My kids absorb racial messages all the time – every day – through media and their primarily white social environments, through social studies and history lessons at school, and what they’re hearing from friends and other community members. These racial messages are pervasive, and my children are internalizing them.
If I don’t explicitly teach them the values I want them to hold, they are left on their own to interpret and make sense of a world that is racially unjust. This is not what I want for my kids.
However, as a white parent, I struggle with teaching my kids about racism and the roots of white supremacy. I make mistakes, and I know I must do better. I am still working on my own racial awareness journey, which is part of what makes having conversations about race with my kids difficult. Because my professional and personal lives are deeply intertwined, it’s important to me that I translate what I’m learning about racial equity at RTI into my role as a parent. By personally sharing where I am in terms of learning how to do this better, I hope to inspire other parents and caregivers of white children to join me.
I grew up in suburban North Carolina in the 80s and 90s. My parents, who have spent most of their lives in the southeastern United States, taught me about race from a racially “colorblind” lens. This approach meant that we rarely had discussions about race, but when we did, the message I received as a child was that everyone, regardless of their race, should be treated equally. I also got very strong messaging that what happened in the past around the enslavement of Black people was horrific, but that racism, as well as any unequal treatment of Black people now, was finished and not prevalent today. According to my parents, everyone had a fair shot at achieving the “American Dream” as long as they worked hard enough. Not only is this untrue, it’s an example of the pervasive white supremacy culture in the United States.
As a parent, I have a choice to be racially colorblind (as I was raised) or to be race conscious and anti-racist. To be racially colorblind would mean to remain silent about race and just teach my kids to be nice to everyone. While it may feel more comfortable in the moment, that silence would only perpetuate the widespread silence among parents and caregivers of white children. The racially “colorblind” approach has not proven its effectiveness in dismantling white supremacy. The alternative, which I’m committed to, is to talk openly with my kids about race and teach them how to become anti-racist. Hirschfeld (2008) found that children as young as 2 years old use race to reason about people’s behaviors and “by kindergarten, children show many of the same racial attitudes that adults in our culture hold- they have already learned to associate some groups with higher status than others (Kinzler, 2016).” My kids are 7 and 9 years old, they pass as white,* and they’ve been internalizing these messages since they were born.
Dr. Ronda Taylor Bullock, Executive Director of we are (working to extend anti-racist education) states, “when you’re not the target of the discrimination, it’s not as visible to you….and that invisibility is a freedom.” Many white children in the United States grow up without ever having explicit conversations about race and white supremacy. White privilege affords parents and caregivers of white children the choice of whether to talk about race. This is not the case for parents and caregivers of Black children. Teaching them the realities of United States’ culture is not a choice; it is critical to their safety and wellbeing. Dr. Bullock responds to white parents who hesitate to discuss race because they’re afraid of upsetting their children: “You don’t want to make your child sad and I don’t want my child to die. These are not equivalent.”
I am trying to teach my children a more accurate version of racial history than I ever received as a public-school student in North Carolina. In full transparency, I feel anxious every time I talk about race with my kids. There are multiple reasons for this, namely that as a white American I have very little practice having open conversations about race. However, the only way to reduce the anxiety is to do it – practice – without holding myself to the white supremacist value of perfection. Just as I expect myself to make mistakes when conversing with my colleagues about race, I should expect myself to make mistakes with my kids. I’m raising them to understand that grown-ups make mistakes and they have learned that I will be honest with them when I do. When I make a mistake, I can always go back to them and say, “Remember when I said x, y, z? I did some reading, and I found a better explanation” or “I realized I was wrong.” While I still carry fear of not saying the right thing and the desire to protect my children from the realities of the world, I feel more strongly that they can’t wait 30+ years to develop their own sense of white identity and with that, an understanding of the myriad ways in which they benefit as a result of their perceived whiteness. Most importantly, I’m determined to teach them tangible ways that they can advocate for social justice.
A simple way to get started is to just open space for further conversation. This means asking questions like “Do all the kids in your class look like you?” and “What kinds of differences do you notice?” These types of questions signal to my kids that it’s okay for them to notice race and that I am open to talking about it with them. As they’ve gotten older, we’ve deepened this conversation to include more context and we discuss how those differences impact how people are treated and experience the world differently because of race. This sets the foundation for me to share more difficult truths.
Acknowledging that I do not have all the answers, I approach conversations about race from the same perspective as other complex topics that feel uncomfortable to talk about at first, but around which I hold strong values. I want to be able to talk about race and privilege as easily as I talk to my children about queerness. As a queer parent, it feels completely natural to have conversations about gender and different types of families, and I’ve been doing so since they were born. When it comes to race, we intentionally read books about families with racial, ethnic, and cultural identities that are different from ours and have had deliberate dialogue about race over the years. Often, I use books to help frame our discussions. One that we read regularly, Something Happened in Our Town, shares the story of the shooting of a Black man from two different perspectives: one white family and one Black family. Reflecting together on how the families talk about the incident differently is powerful and underscores the importance of our own family having these conversations. My goal is to better equip and prepare my children with the knowledge they need to be humane.
Recently I’ve been reading Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America and one thing I’ve learned from it is the importance of frequency of these conversations. Author Jennifer Harvey states “Race conscious parenting acknowledges, names, discusses, and otherwise engages racial difference and racial justice with children. It does so early and often.” While I’ve been having conversations once or twice a week, Harvey encourages caregivers of white children to talk about race every day. We are all bombarded by messages constantly that white is the norm - “better than” - we must actively work to dismantle racism by talking about it regularly. Research shows that “explicit conversations with 5-7-year-olds about interracial friendships can dramatically improve their racial attitudes in as little as a single week (Bronson & Merryman, 2009).” Give children language to understand systemic racism and tools to empower them to be disrupters.
So what can we do as parents or caregivers of children who present as white?
- Start talking with your kids today. You may not feel confident at first, however, with continued practice you may become more comfortable. Explore this collection of resources on how to get started.
- Explore where you are in your own journey of racial identity development and keep seeking knowledge. The commitment to ending racial injustice is lifelong—we always have more to learn.
- Talk to other parents. I realize I still have a lot of my own growth to cultivate so I decided to convene a group of parents that meet monthly to share how we are doing this. We talk about where we are in our own ally journeys, what kinds of questions our kids are asking, how are we answering difficult questions, and how are we teaching our children to be actively anti-racist.
I encourage you to pick a topic to talk with your children about, learn more, and start a conversation. Admit when you make mistakes. And rely on other allies for support. We can all do better.
*While my children pass as white in the United States, they are a quarter Korean.
we are (working to extend anti-racist education) – Durham-based 501(c)3
Dear White Parents – Video clip (run time 3:26)
https://www.onemilliontalks.com/guides/ – Age-appropriate guides for talking about race
Not My Idea – Children’s book