Talking to Your Children About Race

Tragedies and inequalities involving people of color are part of our daily news cycle. A black man who was shot while jogging by white men and captured on video. The Muslim boy who brought his homemade clock to school and was arrested for having a “bomb”. With respect to the COVID-19 pandemic, black Americans are not only more likely to be at higher risk for contracting the virus, but they have decreased access to testing. Race isn’t just part of the demographics of the subjects of the stories; it’s the heart of the story. Our children see it every day.

As parents, it is imperative we speak to our children about race, and talking about race is NOT racist. Let’s establish some definitions up front to ensure we’re all educated on actual meanings. According to Webster, racism is a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities, and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race. Anti-racism is not just NOT racist; it includes beliefs, actions, movements, and policies adopted or developed to oppose racism. Anti-racism is a choice, and it consists of deliberate actions.

In order to promote anti-racism, parents must abandon color-blindness. Regardless of the racial composition of the family of origin, parents must feel free to discuss race with their children. You can’t “not see color”. Race discussions should not be shushed. If a child sees a very dark-skinned person and exclaims, “he is so black, Mama!” don’t quiet the child’s comments. Shushing implies there is shame associated with the difference the child has observed. Better than saying “Shhhh! We don’t say that!” is perhaps, “You’re right. All over the world, we all look different from each other”.

Examine your own implicit biases. Ask yourself if you’ve ever thought that “this is America! Speak English!” when encountering families speaking in their native language to each other. Do you seek out opportunities for your children to be in diverse environments where they are in equal positions of the racially varied population? This means not going to just serve the poor children of color, but to be involved and perhaps be led, instead of leading.

As you encourage cross-racial friendships for your children, examine your own. If your children see their parents’ friendships are colorful, that becomes the norm. If a child sees only one color in their home, it can send a message of exclusion and perceived superiority.

Talk about race with respect to media. White people are typically the dominant representation in all media. Are men of color depicted as “bad guys” in films and TV? Ask your children questions about stereotypes to which they are exposed. What books do they read or games do they play online, and how are races portrayed?

Revisit historical timelines where racism has been woven into the history of the United States. According to Dr. Margaret Hagerman, author of White Kids, the timeline of racial struggles is often flattened, where slavery, Rosa Parks, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech are all lumped together as one group of events. Hardships that people of color experience are the most enduring throughout history.

Racial injustice happens every day. Most recently, a woman in Central Park called 911 to report the race of a man, assuming he was a threat because he is African-American. Our children can change this conversation. As adults, WE can change this conversation as well, but it must come from a place of anti-racism, not just “not seeing color”. Talk to your children and examine yourself, as systemic racism exists everywhere. We need to amplify the voices of those that are being unjustly ignored.