If this week’s racial unrest has you upset, here is something simple you can do right now to make a difference. Immediately upon reading this post, go and talk to your children about race. Doesn’t matter how young they are. Go ahead and do it now.
Did you hesitate just then? If so let’s unpack why. Are you scared to talk to your children about race so because you don‘t want to taint their sweet innocent little thoughts? If so, you are not alone. Many white people fear that by bringing up race they are putting the idea into children’s heads for the very first time that differences among races exist.
Here is the thing, research (and my lived experience) reveal children to be much more astute than adults give them credit for. You aren’t going to tell them something they haven’t already noticed for themselves. Young children are picking up on racial messages they are getting from society as early as two years of age (Hirschfeld, 2008). Sadly, children as young as two and a half have been observed using that racial information to make decisions about people, and use it as a reason to select playmates that look like themselves (Katz & Kofkin, 1997) or withhold toys from their peers (Van Ausdale & Feagin, 2001)
You might be thinking, that is true for other kids but not mine. I’m not racist, and my little darling(s) never bring up race -so we don’t have to talk about. It might be true that your kids don’t bring it up, but your reasoning for why is faulty. White children don’t bring up race because they have picked up on subtle messages from you and other adults in their lives that race isn’t something you talk about. It’s impolite or simply not done (Tatum, 2003).
Adults don’t realize children have been conditioned to not bring up racial issues. It is more comforting to them to think that young children are colorblind. It’s why occasionally on Facebook you see posts with little white kids making comments such as, “I thought it was daddy, but my daddy is bald and this man has hair!” posted with an image of a white child next to the black gentleman who delivers her UPS packages/mail/pizza. White people love to share these as proof of children’s innocence when it comes to race. They think children are colorblind. Children are not. Color is one of the first things a child is taught to identify. The grass is green, the sky is blue, stop signs are red. Do you really think they don’t notice the various shades of people around them? In reality, posts like these aren’t evidence that children are colorblind, it is evidence that young people are subtly taught to not bring up race. Adults reinforce this message by telling them how cute they are when they say stuff like that, and thus more white children receive the message that race shouldn’t be discussed.
Hopefully you are convinced that you should talk to your little ones about race, but are you afraid to bring it up because you are uncomfortable doing so? I get it. It’s odd at first for white parents.
But consider this: black and brown parents are forced to discuss race with their children. I’ve been told this happens early and often. Black and brown parents must educate their young children about race from a very early age to keep them safe and even alive. The ability to avoid the conversations is a manifestation of privilege. Get over the awkwardness and be the change.
How Do I Start The Conversation About Race?
If you are still reading this article- Congratulations! You are up to the task of talking to your children about race and racial discrimination. But you might still not know exactly what to say. Here are some small pointers to give you some confidence.
Tip one: Open your mouth and just start talking about what is happening in the news and how you feel. This isn’t really something you can do wrong, if you speak from the heart.
I have done this several times in the past three days with my 8, 6, and 3 year olds. After I read an upsetting news update, I don’t hide my thoughts from my children. I told them how sad I was that cops in Minnesota killed a man named George Floyd. My 8 year old asked why they killed him, and I told him, no good reason except that they could, and he was black. My eight year old has had years worth of conversations like this, so his reply was, “That is so messed up. It doesn’t matter what color you are.” At this point I agreed, but I reminded him that it does matter to some people because some people are racist. That is why we need to be antiracist and explain to people why racism is wrong.
Tip Two: Listen to your child’s questions and comments, and then answer them thoughtfully-but briefly. Don’t over do it.
When I shared my concern that the reactions to some of protests were causing violence, my 6 year old didn’t get it. He said, “Then just don’t go! People shouldn’t go. “ I explained that black people, some white people, and many other races of people are so angry that people of color keep getting killed for doing nothing wrong and nothing bad happens to the white people who do it. They don’t get a consequence. (We use the term consequences for punishments in our household, so this resonated with him). I went on, “Since that is so messed up, people need to protest so everyone can know how messed up that is.”
I wanted to go on. I wanted to share details of the many non-convictions in recent years. I felt compelled to pontificate about the power of the protest to elicit change. I wanted to quote MLK and tell them “riot is the language of the unheard.” But I didn’t. I stopped there and let what I shared sink in. I left room in the conversations for them to process and share their thoughts, I thought my heart would burst with pride when my 8 year old made the connection, “It’s like the Lorax, ‘unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot.”
See how clever kids can be?
Tip Three: Don’t force it. Let it build over time.
To be honest, when I brought up the protests last night, my three year old wasn’t interested in our extended conversation. That’s cool. He’s three and his cars needed racing. I’m still happy he heard a small piece of our talk because it is laying a foundation. It’s sending him the message that it is ok to talk about race, because if we don’t let children talk about race we end up with adults who are uncomfortable having these important conversations. It is clear from the news what uncomfortable adults in power due with racial issues when they don’t know how to engage in meaningful dialogue about race. Start giving your child(ren) tools to handle important racial discourse today.
Be the change you wish to see in the world. It starts with our children. It’s not enough to just say, “I’m not racist.” Be actively anti-racist. Share this information widely with your network of other white parents. Together we can make lasting meaningful change, starting in your own home with those little sweet hearts you are raising.
Good luck with your conversations. You got this!
Here are some links if you crave more substantial pointers.
Tons of useful resources such as a racial equity tools glossary and questions to help you guide your own reflection on your racial awareness.
20 minute NPR Podcast Parenting: Difficult Conversations
9 Children’s Books About Police Brutality: List of books for kids about police brutality. The page also has some statistics you can use to educate yourself.
The website Motherly has several useful resources. This first is a list of links to more anti-racist information.
This second link from Motherly is to a list of specific phrases one mom finds useful for addressing the current unrest with her children, such as “Lots of unfair and wrong things have happened to Black people for a long time.”
A Little More About Me
I’m Dr. Jennie Burke, and I am an Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Education at Millersville University of Pennsylvania. Prior to becoming a professor I taught for 12 years in a diverse school district in Central Jersey. That fantastic community inspired my current research focus: how young children understand race and gender. I am the author of several book chapters including “Examining the power structures that impact friendships” found in Race Lessons: Using Inquiry to Teach About Race in Social Studies (2017). I’m also the mother of 4 boys.
Hirschfeld, L. A. (2008). Children’s Developing Conception of Race. In C. McKown & S. M. Quintana (Eds.), Handbook of race, racism, and the developing child (pp. 37-55). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Katz, P. A., & Kofkin, J. A. (1997). Race, Gender and Young Children. In S. S. Luthar (Ed.), Developmental psychopathology: Perspectives on adjustment, risk, and disorder. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Tatum, B.D. (2003). “Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?” : and other conversations about race. New York :Basic Books.
Van Ausdale, D. & Feagin, J. R. (2001). The first r: How children learn race and racism. Lanbam, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.