White People: We Need To Talk To Our Kids About Racism

Print More

The George Floyd mural on Cup Foods. Credit: Rico Morales.

By Amy Marschall, Psy.D

Just when we thought 2020 could not get any heavier, four police officers are caught on film murdering George Floyd. As protests continue around the country, many are grieving not only the loss of George’s life, but the institutionalized oppression that allowed it to happen and the thousands of other black individuals who have been killed by police. As a white woman, I have struggled with how to be an ally during this time, wanting to speak out but not wanting to take up space that could instead elevate black voices.

I was asked to use my expertise as a psychologist working with children to educate white parents about talking with their kids about race. It is important that we, as white people, prioritize these conversations among ourselves even when people of color are not present. We need to take initiative in educating ourselves and each other and learn to exist in our own discomfort.

Learn To Be Aware Of Your Own Biases

The first step in teaching a child about anything is understanding it yourself. So many well-intentioned white people will claim to be “color-blind,” which research has shown is just not true. A good resource for this is the book Blindspot by Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald. I get it—admitting to racial bias is uncomfortable! I would love to be able to say that I honestly and truly treat everyone the same regardless of race, but the first step in understanding the insidious nature of institutionalized oppression is admitting that it is there.

By the way, if you are ready to learn more about white people’s discomfort with race-based conversations and how to move past this, White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo is a great resource for this.

Before talking to your kids about racism, it can be helpful to learn more about your own implicit biases. The Implicit Association Test can be taken for free online and was developed by Banaji and Greenwald to demonstrate how good people can still be biased.

Are Your Kids Ready To Hear About Racism?

The short answer is yes, your kids are ready to learn about race and racism. In my practice as a psychologist, I get asked all the time if a child is “ready” to hear about a given topic. Kids are smart, kids are insightful, and kids understand what you explain to them. I believe that there is a developmentally appropriate way to talk with children of all ages about difficult topics. Usually this apprehension is less about whether a child can handle this information, but whether the parent feels ready to share it. It is your responsibility as a parent to work through your own hesitancy.

Frankly, having the option not to talk to your children about race is a privilege. Remember, Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann shot unarmed 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014. Black parents don’t get the option of asking themselves if their child is ready to hear about racism, police brutality, or the dangers of existing while black—as long as these shootings happen, these conversations are essential, and we are doing a disservice to both white children and children of color by not talking about it.

So, What Does That Conversation Look Like?

Like all important topics, teaching your children about racism is not about sitting down once, having “the talk,” and never bringing it up again. Get ready to open up an ongoing, lifelong conversation that weaves itself into everyday life. It’s about both deliberate education about the realities of racism in our world and about modeling how to be an ally in everyday life.

This is where awareness of your own bias is key. Teach your children that it is okay to admit bias, that when we fall short, we can learn and try to do better in the future. Be mindful of how you talk about race in daily life—kids learn not just what you teach them, but by watching what you say and do when you don’t even realize they are listening.

Children are emotional sponges. They are acutely aware of stress and subtle changes in parents’ demeanors. When hate crimes, police brutality, and oppression are topics on the news, a parent’s impulse is often to try and hide the “bad news” from their kids. It is an admirable impulse to protect your children, but that does not mean it is always the right call. Your kids will know “something” is up, and sharing the details with them will build trust. If you do not bring up difficult topics, your child might assume that they cannot come to you with questions. Not only that, but they might be exposed to news stories without your knowledge and not have a way to process what they see, hear, or read.

Resources: Children’s Books About Racism

Like all challenging topics, it can be hard to know how to broach this topic with your kids. Fortunately, there are several children’s books about bringing up race and racism at developmentally appropriate levels.

Something Happened in Our Town by Marianne Celano, Ph.D., and Marietta Collins, Ph.D., tells the story of a white child and a black child learning about a local black man who was shot by police.

Racism and Intolerance by Louise Spilsbury and Hanane Kai is part of a series, Children In Our World, aimed at teaching children about “scary” and difficult things happening in the world.

Not My Idea by Anastasia Higginbotham explains privilege in a way that is understandable and accessible to young children.

Race Cars by Jenny Devenny tells a story about white privilege and different experiences of white and black children.

Speak Up by Miranda Paul and Ebony Glenn encourages kids to find their voice and advocate when they witness unfairness.

Racism is inherently an uncomfortable and awkward topic for us as white people. But the oppressive systems still in place rely on our silence, and we can teach our children to sit with this discomfort and work toward a better future.

Comments are closed.