Talking to My White Children About Race
My seven-year-old daughter came home from school several months ago and told me she had a class on how it’s okay to be different. This is great, I thought. She attends a diverse and progressive public school in Arlington, Virginia. Clearly they were taking steps to talk to the kids about race. I knew about the research that says if you don’t talk to kids about race they will create their own narratives, not always accurate and not always what you want them to absorb.
“What did you learn?” I asked her.
“That you should still like someone even if they are different from you. Like if they have freckles and you don’t.”
“Freckles?” I repeated.
“Freckles,” she confirmed.
“They didn’t go there,” said the Hispanic mom of one of my older son’s friends when I shared the story. She nodded, not surprised. It was like the back-to-school night where the first-grade teacher presented a slide stating the class would be discussing holidays, then rushed to repeatedly stress that there would be no, absolutely no, mention of religion. As if the concept of some people believe this and others believe that is too complicated for a six-year-old to grasp.
They didn’t go there. So I did.
“Or if they have brown skin,” I pointed out. “Or if they dress differently. Or cover their hair.”
My daughter happily agreed to all this, but I exited the whole encounter feeling mightily unsettled. I understand that race is a heated and uncomfortable issue. I understand the fear of saying the wrong thing or unintentionally hurting feelings. I even understand the hope that, maybe, if we don’t say anything to our kids about race they will grow up thinking racial divisions don’t exist.
But there is a huge problem with this. Race does exist. And racism exists. If we want to infuse our white children with empathy and a sense of their place in the broader world, they absolutely, definitively, must be aware of race. You can bet black families and Muslim families and Hispanic families are talking to their children about how their skin color might influence their life experiences. Don’t we have a responsibility to do the same?
Talking honestly and openly about race with our white children has always been important. But that need has amped up about 2,000 percent. After the election, I heard from a Filipino friend whose daughter is afraid her brown-skinned mother is going to be deported; from a mother of three black boys living in the heart of Brooklyn who are terrified they are going to be hunted down by the KKK. We all wish we could tell our children we can protect them, but that's no longer true. I can't protect my children from witnessing and living in a country where hate crimes are on the rise, where as a single mother sexist policies may raise my taxes and control my daughter's body. The entire presidential campaign was something I could not protect my children from.
Protection is now for the privileged, and I, as a working mother, am not one of them. And if wealth statistics are anything to go by, you probably aren't either.
For me protecting them means teaching them that we are reliant upon each other, that reliance is the fabric of a thriving community and the cornerstone of safety. So I have an obligation to take it a step further. To—as a family—turn outward and see how we can protect others too.
I think we start by simply acknowledging race. I have a leg up on some because my children go to a diverse school and have friends and classmates from all over. My third-grade son has a cluster of children in his classroom who have been in this country less than a year. Prior to Virginia, we lived in Hawaii where they were the haole minority. And as part of a single-parent family, maybe my kids have a more visceral appreciation of what it feels like to be different. But that doesn’t give me a free pass. My children might see racial differences but that doesn’t mean that they understand them, understand the history and the roadblocks and the nature of privilege.
So then we stretch our kids past what feels comfortable to them and to us. My children are five, seven and nine—all old enough to appreciate racial differences and to understand that sometimes people judge others on those differences and that’s wrong. I want my kids to go out of their way to be inclusive because, in many situations, it’s still a lot easier for a white child to extend a hand than for a black one.
I try to be as honest with them as I can. These conversations have taken on an added urgency and an added complexity since November 8. I grapple with how to tell my children that not just some people but the new president of the United States thinks someone’s brown skin makes them less worthwhile. I point out how much we value the people of color in our own lives. I confirm that it is possible some of their Hispanic or Latino friends could have to leave the country. I acknowledge that these are scary times. We have a dance party to “Fight Song.” I don’t tell them that everything will be okay.
Kids can grasp these complexities. We don’t serve them by lying to them, even by omission. When we hide the truth we tell our children that lying, ignoring, refusing to confront important issues, and burying secrets are all acceptable ways to cope with the challenges we encounter in this world. The question we should be asking ourselves is not do we tell them about the racial schisms criss-crossing our country but how do we tell them without traumatizing them?
In wondering if I was right to be pushing these hard racial truths on my children, I wound up speaking with Rebecca Bigler, a psychology professor from the University of Texas whose work focuses on colorblind socialization and racial attitudes in children.
“If you don’t communicate with your children about race, then they will get their messages about race from the world around them,” she explained. “Research has shown that those messages are not necessarily positive or in line with the parents’ values.”
In the current racial climate, Bigler advised talking explicitly to our children about how different people have different views and then clearly conveying our own beliefs. “Speak to them about your own values and explain how stereotypes are wrong.”
The fantasy of a colorblind society belongs to us adults. It doesn’t belong to our children, who notice race and look to us for guidance about how to interpret it. Equality is not happening in our lifetimes or in theirs. There is just too much history and, frankly, too much hate. As white parents, we have a responsibility to raise our white children to be racially aware but not racist, class-aware but not classist. We don’t get to chicken out because this is too difficult and leave our kids to figure it out on their own.
Step up, people. Let’s go there.