Early, Often, and With Increasing Depth: Talking with Children about Racism and White Privilege
Last December I was participating in a peaceful protest led by young people of color at West Lake Center in solidarity with Ferguson to call attention to the fact that Black Lives Matter. I saw many families with young children reacting in different ways to us protestors. Some were clearly annoyed. Others looked frightened and were quickly pulling their children away from us. Still others were engaged in conversations with their children, and, although I couldn’t hear them, looked to be explaining what we were doing and why.
Whether talking directly or sending messages through body-language, all of these parents were communicating something to their children not just about protests, but about race in the United States. With the Black Lives Matter movement emerging after Michael Brown was shot by a police officer to the recent murder of Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Rev. Daniel L. Simmons, Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor, and Susie Jackson in church by a white supremacist, the time is now to develop more skills in talking with children about racism.
For many parents of color, conversations about racism begin very early as a way to help young children develop the armor they’ll need when faced with bias. Children are equipped to realize racial discrimination is not because there’s something wrong with them, but something wrong with the person doing the discriminating. And, on a more fundamental level, the talk about what to do when you see a police officer can be a life or death matter.
However, conversations about racism are far less common in white families. Many parents want to believe children don’t notice race or are afraid that by calling attention to race, they’ll make the problem worse. When, in fact, the best way to ensure white children don’t develop a sense of inherent racial superiority is to talk openly about systemic barriers facing people of color.
Here are two tips for talking with children about racism, white privilege, and white supremacy.
1. Practice. We often avoid having these conversations with children because of our own discomfort. Practice talking with your friends about racism you’re seeing in news stories (note: this doesn’t mean post an article on social media). Recognize you don’t need to know everything and practice asking good questions. Pro tip: Start with friends you know agree with your perspective, then move into more challenging conversations with those who don’t.
2. Avoid Making it About Good vs. Bad. Children are taught from a young age to see the world as full of good guys and bad guys. I remember overhearing a conversation between a six and an eight year old where the older child was saying she’d heard about a really, really bad guy named Hitler. The younger responded, “You mean, he turned to the Dark Side?” Although I laughed at this exchange, it illustrates how racialized good/bad is in media, as white and light are often associated with the protagonist.
Oversimplifying conversations about white supremacy to a good/bad dichotomy may feel like the easiest way to explain this to a child, but it actually makes things more complicated.
There have been many widely publicized cases of police officers killing unarmed Black people and many less discussed, but equally important, cases with Native people such as John T. Williams in Seattle. This is a pattern that results from institutional racism in policies and practices that Michelle Alexander does a great job of illustrating in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
This also happens in the context of a wide-spread culture in the United States that continues to treat Black people as less valuable, less intelligent, more dangerous, etc. than white people. It is easy for anyone of us to list the multiple stereotypes of Black people. And given that it is so easy, we must accept the likelihood that we’ve internalized these stereotypes (to test your own implicit bias, go to Project Implicit). Therefore, individual police officers, especially in stressful situations, may be more likely to see a Black man as dangerous, even if they think they’re not prejudiced.
If we just tell children that the officers who killed Freddie Gray were bad people, they might start wondering how all of these “bad guys” got a job in law enforcement. If we just tell children that Dylan Roof was a bad person, we miss the bigger picture of a pattern of white supremacy that persists and influences decisions and attitudes in this country beyond a few extremists.
Finally, good/bad framing leaves no room for change. When I’m doing workshops, people will often respond defensively to the idea that they could have said or done something racist. They talk instead about their good intentions, essentially saying, “I’m a good person.” But, it is impossible to live in the United States and not collude in some way with institutional racism. I want our children to grow into adults who understand that good, well-intentioned people can make mistakes because of their racial biases. I want them to be able to acknowledge, apologize, and learn from their mistakes. I also want them to see the potential for growth and change in others. That is much easier when we don’t see ourselves as “bad guys” when our biases inevitably show up.
So how do you talk with a child outside of a good/bad binary? Start early, revisit the conversation often, and add increasing depth. For example:
Point out stereotypes on TV shows, in movies, and in books. “What did you notice about the race or clothing colors of the “good guys” and “bad guys”?”
“There are a lot of laws that make our criminal justice system (or simplify to policing) unfair to Black and Brown people.”
“All of us have stereotypes and we have to try hard to be fair to each other. When a person is in a position of power, such as a police officer, they have to be extra careful in life and death situations to not let their stereotypes effect their decisions.”
“Throughout the history of the United States, Black people have faced violence from white supremacy in the laws, culture and some groups of people. Black people are very resilient and have fought hard for equal treatment. It is up to all of us to put an end to racism. One thing I’m doing to support justice for all is…”
By practicing these conversations we’ll become more comfortable with the discomfort. This will help us raise children of color who have a healthy, positive sense of their own racial identity and white children who don’t feel superior to others. As we stumble through these talks, we also learn better how we can address racism and white privilege and put an end to these tragedies in our lifetime.