Parents often avoid talking about race or racism to their children because they do not know what to say, or they believe it would be too painful or complicated for them. For many Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) talking about race is not an option, its essential in helping our children move through the world. There is a necessary and important conversation that parents of black children must have with their children about how to talk, dress, and act in the world, such a conversation may be a matter of life and death. ”…as a black person you can be killed for simply being black: no hands in your pockets, no playing music, no sudden movements, no driving your car, no walking at night, no walking in the day, no turning onto this street, no entering this building, no standing your ground, no standing here, no standing there, no talking back, no playing with toy guns, no living while black.” -Claudia Rankine
Racial bias is not learned by talking about race or racism. In fact, conversations about racism will help your child to unlearn racial bias that is systemic in our society. Similarly, talking about the LGBTQ community will not make your child gay. It will teach them love and acceptance.
White parents play an important role in facilitating racial change. Parents have to stop teaching white children that everyone is the same.
Help your children develop respect, acceptance and appreciation for others from different backgrounds. Guide them in cultivating pride in their own identity and teach them how to combat injustices when they witness it. Expand the conversation beyond their own identity, so the conversation becomes about compassion and mutual respect for others. Teach them how to become a “we” community and not an “I” community.
If you wait too long to talk to your children, it just might be too late. The conversations are already happening. My 6 year old daughter has already experienced one of her peers at school telling her that she is ugly, her hair looks weird and her locs look like black cheetos. My 9 year old son was disappointed and hurt when one of his friends at school told him that his Golden State Warriors NBA basketball jersey that said, “The Town” on it, should say, “The Hood” because he is black.
We don’t want our children to internalize the messages that some people are more valuable than others.
How to effectively talk to your children about race:
1. Educate yourself about race and racism. Become comfortable talking and learning about race and racism. Understand the difference between racial bias, systemic racism, and institutional racism. Learn from and listen closely to people who are targets of oppression, be grateful for their perspective, and act with their best interests in mind. Read books about Black, Brown, Indigenous and LGBTQ people. It is your responsibility to learn more.
2. Learn to recognize and understand your own privilege. If you are white, explore what it means to be white. What is the condition of white life? Understand white privilege and that race is one aspect of privilege: gender, sexuality, religion, ability, socio-economic status, and language can all affect your level of privilege. Examine and challenge your own bias, prejudices and conditioning. Work through feelings of guilt, shame, and defensiveness to understand what is beneath them and what needs to be healed.
3. Begin talking to your children about race and racism at a young age. Read age appropriate stories that inform and educate. It’s ok to not have all the answers all of the time. Return with an answer at a later time. If you are not talking about race, then you are teaching that race is something to be ashamed or embarrassed about. A great way to teach your children is with experiential learning, such as festivals, local landmarks, cultural sites, memorials and museums.
4. Expose your children to diversity at a young age. Teach children about diversity as a value. Children pick up on the ways in which whiteness is normalized and privileged in the United States. They may start to think that whites have more privilege because they are inherently, somehow, smarter or better. Before your children form preconceptions, suggest to them something positive about other races, otherwise they will pick up something negative. Take every opportunity to explain our differences and normalize it, skin color, hair, language, etc. Within every group, we don’t all act and look the same, we don’t all think the same, we don’t all talk the same, imagine the diversity among every group.
5. Create a diverse network of adult friends, it influences and matters a lot. If you have friends who don’t look like you, your children will too. Encourage your children to get to know kids of other races, cultures, religions. True friendships promote acceptance and reduce prejudice. Learn about other groups without relying on stereotypes.
6. Model behavior for children. Let people know that racist "jokes" or comments are not okay. Clearly state that you believe it is wrong to treat someone differently or unfairly because of their race. Inform your children that it’s not ok to tease or reject someone based on identity. If you experience something racially offensive, speak up and take action to change it. Learn and practice the skills of challenging oppressive remarks, behaviors, policies, and institutional structures.
7. Encourage critical thinking. Ask questions in a non-judgmental tone. Ask them, what makes you think that? Or, where did you hear that from? Try to find out what underlies the behavior. If the conflict is really about another issue, help your child recognize and resolve that issue. If the underlying reason is discomfort with differences, plan activities to try to overcome that.
8. Connect the past with the present in order to make progress. Adults are believing and teaching their children that things used to be really bad. The truth is things are still really bad for BIPOC. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and Barack Obama did not fix racism. Affirm that you believe that racial injustice is still a problem. Racism, inequality and unfairness in this country has existed for a very long time. It will take time to undo, unlearn, untangle, and rebuild. There is no better time to start a redemptive conversation and a practice for positive change.
9. Equip your children with the ability to detect evidence of racial discrimination. If you see an issue of diversity that bothers you, comment on it, like, how come there are no black doctors on TV? Point out unfairness and inequality when you witness it, for example, notice if there are not enough black and brown children on the books in your school or local library. The organization Embrace Raceteaches children, “When you see something wrong, be strong and say that’s not ok.”
10. Activism is self-care. Empower your children to take action when they witness unfairness. There are people working to create positive change, allow your children to volunteer or participate in some way. Show children they can help too. Everything is not awesome, but we can still work towards fairness and equality.
Teaching Love, Compassion and Acceptance
Everyone is impacted by racism. Racism is an institutional problem, not due to individual racists. Like yoga, talking to your children about race is a practice and life-long journey. Prepare to talk about race again and again in different ways.
I want all children to grow up accepting and loving the skin they’re in. I want them to love their race, culture and identity. I don’t want our children to grow up with a sense of shame for the things that make them different, or shame for the culture from which they come from. This is often what it is to grow up as a person of color in a white-dominated world. This is the world I grew up in. This is not the world I want to leave behind. I want to live in a world where children of color don’t spend their entire childhood wishing to be in a different skin.
Cultivate a diverse library of books for yourself and your children. Choose books that acknowledge and celebrate our differences. Avoid only exposing your children to books that illustrate the suffering of marginalized groups, being saved by other groups or books about “extraordinary” individuals. We (people of color) are multifaceted people with complex lives, find books that tell those stories.