is a veteran educator. She's actually been a head of a number of schools. She worked to help start the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. She joined us from WRNI in Providence. Renee Amoore is the deputy chair for the Pennsylvania Republican Party. She joined us from Philadelphia. Jolene Ivey and Leslie Morgan Steiner joined us from our Washington studio. Moms, ladies, thank you so much for joining us.
COUNTRYMAN: Thanks, Michel.
AMOORE: Thanks, Michel.
IVEY: Thanks, Michel.
STEINER: Thank you, Michel.
And remember, with Tell Me More, the conversation never ends. We'd like to know, have you found yourself talking with your children about race, ethnicity, gender or religion in connection with the presidential campaign? What are they saying? What are you saying? To tell us more and to compare notes with other listeners, you can go to our blog at npr.org/tellmemore. You can also call our comment line at 202-842-3522. Again, that's 202-842-3522. We'd love to hear from you. And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.