Lea Ray, LCSW
For white parents: how to talk with your kids about racism
I am writing this blog for white parents because, as a white parent and white therapist, I know (some) about how white parents should approach this conversation. Black parents, and other parents of color, have very different conversations with their children and know far more about that topic than I ever will! And honestly, this is an area in which I’m still learning and fumbling myself. I offer what I’ve learned so far.
Talking about racism in general tends to be uncomfortable for us white people. It is very tempting to avoid talking about it with our children or to gloss over it and focus on the ideal: that it is important to treat everyone equally. It is also tough to navigate these conversations because many of the realities of racism in this country are quite horrific. In my family, we talked about some examples of racism and discrimination, but for years we avoided conversations about police brutality and police killings because we thought they were not developmentally appropriate to share. We had to learn that even if we do not want our children to carry this weight, this is not a luxury that parents of color, especially Black parents, and their children, have. So we have to find a developmentally appropriate way to help our children to face this reality too.
We can’t have one conversation about racism with our children and check it off our list. These should be regular, frequent conversations, just as we talk regularly about sharing and looking both ways before we cross the street.
We should start with regularly acknowledging and celebrating the existence of people of color. This may sound like an absurd starting point (don’t we already do that?) -- but if we move in primarily white circles, this often doesn’t happen. White children mostly see other white children and white adults, see white children as the protagonists in their favorite TV shows (with the occasional Black or Asian sidekick), and read books about white children. In recent years there have been positive developments in the portrayal of people of color in the media, but the majority of the content still features white people. We white parents have to be intentional about seeking out books and TV shows that feature people of color.
As an added bonus, many of these books and shows bring up racism in an age-appropriate way. It is one of the things the protagonist is navigating in daily life, and because our kids will be sympathetic to the protagonist, they will likely be very open to taking in this information. In this article, Louise Derman Sparks and Julie Olson Edwards explain, “Create a vocabulary that encourages children to look at themselves and others and admire their sameness and their uniqueness. Just as we do not wait until a child asks questions about how to read before planning how to provide a range of literacy learning opportunities, anti-bias education is the teacher’s [or parent’s] responsibility, not the child’s, to initiate.” There are a lot of good booklists featuring diverse characters. Here’s one. Here’s a list of books that specifically address racism, for kids of different ages.
Beginning with when you read to your toddler, comment on people’s skin color and race, even if the book doesn’t explicitly mention it. Contrary to what most of us were taught growing up, we want kids to see race and talk about it. I also found this guide for reading racist books to your kids, so if, like me, you got your kids sucked into the Little House series because you didn’t remember just how horrific the comments about Native Americans and Black people were, you can at least use it as a learning opportunity.
As with every other aspect of life, kids learn from their parents’ example, including subtle clues like our body language and facial expressions. You probably believe in opposing racism if you are reading this blog, but all of us have absorbed unconscious biases against people of color and our kids will pick up on that. It is important to work on yourself and become aware of your biases to be able to set a good example for your kids. Reading more inclusive books to your child will help you do your own work too! It is also worthwhile to think about your own social circles and how much time you spend with people of color. If the answer is very little, don’t feel bad. Our society is pretty highly segregated. But think about how you might cultivate more connections, even casual ones, with people who are different from you. You might take your kids to a different playground, or try story time at a different branch of the library. You and your kids can also support Black-owned businesses. Here’s a list of Black-owned businesses in Durham.
Also, be mindful of how people of color are treated in the spaces you visit. I’ve seen posts on Facebook parents’ groups from Black parents who have been shunned or unreasonably reprimanded at a story time with primarily white parents. If you notice this happening, speak up.
We also need to talk with kids about racism specifically. The Sesame Street in Communities website has a great series of videos to help kids understand racial identity and racism in an age-appropriate way. Most clips are 2-3 minutes long. They’re good for kids ages 2-8. These can be a great starting point for conversation. The website Raising Race Conscious Children offers specific strategies for discussing racism with young children. Bloggers share their real-life conversations with their kids of different ages. Here’s a great example of talking about police violence.
If your child brings up a racist or racially charged incident from school, you can start with asking “what do you think about that?” Or “How do you feel about that?” Then you can explain more about why the comment was problematic. Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know. You can research it and get back to your child, or you can look it up together. You should also point out racist incidents to children in a simple, straightforward way. Here are a couple of sample quotes from Race Conscious Children: “I don’t like this video, it is making fun of people who are Asian.” “I don’t like when people dress up like a group of people. That’s not a costume I think is funny.”
You can also attend a protest with your child, using simple language about how “It’s not fair that Black people are getting hurt, and we’re here to ask to change that.”
Juneteenth is a great opportunity to start this discussion with your child. Here’s a video on Juneteenth for kids: Durham has a Juneteenth celebration this Saturday: https://downtowndurham.com/event/17th-annual-nc-juneteenth-celebration/
Raising Race Conscious Children offers webinars for parents who want more in-depth information on how to raise a racially conscious child. If you live in the Triangle, the group we are offers summer camps and family workshops focused on dismantling racism.
Best of luck on this journey! It is difficult, but well worth it. Blogger Ruthie Vincill on Race Conscious Children says, “Children are the panacea to end the horrific reality of White supremacy in the United States. We must empower our children to be the change our country needs.”
The Conscious Kid (www.theconsciouskid.org)