White Parents: Talk to your kids about race
White parents. It’s time you had “the talk”. And not that kind of talk — the Race Talk.
In light of what has happened in our country (#AhmaudArbury #PhilandoCastile, #AltonSterling, to name a few), I believe that white parents (myself included) have an obligation to explicitly talk to our children about race and racism. This isn’t easy and it usually makes us uncomfortable, which is why we typically avoid it.
It’s also important to note that this simple avoidance is privilege in and of itself. Black families (and other families of color) can’t avoid having these conversations because their skin color affects their children in crucial, and sometimes, fatal ways. White families, on the other hand, can sneak around the topic and quietly go about their business raising their children unaffected. But unfortunately, this silence just perpetuates the problem.
To be fair, there’s no finger pointing here. I’m a white parent who initially avoided the topic too. It’s not that I didn’t deem it important; I just assumed that if I exposed my children to diversity they would “get it”. I also didn’t know what to say so I didn’t say anything at all. Then I read the chapter, “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race“, in Bronson & Merryman’s book, Nurture Shock, and it TRANSFORMED MY PARENTING.
Bronson & Merryman talk at length about the “Diverse Environment Theory” — the theory that if you just “raise your child with a fair amount of exposure to people of other races and cultures, the environment becomes the message. You don’t have to talk about race — in fact, it’s better NOT to talk about race. Just expose your child to diverse environments and he’ll think it’s entirely normal” (p. 55).
Bzzzt. Wrong. Doing so only forces your kids to draw their own conclusions, like these shocking results gathered by Bronson & Merryman:
When white kids were asked, “Do your parents like black people?”, if the white parents had never talked explicitly about race, 14% of these children outright said, “No, my parents don’t like black people”; 38% said, “I don’t know.” In this supposed “race-free” vacuum being created by [white] parents, kids are therefore left to improvise their own conclusions (p. 49).
You can see why this is a problem.
In order to combat this issue, Bronson & Merryman suggest that conversations about race be explicit – in unmistakable terms – that children understand. This is great, of course, but the problem is that many parents approach the subject like they do with sex: they put the conversation off, blaming it on the fact that their kids are “too young” or “won’t understand”, until eventually those kids are in middle school and don’t know how babies are made! The same holds true for race.
My suggestion is to TALK EARLY AND TALK OFTEN. Whatever your child doesn’t get the first time around she’ll eventually understand the more times you talk about it. Talking early also does three things:
It grabs their attention when they’re the most open-minded.
It shows them that you care enough to discuss big issues with them.
It opens up the door for future “hard topic” conversations simply because you brought up this one (re: if you can talk about race, then you must be willing to talk about ____.)
This sounds easy enough, but I know some of you are wondering WHEN to actually have these conversations with your kids. To that I would say, it’s your call. You know your kids best. Just make sure you do it. (My personal opinion is that you can do it anywhere at anytime, but I’m more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kinda person.)
As to WHAT you say, well, it could be as simple as watching The Color of Me song from Sesame Street and discussing what words your kids heard; or you could read them the People book (which is FABULOUS by the way); or you could use a time like #AhmaudArbery to address it, which is what I did.
(At the time of our conversation below, my girls were 5 and 3 years old and I decided to tell them Philando Castille — a man who was shot near our home and also worked in a nearby school.)
Me: “Girls, I need to tell you something very important. Last night, a man was shot by a police officer. Many people think it’s because he had dark skin.”
Them: “Why would someone do that?”
Me: “Because there are some people in this country who are afraid of people with dark skin.”
Me: “Because people are often afraid of those who are different.”
Me: “Well (addressing my middle child), remember when you felt afraid the first time you saw that mommy wearing a burqua at the park?”
Middle Child: “Yes.”
Me: “But then we talked about why she was wearing it and that she smiles underneath it, just like I smile when I push you on the swings?”
Middle Child: “Yeah.”
Me: “So we ALWAYS have talk about the things that make us afraid. It’s okay to be afraid, but we need to talk about it. God made every one of us different — with different skin, eye color, height, weight — and that’s awesome! It would be boring if we were all the same, right?! We need to love everyone because God loves us.”
Them: “Can we go play now.”
Me: “Yes you can.”
And that was that. It’s not going to solve the problem, and it’s not going to be the only conversation we have, but at least it was a start. I urge you to do the same.
Don’t let the bigger picture paralyze you. Choose to view it from your kids’ perspective: do they notice people’s skin color? Absolutely. They just don’t have any associations with it yet. They also don’t find the topic of racism overwhelming; they find it heartbreaking. And the best part is that they wholeheartedly believe they can help find a solution. That’s why educating our kids early captures them at a unique stage of development — one that will hopefully transcend into adulthood.
I want this kind of FREEDOM for my children, and I want it for your children too. I want it for my dark-skinned friends and light-skinned friends; the ones wearing burquas or yamakas … and anyone else who looks different from me. I want God’s love to win.
(Initially written in 2016 for Philando Castile and all the others whose lives have been lost or abused because they are not in the majority.)