Photo by Elvis Kennedy.

Raising Social Justice Warriors.

Pt. 1: White parents, talk to your children about race

White parents, talk to your children about racism, and start talking to them now. And if you think you can get away with having this discussion with them one time, you’re wrong. Make this an ongoing conversation with your kids throughout their childhood. If you really want them to be able to identify racism and understand its effect on marginalized people, you have to continuously engage them and expose them to different races and ethnicities. Give them the opportunity to have a diversity of experiences. That way, your children will see differences in skin color as normal and they won’t judge people based on those differences.

Research shows that children as young as 3 years old can take on racist behaviors when they are exposed to them. So if you’re focusing on how your children may be negatively affected when they start puberty, you are almost 10 years behind in teaching them how to spot racism and actively work to dismantle it. Think about what your baby or toddler may be hearing in day-care, from their babysitter or a relative who watches them while you’re at work. How do you combat that? Talk to them about their day. Ask them what they learned. Children are happy to have your undivided attention, but it’s up to you to listen closely and be able to interpret their words for hidden meaning, particularly when they’re just starting to verbally communicate.

You, the parent, have the power to raise a child who is empathetic, understanding, and accepting of all people no matter their skin color, ethnicity, or background. You also have the power to pass down judgement, prejudice, and bitterness. The truth is, kids aren’t born racist. But over time, children often naturally adopt the characteristics and behavior they see portrayed as ‘normal’ in their environment. Racism and bigotry are products of nurture — not nature.
~ Meg Meeker, “Talking to Children about Racism”
Photo by ntgrice1.

Your children can start being influenced by racism around them as young as 6 months old. In her article “Talking about Race, Age by Age,” Kara Corridan breaks down how and when children start thinking about race:

6 months to 1 year: Children see differences in skin color and hair texture. Start exposing them to a diversity of experiences to help them. Let them see you socializing with people of different colors.

Ages 2 to 3: Children start talking about skin color differences. When they comment about a person’s different skin color, respond positively that you agree that person’s skin is different. You can also discuss other physical attributes of that person so that skin color is just another part of who they are.

Ages 4 to 6: Children might see darker skin as dirty. Make sure you correct them, saying that darker skin color is simply a different color than theirs. Otherwise, it is just like their skin.

Ages 7 to 8: Children begin to see differences and similarities in people. If they mention that a classmate’s skin is a different color or their hair is a different texture, agree with them. However, help them understand the similarities they also have with that child. Do they both like a certain subject? Do they both play the same sport? Are they both tall? Find the things they have in common to stress the idea that they are more alike than different.

Once you start having these talks with your kids, you will find out about your own racist tendencies. It will be an uncomfortable but necessary discovery. Don’t think you’re alone. There are plenty of other white people who possess those same undesirable traits. But this isn’t about bashing you for being part of systemic racism or for having white privilege. This is about helping you understand how you can become a better person and raise your child to be aware and involved in the fight against racism. So before you start getting defensive and saying, “I’m not teaching my child to be racist …” STOP. Your kids will be exposed to racist behaviors from many other places other than you. And yes, you probably are teaching your children to be racists. The point is to stop the damage you’ve already done and reverse it.

Many white Americans may have been raised to believe that not acknowledging race was a liberal, unprejudiced attitude and an aspirational way of being. ‘I don’t see skin color,’ I’d sometimes hear my mom say when I was a child, ‘People are people.’ This creates an air of exceptionalism, as in ‘sure, the world may be racist, but I’m not racist.’
~ Brian Gresko, “Race, Kids — and the Peril of Silence”
Photo by jmv0586.

Children are like sponges. They soak up everything. Remember when you didn’t think your child heard you when you dropped the f-bomb, but you got a call from their teacher because they repeated that word in class? Your children are watching. They are listening. So think about all the ways that you influence them when it comes to race.

Challenge yourself to consider these questions and answer them honestly:

  • Do you only socialize with white people? If so, why?
  • Do you only frequent places that are overwhelmingly white?
  • Do you voice stereotypes about people of color (POC) in front of your children?
  • Do you say racial slurs in front of your children?
  • Do you encourage your children to have friendships with children of different races?
  • Do you ignore racism when you see it or make excuses for racist behavior, including your own?
  • Do you allow family members or friends to make racist comments in front of your children and say nothing?

Any one of these questions that you answer in a way that supports racism is damaging POC and negatively affecting your children. It’s up to you to fix this. Teaching children not to be racists isn’t just about sitting them down and telling them not to hate brown and black people. It also involves you modeling inclusive and accepting behavior that you, in turn, want to see in your children. What are you really telling them when, on the one hand, you say, “We don’t see skin color” (which itself is problematic because we all see skin color), but you don’t have any friends — real friends — that are people of color?

Does this sound like you? If so, you have a choice to either do nothing or get real with yourself about how you really feel about POC. Then change it. If you don’t know how to have “the talk” with your children about race, then lead and educate them by example. Seek out relationships with POC. Take the time to learn about different races and ethnicities. Deepening your knowledge will make you a more understanding and empathetic person, and in turn you will be raising children who also possess these traits. So where do you start?

Learn about other races, cultures and ethnicities with your children. Teach them the real meaning behind Cinco de Mayo instead of letting them see the insulting, commercialized version that this country celebrates. Find a real celebration of this holiday and take your children so they can experience it. Visit a museum that showcases this country’s rich, beautiful Hispanic history.

Read books together about Native American history. Go to your local library to get suggestions and reading lists such as this one from The Public Library and Cincinnati and Hamilton County or the San Francisco Public Library.

Pay attention to what your children are learning in school about black history. Instead of letting them simply learn about Crispus Attucks and Dr. Martin Luther King, take a trip to the city and visit statues, see a play or musical or contact a black historian to see if he or she will give your kids a history lesson.

The black suffragettes marched for the right to vote. Photo by leonor arango.

Take note of what your children are seeing and hearing. Incorporate lessons anytime that you see representations of race that could be detrimental to your children. If you are watching television and notice that a character is being portrayed in a stereotypical and demeaning way (and let’s be honest, this is rampant in children’s cartoons), that’s a great time to explain to your children why this is wrong. Let them know that POC are individuals.

If your relatives spew racial slurs about POC in front of your children, don’t let it slide. Call them on it right there. Tell them that they’re racists (yes TELL THEM). Let them know that you no longer want to be around such disgusting behavior. Yes, you may lose some people in your life that you love, but the well-being of your children must come first. It is your responsibility to raise them to accept POC completely, not simply tolerate their existence. Think about how many more diverse opportunities they will have as they open themselves up to learning about people who they think are so different from them but really aren’t.

It’s a challenge on many levels for white Americans to figure out how to talk about racism to our kids, when our personal and cultural background has given us the privilege of ‘humor’ or silence. Yet, we must — because that silence equals complicity and that humor equals erasure.
~ Brian Gresko, “Race, Kids — and the Peril of Silence”

This was meant to give you some ideas on how to start talking to your children about race. The conversations are not going to be comfortable. You will probably come away understanding much more about yourself and what racist behaviors that you yourself possess that you need to work on. It is important that you address your own racism as well as working with your child. Remember, your child sees everything. Be the type of parent who is open and accepting of every race. Be the type of parent who doesn’t avoid discussing race with a child but does so with no hesitation.

*This article is the first in our series “Raising Social Justice Warriors.”

This is the collective product of women of color and allies. This piece was written using the voices of both.