Better World

Breaking the silence: A parent’s guide to talking about race and racism with white kids

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It can be easier for white families to avoid talking about race than it is for families of color because of the particular challenges that people of color face in our society every day — from discrimination to police violence. It’s up to parents of white kids, however, to teach them about race and racism, and to model anti-racism in their everyday lives, in order to raise children who are committed to racial justice and conscious of how race impacts someone’s experience.

When do kids start noticing race?

Most kids start noticing racial differences at around six months of age. This means that kids are never really too young to start talking about race. While younger kids may not have a grasp on the larger context of systemic racism, or even understand why someone might discriminate against someone else because of their skin color — they do understand that there are racial differences between people. 

How can I talk to my young child about race?

By three to five years old, most kids not only categorize people by race but begin to express bias based on race. This is the age when kids may blurt out embarrassing questions in public about things like the color of someone’s skin, so it’s important to think ahead about how you want to respond. Silence on the topic sends the message that race is a taboo topic and can cause kids to think negatively about it.

To keep things developmentally appropriate, with preschoolers and young kids we can start by talking about what kids notice. That’s why talking about skin color and other physical differences is a good place to start. If your kids are white, don’t forget to talk openly about their skin color as well, so that they know that race is not just about people who look different from them.

Here are some things you can say to young kids about race —

“Have you noticed that people have many different skin colors, hair colors, and eye colors? That’s because people have different amounts of melanin in their skin, hair, and eyes. Melanin is something that helps protect a person’s body from the sun. So, if your biological relatives from a long, long time ago were from somewhere very hot and sunny, you tend to have darker skin, hair, and eyes.”

“People have so many skin tones, from very dark brown (almost black) to very light brown (almost white). What color or tone would you call your skin and my skin? What about our hair and eyes?”

“Have you noticed any other differences in how people look? People’s bodies look different because we all have different DNA. DNA is like a complicated code in every cell of your body that tells your body what it should look like and what it should do. We get some of our DNA from our biological relatives which gets mixed together in a unique way. That’s why everyone looks a little different from each other unless they’re identical twins.”

“Some families have people who look very similar to each other, and some families have people who look very different from each other. What about our family? We can also be friends with people who look different from us, and people who look similar to us. There are always things you could have in common with someone, even if you look different. Do you think we have friends who look different from us or similar to us?”

“Sometimes people get treated differently because they look different from others around them. For example, a shopkeeper might act more suspicious of a shopper with darker brown skin than they do of people with lighter skin in the store. Or someone with a hairstyle or body shape that looks different from most others around them might be told that they don’t look right for the job that they want. Have you ever noticed anything like this happening at your school or in our community? Do you think that was fair?”

How can I explain race to my white child?

White kids who haven’t learned much about race might be confused about what being “white” actually means. Families of color aren’t the only ones who should be having “the talk” about race with their kids, so it’s important for parents of white children to get the conversation started in their own homes as well.

Here are some specific things you can say to white kids about race —

“Even though our skin is not actually white, we’re called ‘white’ when we talk about race. People can be Black, white, Asian, Pacific Islander, Latinx, Middle Eastern, Indigenous, or multiracial — or they may call themselves something else. ‘White’ is like a nickname for a huge group of people whose ancestors originally came from Europe. They tend to have less melanin — meaning lighter skin, hair, and/or eyes — than people whose ancestors are from other parts of the world.”

“Being part of one group or race doesn’t mean you’re the same as everyone else in that group. Think about every other white person you know. There are tons of differences in the way you look, your families, what you’re interested in, how you talk — just about everything, right? Have you ever heard anyone say that something is true about a whole race of people? That’s called a stereotype. What do you think about that?”

“Here’s the thing — white people have kept themselves in power for a long time by making unfair rules. Even when those rules get changed, it can be hard to change the mindset (that white folks are somehow superior to other races because they’re in charge) that people got into from the rules being around for so long. Because of that, often the stereotypes about people of color are negative — even though they aren’t true. And those stereotypes cause people of color to be treated badly, unfairly, or not get the same opportunities as white people.”

“That’s called racism. And even if we personally don’t believe negative stereotypes about people of color or treat anyone unfairly, it’s important to be aware of it and fight against it whenever we see it. Remember, there are even more similarities between people than there are differences. In fact, no matter who we are or where our ancestors are from, the DNA of all human beings is almost completely identical. So, we’re each unique individuals — but we’re still mostly the same on the inside, and we should all be given the same respect and chances to succeed.”

What can I say to my kids about whiteness being the “default”?

When white kids are not taught explicitly about race, it continues the harmful cycle of white folks thinking they are normal, standard, default — and because of that, superior in a way. Most white kids see mostly white people in the books they read, the shows they watch, the leaders they follow, and in their peer and family groups. Even if they’re in a more diverse community, they may see races divided into different types of jobs, roles, or even classes at school.

Of course, the racial dynamics of your community are not totally within your control. But parents can reframe the message your kids are getting. Here are some ways to explain why whiteness is the “default” and how that’s harmful —

“Are there certain races of people you’re more used to seeing? Who do we see in our family, in school, and in our neighborhood? Who do you see in your favorite TV shows or movies? If we’re really used to seeing people who look a certain way, we start to think those people are ‘normal’ and that everyone else is not. But that’s not fair! Just because you might see more white people as our country’s leaders, or in movies, or as teachers, doesn’t mean they are better or more normal than anyone else.”

“Do you know how so many white people got to these positions of power in the first place? People who were not white were actively kept out of these positions because of unfair laws that some white people decided on. For example, only white people were allowed to vote and get elected as the leaders of this country for a long, long time. These laws were around for so long that they still affect the way things are today.”

“That’s because a lot of white people have had trouble learning how to share power with people of other races. They got used to the idea that they were somehow better than people of other races. This is called racism and it is still all around us. Can you think of a time when someone thought that being white was more normal or better than being of another race? What kinds of conversations do you think your Black or other classmates of color might be having about race and racism at home? Do you think they’re different from the conversation we just had?”

How can I teach my white child to be anti-racist?

Teaching kids about race is not about making white kids feel guilty for being who they are, because their country’s and ancestors’ history is obviously not their fault. Instead, white families can redefine their role by actively working on breaking the cycle of racism so that all families can thrive. That means going beyond raising kids who “aren’t racist” and being a family that’s actively anti-racist, which means speaking up against racism, standing against it when you see it, and making sure you aren’t getting special privileges just because of your white skin.

Talking about racism and anti-racism is hard (especially if you haven’t had much practice yet) but it’s necessary. Here are some specific things you can say to white kids about anti-racism —

“The main reason race is such a big deal is that some white people wanted to have power and keep that power, so they made up some rules that made sure they stayed in control. Then they also had to make up some reasons for those rules that would work really well for themselves but not others.”

“For example, the government created maps of cities that claimed that most of the mostly Black neighborhoods were ‘hazardous’ and that the people there shouldn’t be given fair loans to buy houses. This was called red-lining. Now those maps aren’t used anymore, and housing discrimination based on race is illegal. But that ‘hazardous’ label had lasting effects. Many people today still assume that certain neighborhoods are ‘bad’ or ‘dangerous’ based on how many Black people live there.”

“Even if some of the racist rules don’t exist anymore, those stereotypes are still around and still help white people keep their power. It’s really important for us to try to get rid of those, so that life can be more fair for everyone. It’s not enough to just try not to be racist. Because when we do nothing, things just stay the same — so it’s important to speak up against racism, and to make sure that people are treated fairly (including making sure we aren’t getting special advantages just because of our light skin).”

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