As we sat down to write this article, we faced the first of many hard questions. We found ourselves asking, who are we writing it for? Are we rounding up reputable advice for the parents of Black and Brown children, for anyone raising children of color, for important adults in the lives of minority and marginalized kids?
The answer is probably not. Chances are, the parents of those children already know—from their own lived experience—how to have “the talk” with their kids about race, about police brutality, about systemic oppression. It is not a conversation they can afford to avoid. It is also one that must be continuous, repeated ad nauseum, regardless of how age-appropriate it may or may not be. After all, there is no age at which educating your Black son about how to behave during an inevitable but potentially lethal traffic stop starts to feel appropriate. There’s no milestone that marks the day when it becomes palatable to teach your Black daughter how her body may be hypersexualized and seen as “adult-like” though she is still a child. At no particular developmental stage does it suddenly make sense to explain to your child why their hairstyle may get them publicly humiliated or suspended from school, while that very same look is celebrated when it is co-opted by white celebrities.
So let’s be honest about what our task is here. This article is being written to help educate and inform White parents about how to talk to their children about racism. We are offering tips on how to introduce the topic, possibly for the first time. The goal is to help those families more deeply understand this poisonous system, and thus do whatever is in their power to dismantle it. It is a necessary and worthwhile conversation. But before we have it, we must first acknowledge that how children grapple with race very much depends on how they personally experience it—how it directly impacts their lives and the lives of those they love. American children of color and white children are having starkly different conversations around these issues. Until now, many parents may not have felt any urgent need to initiate those conversations at all. And that is precisely the point.
Children aren’t born with any awareness of race. “They begin to notice racial differences between the ages of 3 and 5,” explains educational psychologist Reena B. Patel. “[Theirs is] an innocent curiosity that isn’t yet linked to any positive or negative qualities about different groups of people.” Studies show children develop anti-Black bias, particularly toward Black boys, by Kindergarten. “What starts to shift is that positive and negative qualities do come into the picture through their parents, significant others, and media,” Patel adds.