Let’s Tell Our White Children the Truth About Racism in the U.S.
To white parents and educators of white children, especially school-age children:
To explain to our white children the uprising for Black liberation we are witnessing, it may be tempting to focus on the singular event of George Floyd’s murder and tell your children, “This is about four white police officers hurting a black man named George Floyd.” If you move beyond the language of “hurting” to tell your children that the police “killed” George Floyd, you might feel like you’re not watering it down. Your version might include that the mass protests are a response to the killing of several Black people in the last few months; maybe you will even feel moved to say their names: Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade … and so many more you might choose to name from the too-long list of Black lives lost to state-sanctioned violence. You might think you’re done if you elaborate that these Black men, women, and children who were murdered were “doing nothing wrong.” You could explain to your children that, “They were doing normal, everyday things like exercising, playing at the park, going to the store, driving home, and sleeping at home in their beds — things we as white people do all the time without feeling afraid someone will harm us.” But please: go even farther to help our white children understand that this uprising for Black liberation is part of a long history of oppression and resistance that is older than their grandparents. (If you want to be really accurate, or your child is especially fond of math or history, you might specify that the problem is actually older than their great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents. Let them count the generations of African Americans impacted by systemic racism). Explain to your kids that:
“This problem of racism against Black people in our country has been going on ever since white people sailed over from Europe to build their own country on the lands of Native Americans and to capture and force Black Africans to come here to work without paying them so that white people could make money.”
If your children ask why this happened, the simple answer is because of greed. To explain why racism exists, you could expound that:
“Racism is a big lie that rich white people made up a very long time ago so that they could make money. By spreading the big lie that Black people were not fully human or equal to white people, they were able to make them do a lot of hard work without paying them; this system was called slavery. These lies about Black people got turned into laws (or rules), and in the South, the very first police officers’ jobs were to make sure these rules were followed so that Black people could not get free from slavery and rich white people could keep making money from their work. Other white people, including many poor white people, started believing these lies because they didn’t know anything about Black people, and it made them feel better about themselves. Believing the big lie of racism allowed poor white people to think that even if their lives were really hard and not as good as rich white people’s, at least they were better off than Black people, and that was something they could be proud of: being white. That is how so many white people started believing they were better than Black people; but it was just a big lie. That was how the rich white people made sure that poor white people and enslaved Black people did not come together to fight against the rich so that everyone could have enough to live a good life.
Now that we know that racism is a big lie, it is our job as white people to make sure we don’t keep believing it or acting like it is true and to teach other white people not to either. The truth is that Black people, white people, and other people of color are all the same. We are all humans that deserve love, respect, kindness, and to be treated fairly no matter what we look like or where we come from. We all deserve to live without fearing someone is going to harm us because of what we look like.”
As an educator, I know that the level of detail you can go into in one conversation with a child depends on how much of a foundation you’ve laid prior to this. It may take days, weeks, or months before you’re able to go into the level of detail I suggest above; don’t let it be years until you get to the truth of the matter. Use the years ahead to delve into the layers of complexity and history of the Black freedom struggle in the U.S. so that our white children understand the nuances and can eventually show-up as informed accomplices in the Movement for Black Lives.
I get that the conversation needs to sound different based on the age of the child in order to be effective. I tried to write this in simple language that might offer you some ideas of what to say to 5–10 year olds. Based on my experience teaching middle and high school age youth, I’m confident that most adolescents can handle the frank truth — maybe even more so than many white adults.
At a minimum, please tell your children that while these protests we are witnessing today are about justice for George Floyd and all the Black people who have lost their lives to police violence since the Movement for Black Lives (#BlackLivesMatter) took shape seven years ago in response to the killing of 17-year old Trayvon Martin, they are about so much more than that. Tell them there have been white police officers and other white people killing Black people in our country for over 400 years, and that is why we are seeing thousands of people protesting in the streets right now. People are tired of it; they have had enough. Black people, along with people of many backgrounds (Native American, Asian American, Pacific Islander, Latinx, white, and more) have fought against racism since it started over 400 years ago; the difference today is that many more white people and other people of color are coming together to demand an end to racism against Black people. They are demanding that we tell the truth about what it means to be Black in America still today in 2020. They are demanding that Black people in this country be able to live freely without the fear of being hurt because of the color of their skin. Tell your white children that, especially as white people who don’t have to live with that fear, we have a responsibility to speak out and stand up for what is right. That is one way we can leverage our white privilege (i.e. the ways that having light colored skin makes our lives easier) in defense of black life.
#BlackLivesMatter is not enough
Whatever the age of your child, know that teaching them that “Black Lives Matter” is a start, but it can’t be the end. Explaining that “Black Lives Matter” means that everyone should be treated with kindness and fairness regardless of their skin color might be okay if it is the first conversation you are having with your very young child, but please know that translation is insufficient, and frankly, inaccurate. That is the kind of language that upholds the ideology of colorblindness reflected in so much of what gets called “multicultural education” and reinforces white silence about race and racism. Our white children must understand that since the first black African was brought to the U.S. and still today, the experience that Black people have every day living in this country is different than that of our white children and white families. And that is not something to waste time with guilt over. That is something to change through learning, talking, and taking purposeful action.
This is hard, and we will make mistakes
These are the conversations I am figuring out how to have with my six year old. We have been having them for a few years now with increasing levels of detail and depth. While I’m sure I’m not getting it right much of the time, and I’m not exactly sure how she’s processing our talks, I’m doing it anyway. The reality is that, as white parents, we are all fumbling through this because the great majority of us do not have any personal experience to draw from; we cannot remember how our parents explained systemic racism and how to disrupt it to us at an early age because, in most cases, they didn’t. But please, don’t let your uncertainty about the right words to use result in your silence and, consequently, your child’s ignorance and unwitting complicity in the reification of white supremacy.
This is hard and uncomfortable. The last thing we want to do is cause harm to our children or say something that would lead them to cause harm to a Black child. Many white parents are wondering, “If we’re too explicit with them, will we instill negative associations with Black people? Will it prompt them to say hurtful or inappropriate things to their Black friends? Will we teach them to feel shame at being White? Will we instill a fear of police?” But another question to ask is, “What harm are we causing our white children by not being honest with them?”
To avoid talking about race and racism to our children is to deprive them of living in a shared reality with all of humanity, and in doing so, robs them of their full humanity. We are not “protecting” our children by not talking to them honestly. And we are not traumatizing them by being explicit. Our children see and feel what’s going on. They know, in their hearts, minds, and bodies, what is happening. If we’re not telling our white children that what we’re witnessing right now is the result of over 400 years of violence against Black lives, then we’re not telling them the truth.
Like so many of the child psychologists have already recommended in how to have these conversations, do assure your children that they are safe and it is your job as their parent to do everything you can to protect them. But don’t let your deep desire as a parent to keep your child innocent and safe do them the disservice of not being truthful.
Let’s figure out how to tell them the truth, the whole truth, even if it’s only little by little, day by day, so that eventually we have a generation of young white kids who have the knowledge, commitment, and emotional resilience to be co-conspirators in the dismantling of systemic racism in this country. This is one small but important way we, as white people, can be in solidarity with the movement for Black liberation.
What can you do?
In addition to having these explicit conversations, if you can, take your children to family-friendly protests, marches, vigils, and car caravans — even if it’s only to watch from a safe distance amidst this pandemic. While protesting is not enough, it can give children a first-hand experience of the energy of resolve, courage, and hope that will build memories in their bodies, hearts, and minds to plant the seeds for their racial justice consciousness to grow. If you can’t take your kids to safely witness the protests firsthand, show them the beautiful images or videos of the massive peaceful protests happening around the world so they see how big this movement is. We are experiencing a historic moment right now that is providing us with a unique opportunity to have these conversations; don’t miss the chance to share it with your children. Show them pictures of the children and families of all colors standing up for justice. In addition to reading your children books that feature Black characters and positive images of Black children and families doing everyday things, be sure to read them books about the long history of Black resistance and the movement for Black liberation. (There are many recommended book lists out there for talking about racism and raising anti-racist kids for every age group.)
So yes, make signs with your children, take them to protests, sing chants and freedom songs. Teach them to be kind and inclusive, to speak up and interrupt when they see injustice, but don’t stop there. Find ways to educate and engage them in advocacy for policy solutions that would actually make Black lives matter. Teach them that:
“As white people we have a responsibility to help repair our country from all the damage that the lie of racism has done. We have to fix the laws and policies — the rules that decide what is fair and right. We need to change those rules to stop so many Black people from being sent to prison and killed by police. We need new rules that make sure Black people are treated fairly and given opportunities to have jobs where they are paid well, to own homes, and to live in peaceful communities with clean air and water, grocery stores with healthy food, quality schools, and nice parks for kids to play in. We have to work to make schools and hospitals places where Black people are treated with respect, kindness, and fairness and can trust they will be well taken care of. We need to make sure that Black people are able to vote easily and run for office even if they don’t have a lot of money.”
Have your children listen in as you call your elected officials to voice your support for these policies. Explain to them that you are writing an email to your representative on the school board, the city council, the state assembly, or in Congress to tell them to vote to change the laws and give money to the programs that will support Black lives. And when this pandemic is over, bring them with you to the school board meetings and the city council meetings so they can watch you make public comment in support of policies to enact racial justice.
To be clear, our end goal should not be to raise white children who “don’t see color,” who “treat everyone equally,” or any other quality described with the platitudes used to foster a colorblind mentality when it comes to race. If we want to confront white supremacy, dismantle systemic racism, and “do something” to demonstrate solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter, our goal must be to raise children who have the capacity and courage to call out racial bias and discrimination, support policies that promote racial justice, and vote for candidates who will enact policies and fund programs to ameliorate the impacts of anti-black racism and to promote racial healing and reconciliation in our country. And to do that, we must start by telling our children the truth about the history of race and racism in the United States.