Why We Need to Talk to Kids About Race... By Amanda Hayes
Today I want to talk about how important it is to discuss the idea of race with children. This is especially true for those of us who are Caucasian. The reason I focus on white people in this post is simple: Minorities in our country aren’t the ones who
need to understand this or talk about it with their kids, because most of them already have. Minorities understand from the beginning how being a different race in this country affects their lives; they live it every single day. No, this is
primarily aimed at white people because we seemed to be unprepared to tackle this issue without guidance.
Race is a sensitive subject. It is especially heavy to me because of the social unrest over the tragic deaths of Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Michael Brown, Jr., Tamir Rice, and most recently, the mysterious death of
Sandra Bland while in police custody after an altercation with a police officer over a traffic violation. All of the aforementioned people are black. Like it or not, race is an issue that isn’t going away, and it’s time we stepped up as a nation
and stopped pretending like it doesn’t exist or sweeping it under the rug.
This is the most sensitive topic I’ve ever delved into, and it’s one I am deeply passionate about. Learning about race is difficult. Teaching about race is even harder. Couple that with the fact that I am white, and it can be a recipe for disaster.
I will be the first to admit that everything I explain here comes from the vantage point of an upper-middle class, highly privileged white woman. I have no anecdotal evidence on anything but being a white person looking at it from the
outside. I won’t ever pretend to understand what other races go through on a daily basis in this country, but I am hoping to share some facts and data I’ve found that will shed some light on it that you can in turn use to talk to your kids.
Most of us are afraid to talk about race. It’s such a taboo subject and can be intimidating. It is much easier for us to ignore race than deal with how heavy the topic is and try to explain it. Then when our kid brings it up or asks a
question about it, we are appalled and immediately shush them, especially if it’s in public. I know many parents (myself included) who would be horrified if their child loudly exclaimed something about another race in public. In fact, a few
weeks ago I was at Target with the kids and there were two Asian women behind us, talking. I wasn’t really listening or paying attention to them, but I did notice as I was half listening that they were not speaking English. And apparently Ash
noticed, too, because he loudly said “WHY DO SOME PEOPLE SPEAK SPANISH, MOM?” And I just went beet red. That is a totally harmless question, aside from the fact that he erroneously guessed the language they were speaking. And yet the fact that
he pointed out that they were different than us and were speaking a different language had me totally mortified. Why? Would it have been the same if he asked me why some people have blonde hair? Absolutely not. Then I could easily go into a
talk about DNA and dominant and recessive genes without hesitation. But when it has anything to do with race or racial differences, I clam up.
There is a big problem with white parents not talking about race with their kids. Many of us think, hey, if we aren’t outwardly racist and don’t say or do things that would paint other races in a negative light, then we should be fine.
Kids learn racism from imitation, from the way we talk and act toward others, right? Many people have mistakenly decided to adopt a stance of color-blindness as a way to combat racism. Hey, if we just pretend like we are all equal and the same,
then we pretty much are! We are all on an equal footing, so there is no reason for anyone to feel singled out, and no prejudice. The thing is, we are not all on an equal footing. Whether you believe it or not, minorities, especially black people,
are at a distinct disadvantage in many aspects of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
If you think that color-blindness or avoidance of race will instill tolerance in your kids, consider this: Kids stick with their own ethnicity and develop racial biases even without words or actions from their parents. In one study, 3
year-olds were given a stack of cards with people on them, and asked to sort them into two piles, however they wish. 68% of the kids used race to split the pile, without any prompting whatsoever. They had already learned them as two dichotomies
and sorted them accordingly. In another study, most showed racial preferences at as young as 30 months. So while you may think that calling attention to different skin colors will make them notice it more, the truth is that they notice it no
matter what, and it’s our job to supplement that noticing with knowledge and empathy.
By the way, I have an inherent issue with the term “color-blindness.” It’s the same issue I take with people who scoff at the word feminism and call themselves “egalitarians.” When you refuse to acknowledge a sect of our population that
is being oppressed in favor of saying that everyone is oppressed in some way, or that everyone is the same, you are being ignorant and disrespectful. We can’t operate on a baseline assumption that we are all treated the same; that’s a false
assumption. We have to acknowledge other races and the inequalities that they face, just like we have to acknowledge the inequalities that women face. When black people are telling you that they are facing some serious prejudice and racism as
a people, and hold signs and tweet that “Black lives matter” to call attention to the problem, and you completely ignore their point and retort “ALL lives matter!” you’re being ignorant and insensitive.
Institutionalized racism exists in this country, and it’s a huge problem. We have to start asking ourselves why we value white people’s lives more than other races, and what we can do to stop it. And now we come back around to our point:
One way to combat racism is talking to your kids about race. So how can we go about tackling this touchy subject while being as candid as possible? Turns out there are some pretty solid strategies out there.
The first and best way to approach it is simply to open the lines of communication. Even if you don’t have a script or know exactly what to say, you need to bring it up, and more than once. You also need to make sure that you have meaningful
dialogue; don’t just mention it in passing. It won’t do for you to simply say “You know, we are all the same on the inside, so we should accept all people. Don’t be a racist, okay?” That’s not enough! You should really try to engage them in
discussion because that’s where they are going to start forming their own opinions based on the evidence they are given.
Kristina Olson, a University of Washington psychologist, said “Don’t you want to be the one to suggest to them—early on, before they do form those preconceptions—something positive [about other races] rather than let them pick up something
negative?” That’s a great strategy, and one I use for several topics with my kids including teaching them about different religions, issues with LGBTQIA rights, income inequality, sexism and more.
If you’re having trouble getting the conversation rolling, a great place to start is to sit down and watch a show or movie with them, play a video game, or flip through a magazine. I have advocated watching media with your kids in a few
of my other posts, and that’s because it is so valuable for teaching and having meaningful discussions. The amount and type of media kids consume can do a lot of indirect teaching about societal norms, and you are their primary interceptor for
that. You can be the gatekeeper who decides if they accept it blindly, or if they need direction or clarification. This is especially important if they are watching stuff with more mature themes in it, like violence or sex. And allowing your
kid to see part of that (even very mild mature themes) and talking about what they mean makes you pretty amazing.
My own example: My kids like watching music videos on Youtube, and one of the songs they love (thanks to my brother) is “Anna Sun” by Walk the Moon.
But after watching it with them a few times, something hit me. That video is literally filled with white people. Almost completely, 100% white people! Now for some videos that wouldn’t be a problem depending on how many people are in
the video, but the singer walks through this huge ‘80s party, with several rooms full of people, does a choreographed number with about 12 other people, and then rounds up a bunch of his friends for some sort of tribal (boho?) jam session in
an empty field. (Cultural appropriation, too? Oh this just keeps getting better!) And yet, pretty much only white people! There could be a number of reasons for this disparity, but that was definitely a conversation starter. Why are there so
many white people in this music video?!
The beauty of these conversations is that there have been studies where they really have improved racial attitudes in children. The same thing happened in a recent study of children who read the Harry Potter book series. The study found
that after reading the series, the kids were more empathetic and less prejudiced toward minority groups.
I don’t need another reason to read the Harry Potter books with my kids, to be honest. I live and breathe Harry Potter. My home is filled with Harry Potter themed décor. Still, this is a great reason to pick up those books and give ‘em
a read with your kids.
Another way I have brought up the idea of race with my kids is talking about current events. As I’m sure you well know, several highly publicized killings of young black men (and some very suspicious deaths of some women) by police officers
has sparked a national debate about whether or not blacks are treated poorly by police (they are), and if police are let off the hook too easily for gravely overstepping their bounds when interacting with civilians (they are).
So back to ‘the talk’. I very simply told my kids on the way home from school one day that I was particularly troubled by all of the young black people who are dying at the hands of police officers. Why would white people, who are caught
on camera acting belligerently toward police, get off with a warning or get left alone, when a black person is likely to be shot for simply being confrontational, as their white counterparts do all the time? Why is it that when white kids misbehave,
they are being “rowdy”, but when black kids do, they are considered “thugs”?
This sort of discussion may seem heavy for your kids, and it’s probably not right for really young children, but my oldest is 7, and with the conversations that we have, I know he is mature enough to hear it and offer his opinion. And
that is how simple you can make it; just ask them what they think. If they really aren’t interested in the conversation, don’t be aggressive about it. The last thing you want to do is push them away. And try not to lecture or force them around
to your way of thinking. I said “You know, a lot of people think that black people are treated differently just because of the color of their skin. What do you think of that? Do you think it’s right to treat someone different because of how
they look, or what skin color they have?” Listening to their answers will give you some insight on the decision making and thought patterns inside their heads, and you can offer them alternative perspectives to help them in that process.
Lastly, if you can, you should try to surround yourself with a diverse group of friends. It doesn’t help when our friends and neighbors are all the same race as we are, and the only people we spend time with are white. When white kids
are surrounded by nothing but white people throughout their lives, they quickly assimilate into that group and tend to stick with it even throughout high school and college when they are introduced to a more diverse group of people. So while
your words may say that we should all be treated equally and that we are all the same on the inside, if they have grown up around nothing but white people and haven’t been able to forge any relationships with other races, nor seen you forging
any, they are likely to remain that way. Please note, this does not mean you go out and find a “token black friend” and attach yourself to them. Try to forge new friendships organically, and encourage your kids to do the same. Then you can take
the opportunity to talk about the different friends you have, their races, how they are different and how they are the same.
More importantly, don’t discourage honest questioning about the topic from your kids, embrace it and try to work with them to figure it out. We shouldn’t be afraid to say “black”, or feel uncomfortable and shush our child when he asks
questions about why some people have different skin colors or features. In fact, it’s important to note that all of humankind evolved from our ancestors in Africa, and early in our evolution we all had dark skin before moving to new places where
we did not need dark skin to protect us from the sun all the time! We all came from the same early ancestors and no particular race from the human species evolved more or better than others. Race, like gender, is nothing but a social construct
used to categorize people based on culture, tradition and location.
We want kids to point out things that are different and think critically, that’s how they learn! If you don’t acknowledge that there is a difference between white and black, then you are leaving it up to them to navigate that complex
issue and figure it out themselves, and that can be marred with a bad experience, or even one negative interaction. Think about what went through your head when you were deciding what to name your child. Chances are, if you came across a name
of someone you didn’t like, even in the distant past, you probably skipped that name without much thought. That one person left a bad taste in your mouth and permanently ruined that name for you.
Don’t let that happen to your kids. Don’t let them have a confrontation with someone from another race and automatically just that confrontation to fuel a prejudice against all people from that race. White people have done some ugly things
to minorities to maintain their status at the top, and it’s our responsibility to teach the next generation to be better.