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.
We can read our kids books about Black heroes, or ones that highlight the absurdity of judging someone based on their appearance as opposed to the content of their character. We can watch movies in which characters of color are the heroes. We can listen to music by Black legends and praise them as effusively as we do others. But it’s not enough to dance to Soul music in the kitchen; we need to do some soul searching. “The beauty of anti-racism is that you don’t have to pretend to be free of racism to be anti-racist,” writes Ijeoma Oluo, author of So You Want to Talk About Race. “Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself. And it’s the only way forward.” We need to wake up before we can #PullUp. As Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote last week in the Los Angeles Times, “Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible—even if you’re choking on it—until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere.” The first step in beginning this conversation with our kids—in cleaning up the dust—is getting our hearts good and broken.
To comprehend the gravity of these circumstances, every parent should try to imagine her child was George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin or one of too many others. To educate yourself on what it is like to raise a Black child in America, listen to Black parents and children. In a short documentary called “A Conversation About Growing Up Black” filmed for the New York Times in 2015, a 17-year-old named Malik tells the camera: “It’s kind of upsetting because we live in a world where my mom has to be afraid when I walk outside, from the people that are meant to protect me. And I don’t like when my mother feels like that, you know? I love my mother. She should always—I want her to always be happy.” Bisa, also 17 at the time, says in his interview: “I walk tall. I keep my head up. I try to be very articulate and polite. And so of course I was like, ‘Ok, I’m going to be fine because I act a certain way.’” He describes being aggressively stopped by police at 16 while he was out for a walk wearing snowman pajamas. “And of course, that had absolutely nothing to do with it. The way people perceive you is not up to you.”
Once our hearts are broken open, we may be better able to receive messages about racism in its subtler forms, from micro-aggressions to tokenism. Bias that’s harder to detect is no less insidious. Writes poet and blogger Scott Woods: “Yes, racism looks like hate, but hate is just one manifestation. Privilege is another. Access is another. Ignorance is another. Apathy is another…So while I agree with people who say no one is born racist, it remains a powerful system that we’re immediately born into.”
As for the children we bear into the system, how do we help them grow up to reshape it?
We can start with what not to do. We should not be teaching our kids to say, “I don’t see color.” Erasure or willful ignorance helps no one and changes nothing. Instead, we should be teaching them to see, acknowledge and honor all colors. As journalist Dana Canedy told the New York Times, “Teach your child that being colorblind is not the answer; rather, appreciating our differences is what will lead us to better understand each other.” Patel is among the many experts who advocate modeling as the most powerful tool in our parenting arsenal: “Talking to your child about the importance of embracing differences and treating others with respect is essential, but it is not enough. Evaluate your own circle of friends and the beliefs you hold about certain groups of people. Take a stand when you witness injustice. Encourage activism. Promote ways for your family to get involved in causes you care about.”
Silence and escapism won’t change the world or insulate our kids. This is also not a “one-and-done” lecture. It’s a lifelong dialog. As the headlines continue to hit home, we can help our children process what they are witnessing. “We can’t hide our children from the world,” University of Pennsylvania clinical psychologist Howard C. Stevenson, an expert on racial trauma, said in a 2016 interview. “Your child is probably already more aware of race, class, and gender differences than you realize…Adults often have a romanticized view of childhood that ignores how much children actually know.” He reminds us to respect our children’s natural intelligence and innate sense of justice. We can teach them that dividing the world into good guys and bad guys, friend or enemy, only works on the playground. Part of growing up is understanding that people are multifaceted and complex. Racism, at its core, is about dehumanization. So, we must humanize this crisis for our kids. We can explain that everyone is someone’s loved one. Everyone has a mother. Everyone is someone’s child. “A useful lesson is to teach a child how to refute an over-simplified either/or characterization,” Stevenson said. “For example, [ask them to explain] why can’t it be true that all Black, White, or Brown people act a certain way?”
No one is immune to the devastation in our country right now. The pandemic has already rocked every child’s world. It may seem like the worst possible moment to initiate difficult or scary discussions. But what’s even scarier and more destabilizing for children is feeling they are being lied to or left in the dark. “Right now, as chaotic as things might seem, is a good time to begin having these conversations with your child,” Stevenson said back in 2016—but his advice rings true today. “It opens the door to you saying, ‘Here’s what we are going to do. Here’s how we can face this. You might feel helpless, which is natural and OK. I want to talk to you about this so you can feel strong.’”