White parents need to talk to their children about race. This topic has been on my mind a lot recently since reading about the brutal murder of black teenager Nia Wilson by a white man, and so I wanted to write about it, not only because I hope it will be useful for some of you, but as a reminder to myself.
Before I go on, I want to preface the rest of this post by acknowledging my huge privilege. White privilege, yes, but so much else too – the privilege of being able bodied, cis, middle class, heterosexual, financially secure, educated… the list goes on. I believe that my privilege doesn’t mean that I should shy away from talking about inequality for fear of “getting it wrong” or saying something imperfect. That privilege means I have a responsibility to talk about inequality, to fight against it. I do not take for granted the fact that I have a voice, a platform to share on, and an audience to listen to what I have to say, something that many, many people over the world do not have. I believe having a voice comes with a responsibility to use it to do good, even if that doesn’t always feel comfortable (and in fact that discomfort is just another form of privilege manifesting itself).
Unsure if white privilege applies to you? Take a look at this checklist. I scored 26/26. It is a sobering reminder that if, like me, you are white, we have a hell of a lot of work to do to try and address the inexcusable, dangerous inequality that is so pervasive in our societies. Part of this work is explicitly talking to our children about race from a young age.
Why we need to talk to our children about race
As white parents, we have the immense privilege of not being forced by society to talk to our children about race from a young age (a privilege not shared by many people of colour who will have to explain to their young children about racism and its very real effects on their lives). But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do it anyway.
It is often believed that because (a) racism is bad, it follows that (b) we should therefore teach our children to be “colour-blind” and not talk to them about race, raising them to view everyone as equal rather than reinforcing differences in skin colour. A lovely idea. The problem? This doesn’t work.
Ignoring race creates silence around racism, and teaches children that they don’t have to think about race (or anything else that makes them feel uncomfortable). This further feeds into a society where white experience is seen as the only one and the experience of others and the prejudices they face is ignored at best, and reinforced at worst. Telling our children that skin colour doesn’t matter is a luxury – and more than a luxury, it is a lie. We live in a world where people are killed, abused and oppressed on a daily basis solely because of their skin colour. To say colour doesn’t matter is dangerous and untrue, and is very different to teaching that colour shouldn’t matter.
This line of thinking – that we can teach children to be colour-blind – is also based on the assumption that children don’t “see” colour unless it is pointed out to them. But this isn’t true. Research shows that young children are developmentally prone to in-group favouritism, ie. they like people more if they identify them as closely resembling themselves, and this is thought to develop between ages 2.5-5. We don’t have to label differences for them to be visible to children (in fact, research has shown that children notice skin colour differences as early as six months), and children will use differences they see from early on to make judgements about others. This means we need to explicitly talk about race with children (as well as other differences too) and teach them that someone’s skin being a different colour doesn’t make them a worse person. Research shows compellingly that when parents talk openly about race (not just using abstract phrases like “we’re all equal”), children’s attitudes to race improves.
A recurring theme in studies and articles on this subject is that parents are for the most part very comfortable talking to even very young children about gender, challenging sexist stereotypes and calling out unfair behaviour or treatment. We need to do the same for race and racism – and we need to do it often.
We need to tell our children that people of all colours can be doctors if the only doctors they see are white. We need to point out explicitly that children have all different skin colours, but they often like doing the same things. We need to talk about different cultures and point out the things we share as well as the things that make us unique. We need to tell our children that it is never OK to exclude someone or treat them differently or be unkind to them because they look different to us. And we need to do this every day.
As our children get older, we need to actively talk to them about racism, sharing real-life examples both past and present (there are many books out there which can support these conversations), and we need to invite them to reflect on what they are learning. This will not feel comfortable. Learning about the individual and systemic violence inflicted on people because of their skin colour is upsetting, but that is all the more reason to stand up and do what we can to try and stop it. We cannot ignore that, as white people, we are complicit in this violence. It’s not enough to just be “not a racist”. We need to own up to our history and the racism that is all around us, and bring our children on this journey with us.
Other things we can do
Whilst it’s vitally important to have these conversations with our children, it’s not enough to have them in isolation. We can also:
- Read books to our children that have characters with a diverse range of skin colours. This is something I am trying to rectify at the moment in our home, as I am aware that so many of Frida’s books are focused on white characters. If you have any recommendations for more diverse books, please do share them – they will be gratefully received. Here is a list of books that specifically talk about racism, but as parents we can challenge stereotypes we come across in any books we read.
- Be mindful of the media our children consume. If they watch TV or play games, what characters are being featured? What stereotypes are being played out?
- Take a look at our children’s toys. Do they reflect diversity? Again, this is something I would like to address in our home; all of Frida’s dolls are white.
- Educate ourselves as parents. Read books and articles and blogs written by people of colour, listen to podcasts addressing systemic racism, follow diverse voices on social media.
- Challenge racism and racist attitudes when we see them, both in front of our children and when they are not around. If we want to raise children who will stand up in the face of injustice, we need to do this ourselves, even if it feels uncomfortable.
- Donate to social justice causes. Words matter, but so does action. Money is often the thing that has the most immediate impact, funding important work being done on the ground to address the causes of inequality and supporting the victims of it.
I have said before that I strongly believe that peaceful parenting can be a radical act, and a powerful force for social change. As white parents we have a lot of work to do, and that can feel overwhelming. But we have to start somewhere, and talking to our children about race is a vital place to start.
The most compelling explanation of why white parents need to talk to their children about race I have found is a chapter in the book Nurtureshock: Why Everything We Thought About Children is Wrong (which I strongly recommend getting hold of even if just to read that part, although it’s a brilliant read all the way through) as it is packed with hard evidence – useful if you need help to convince your partner, child care provider, school or friends.
This website has a great list of further resources for talking about racism with children.
If you have any feedback or comments on this post, then I am all ears and welcome the conversation.