How To Talk To Your Kids About Race

Even in diverse neighborhoods and communities, children start expressing anti-black prejudice around the time they hit preschool age and these attitudes get progressively worse by their 10th birthday.

Over the last several years, events from the killing of Trayvon Martin to the student uprisings at University of Missouri have shed an intense light on the issues of race and racism in the United States. While police brutality, murder, and racial disparities can be hard to explain, it’s important to remember that these events can also provide a teachable moment to educate your kids about racial discrimination in our society (and how to deal with it).

So there’s both good news and bad news on that front.

The bad news is that not talking openly about race and racism means that your kids will largely pick up and internalize negative beliefs about other racial groups or themselves. Even in diverse neighborhoods and communities, children start expressing anti-black prejudice around the time they hit preschool age and these attitudes get progressively worse by their 10th birthday.

The good news is that parents who talk openly with their kids about race and racism reduce their kids’ prejudice dramatically and even help them do better in school. By giving your kids the tools for how to understand and prevent racism, you’re actually empowering them.

So, now you know you’re a good parent for having “the talk.” Here are a few pointers on how to do it:

How Do You Start The Conversation?

Believe it or not, there’s an app for that. (For example, check out “Guess My Race”). Also, buying your children dolls that look different than they do, showing them films that touch on the subject, or reading them books that portray families of other races will undoubtedly bring up the topic. Your kids will be eager and really glad to have the safe space to talk it over with mom or dad.

What Do You Say?

The details can vary based on age, but a pretty simple explanation of racism should hit some keynotes. First, you want to point out that everyone is different and that’s a great thing. But that, in the United States (and much of the world) there is a long history of thinking of certain people as not human just because of how they look (their race). Tell your kids that some of these beliefs still affect us all, even when we don’t realize it. This excellent and short video from Dr. Camara Phyllis-Jones includes a story that might make it easier to explain exactly what racism is and how it works.

Importantly, make sure they know that they might mess up sometimes and say the wrong thing—racism is a tricky subject. What matters is that they are willing to apologize and keep learning. Making a mistake just makes you human, but trying to make a better world is well worth the risk.

Is There Anything You Shouldn’t Say?

Never, ever use the word “colorblind.” Everyone sees race and pretending otherwise will just seem silly to your kids. Plus, it makes racism seem like a taboo subject, which is exactly what helps it work so effectively. Think about it: Does not talking about diabetes or pneumonia make it go away? So why should that work on the disease of racism? Talking about the causes, effects, and symptoms of racism is the only way to help inoculate our kids against all the racist “germs” they’re picking up.

For black children, you want to stress that race and racism is not their problem or their fault, it just means that they’re not on a level playing field. Give tips on how they might negotiate obstacles and be positive about their history, culture, and future. This will ensure that such a talk will empower and affirm them, instead of discourage.

And don’t blame racism on their clothes, style, and appearance—slavery and other forms of racial discrimination were invented long before saggy jeans. For this reason, “black on black” crime and other phrases that blame black people for the racist actions of other people are not productive.

Is There A Separate Talk For Black And White Children? 

For white children, you want to clearly explain that understanding race and racism is not about feeling guilty for history. It’s about learning how to prevent prejudice and calling it out whenever they hear or see it, even if a person of color is not around. What kid doesn’t want the chance to be brave like Myles Horton or Viola Liuzzo?

For black kids, this talk is about survival. You can use the tragic deaths of Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Renisha McBride, Mike Brown, and others as an opportunity to run through scenarios with your children and give them tips on different ways they can respond in a scary situation. One good guideline is to find another adult whenever in a threatening situation. If possible, they should call you (or another trusted adult) for help and stay on the phone until they’re at a safe destination, enter a public space, or knock on a neighbor’s door and let them know they’re being followed by a stranger. Even if others aren’t helpful, they will at least be witnesses if anything transpires (and can call the police). They should also try to travel with a friend, if possible. Make sure they know that they can always call you, no matter what.

Recording any interaction is also vital to a young black person’s safety. While this might not keep them from being harassed by a stranger or arrested by a police officer, such evidence can keep them from getting charged or convicted if anything goes wrong (the ACLU has a great free app for recording and storing such information, even if your child’s phone is destroyed. YouTube, Livestream, and other apps that record and save automatically can be useful, too).

So that’s it! These tips hopefully helped prepare you a bit for a difficult conversation. However you do the talk and no matter your race, it will help your child. Just relax, be comfortable, and—always—be honest.

Khadijah Costley White is an assistant professor in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Find her on Twitter here.

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