White parents, here’s how to start talking to your children about race
Maybe you don’t know where to start. Or you had a conversation or two, and it didn’t go well. Or you’re worried about messing up.
Up until my son was four, most of our conversations about race involved me reading the book “Shades of People” to him, word for word … which was a start. But then one day, he came home from preschool and started a new kind of conversation. He’d learned about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and about the recent history of discrimination against black people in the U.S., and he wanted to talk about it.
With no script to read off a page, I was on my own, using my own words. I squirmed and stumbled, feeling like there was a giant spotlight pointed at me. Afterwards, I questioned myself. Had I used the right words? Had I said enough? Had I said too much?
I felt awkward and embarrassed — as if, by even having the conversation, I had done something wrong.
I wanted to be better prepared the next time. I knew our conversations about race were critical, so I read articles about how to talk with children about race. I attended two workshops. And when opportunities arose, I practiced.
Now, several months later, I no longer fear those conversations about race. Not only that, I embrace and look forward to those talks.
And I want that for you, too.
There are plenty of reasons you might feel challenged by these talks. If you know you must discuss race with your child but have been dreading those conversations, it may be because:
(1) You aren’t used to talking about race. Ever.
(2) You want to let your child arrive at their own moral values instead of lecturing or preaching.
(3) You fear burdening your child, putting them at risk, or at least adding complexity to their social lives.
Well, you can overcome all these hurdles. Let’s discuss how.
Hurdle #1: You are used to avoiding any mention of race.
If you are a white liberal with young children in 2017, you probably were raised never to talk about race. You may even have learned that you’re supposed to “not see race.”
The problem, of course, is that you do see race. Everyone does. And people of color know everyone sees their race because they constantly get treated differently because of it. When we pretend we don’t see race, we invalidate and erase those experiences of bias; we comfort only ourselves, not people of color. We deny our privilege and ignore our discomfort about that privilege. And we teach our children, in turn, that it’s improper to talk about race, thus continuing the cycle. Far from benefiting people of color, our silence serves only ourselves.
Even if you intellectually understand the problem with never acknowledging race, you may still be in the habit of staying silent. Almost reflexively, you shut your jaw, avert your eyes, and suppress any comment on the subject. Whoever taught you all these habits did so with the best of intentions, but now they are setting you back: When you try talking about race with your child, your brain turns to mush. And after you get through the conversation, you fear it was wrong to even open your mouth. Just as I did, you feel embarrassed for even trying.
The way to overcome this hurdle is to practice. Take a deep breath and open your mouth. Remind yourself that your silence only protects your comfort and preserves your privilege. Start the conversation yourself! Bring up the topic as soon as you notice something about racial differences or inequality instead of waiting for MLK Day or Black History Month. It will be uncomfortable at first, but I promise you it will get easier.
And, by the way, if you still have a lot to learn about the history of racial inequality — that’s fine. You don’t need to have all the answers when you talk with your child. Learn together with them. Bonus for them: They get to see you evolving and growing as you strive to live your values. Bonus for you: Your child is the least judgmental learning companion you will ever have on your own anti-racism journey.
Hurdle #2: You don’t want to be preachy.
If you are a white liberal parent, you may want to raise your child to be autonomous and free-thinking. You believe that, if you model your values, your child will organically internalize those values. You do not want them to accept or obey whatever adults tell them.
Talking about race may feel unnatural within this parenting style. Isn’t it better to set a wordless example of anti-racism for your child to follow? If you talk to them about race, aren’t you telling them what to think, and isn’t that wrong — or, at best, ineffective for creating internal motivation?
But talking, not just doing, is crucial. It’s not enough to set an example and expect your child to notice and follow. That’s asking them to swim upstream. They are surrounded — bombarded — by messages reinforcing white superiority and dominance, messages you couldn’t avoid if you tried. Your child is noticing things like the subtle looks of contempt passed from white to black characters on TV; a friend’s innocent question about whether dark skin is dirty; the fact that their picture books overwhelmingly feature white protagonists; the geographic distribution of racial groups across your city.
You cannot even come close to addressing this barrage of biased messages, both loud and quiet, by merely setting a good example. Your child is not going to hear you unless you speak up loud and clear.
You can get your point across without lecturing. If you don’t want to tell your child what to believe, you can still state clearly what YOU believe. Try these phrases:
“I think that’s unfair. What do you think?”
“Some people believe … But I don’t believe that. Instead, I think … What do you think?”
“Being kind is so important to me. And it seems to me that … is not kind at all. So I don’t think it’s right. What about you?”
Those statements do not preach to your child. They lay out your interpretation and evaluation, and invite your child to discuss and ask questions. Chances are your child will agree with you, and if not, then you’ve started a rich discussion.
As much as we care about nurturing our children’s autonomy, we cannot ignore the context in which they are developing. There are some answers that they can find on their own if we give them space and freedom to explore — like how to climb a ladder, or what interests they are passionate about. There are other areas where they need our guidance to overcome the effects of their context.
It’s true, children are not born racist, but they learn racism very young. That gives us a prime opportunity — and an essential responsibility — to shape their views and values, in an area where they truly need our direction.
Hurdle #3: You don’t want to burden your child or make them a target.
Does your child really need to know about this stuff? Isn’t it too heavy for a young person? What if they feel guilty for dynamics that they personally had no hand in creating? Won’t it be a burden if they witness racial micro (or macro) aggressions and feel obligated to put themselves in harm’s way?
It’s true, teaching your white children about racism will likely lead them to relinquish some privilege. Children of color are more likely to face harmful slurs and comments, physical violence, and harsh school discipline. If your white child intervenes to stick up for people of color, they could face all those risks, too. Knowing that the world is unjust might cause them stress. Are you ready for your child to experience that, when you want them to be safe, successful, and happy?
It is painful to give up privilege when you could hold on to it. It can feel easier to keep things the way they are. But is there really a good “neutral” option here?
Think about what happens to children raised with egalitarian ideals, but no anti-racism skills or practices. They grow up to be adults who cannot live in line with their ideals — like you, maybe, if you were raised to “not see race.” Have you noticed that you often seem to say the wrong thing despite your best intentions? If you’ve been called out for hurting people of color totally unintentionally, you know how uncomfortable it feels. And, if you avoid talking about race, you are virtually guaranteeing that your child will also have that experience over and over again.
Or, if you don’t talk about race and leave it to your child to figure out how to live out anti-racism, there’s another possibility… Maybe they’ll grow up to be one of the “allies” who do enough to pat themselves on the back, but not enough to actually help. Who tweet against Trump and the KKK, but who let down people of color when it matters most. I bet that’s not the kind of anti-racism you want to teach your child, either. You can help them do better.
Don’t just teach your child values. Teach them how to live those values.
Trust your child. Arm them with knowledge and intuition, and then let them use their judgment. Help them see what it will look like to put their privilege on the line. When it’s time, they will have to decide whether to do it or not. But if they are paralyzed because they don’t know what to do, or if they don’t see the problem in the first place, they won’t even have that choice.
I’m not saying these conversations are fun. But with practice and persistence, I bet you will find yourself seeking out opportunities to discuss race with your child, anytime you notice anything that anti-racist values would help your child understand. It will be hard and painful sometimes, because the reality of racism is hard and painful.
But even when they are painful, they are deeply meaningful. I am so grateful that my child pushed me out of my comfort zone and made these conversations inevitable. Because he is biracial, I felt I had no choice but to help him understand race and inequality. If he were white, I wouldn’t have been forced to shed my reservations and learn this lesson:
that conversations with my child about race are an immense opportunity to fulfill my most vital responsibilities as his parent.
These conversations allow me to deepen my own learning and become a better activist and better parent. To connect with him over important, complex, and difficult topics, and to help give meaning to his world. To hear his perspective, and to have an open exchange. To illuminate his path toward making a difference. To raise him to become a person I can feel incredibly proud and confident sending out into the world.
So, seriously: Embrace those conversations. Welcome them. Start them yourself. Soon you won’t even remember what used to feel so scary.
*This is the collective product of women of color and allies. This piece specifically comes from the voice of an ally.