Family dialogues about race are crucial to help children process what they're seeing and hearing
White parents must actively work to desegregate our lives
Editor’s Note: Jennifer Harvey is a writer, speaker and professor at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. Her most recent book is “Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America.”
Parenting in the current political climate isn’t for the faint of heart. Recently, my 9-year old daughter asked me, “Mama, I know it’s really bad they’re putting people in jail, but do those people think, ‘Well, at least I’m safe from war?’ ”
My 7-year old daughter quickly followed up with, “Why would someone say Donald Trump is keeping us safe?” Clearly, my two white kids, like all children in the United States, are absorbing the racialized rhetoric about immigration and “others” that’s everywhere right now.
Numerous studies have shown the early and negative impact society’s racism has on children’s development. By the ages of 3 and 4, American children internalize racist stereotypes of self and others. By age 5, they recognize that different groups are treated differently and understand something about their racial social status. Children will never just “unlearn” these things on their own.
These studies were pre-2016. Public displays of racial hostility have since amplified, showing up in such topics as talk about kneeling NFL players, black families’ attempts to enjoy a summer swim interrupted by white neighbors calling the police or immigration debates implying that people from south of the border are uniquely dangerous. We can only speculate how much worse the damage will be to children’s long-term notions of self and others, and to what a just and peaceful society looks like.
Family dialogues about race are crucial to help children process what they’re seeing and hearing and, over time, to develop a strong anti-racist racial identity. Families of color have long engaged in precisely these kinds of conversations, but a strong majority of white families do not.
If white parents want to raise children and youth who play a role in creating a just, inclusive society, we’ve got to start talking.
Break the silence
White children are growing up in a country in which they can clearly see that race matters but are regularly told by white adults that they’re not supposed to notice this (so-called color-blindness). Left to their own devices, children draw their own ill-informed conclusions. They need to know that race is something we should notice and parents want to talk about it.
Parents need to initiate such talk. With young kids, this might mean constantly going out of our way to name differences. With older kids, it means asking about how racial groups get along at school or what they’re hearing in the news.
Tell the whole truth
Consider this real-life scenario: A white child at school let classmates smell his bag of Doritos, until a black classmate tried, at which point he snapped the bag shut and said, “You can’t smell them! You’re black!”
Sharing incidents like this one and asking your child questions like, “How would you handle this?” is as important as working on spelling and math. And we need to tell our kids the whole truth. Vague moral messages like “be kind to everyone” are tempting, but white children must learn explicitly what racism is and means if we expect them to become capable of antiracist behaviors.
Go beyond diversity
It’s good to tell our kids that difference is something to celebrate. But they also need to learn about the people – historical and contemporary – who have challenged injustice. Kids need to be taught about so many more people of color freedom fighters than the few they hear about at school. Meanwhile, white kids have fewer role models of those who have acted in solidarity with people of color and who are doing so today.
Do an inventory of your life
White parents must actively work to desegregate our lives. What parks and libraries do you go to? At which community centers do you participate? Even young kids who have racially diverse friendship pools tend to self-segregate by middle school. This reflects adult modeling.
If we want white youth to break these larger social dynamics, they need to regularly experience spaces where they aren’t in the overwhelming racial majority. In a society as segregated as ours, this requires an active commitment by parents.
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Last week, my heart ached as I responded to my children’s questions. But I called it like it is. For many, many years, some people have insisted that people with dark skin, like those coming across the border, are dangerous. I also told them that this is a lie. And I told them we have to tell people that it’s a lie based on racism whenever we hear people say it.
These strategies won’t change things overnight. We have multigenerational work ahead of us to build a racially just United States. But, as white parents, we can and must commit to joining parents of color – and their kids – in creating a society where all of our children can flourish.