Research on how white parents discuss race with their children is sparse. However, past research has shown that conversations about race, much less racism, are rare
, even when these issues are highly visible -- for example, during the Ferguson protests in 2014.
One study found that even though 81% of white mothers believed it was important
to have such discussions, only 62% of them reported actually doing so. Of those who said they did, however, fewer than one-third of those people could actually recall a specific conversation.
To understand the issue more deeply, we examined surveys of more than 2,000 adults ages 18 and older, collected from May 21 to June 14, 2020, in four major U.S. cities -- Chicago, Los Angeles, New Orleans and New York. We were seeking to understand how people's views on race were influenced by their parents. It was part of an ongoing study looking at how people's experiences during the Covid-19 pandemic have been shaped by their race.
Our initial findings indicate that among white respondents, 65% said their parents had "never" or "rarely" had conversations with them about racism when they were children.
In general, we found that younger white people were more likely to have parents who talked with them about about racism compared to those in older generations. Surprisingly, however, those in the youngest age group -- 18- to 25-year-olds -- were less likely to have parents who talked with them about racism "very often" (only 7%), compared to 26- to 40-year-olds (16%) and to those 41 to 55 years old (12%).
We found that those whose parents talked with them about racism were themselves more likely to talk with their own children about it. However, even during this period of unrest, 27% of white parents of children between 6 and 11 years old told us they "never" talked with their kids about the need for racial equality.
Another 15% said these conversations were "rare," and 34% said they happened "on occasion."
Missing the point
Research shows that the relatively small number of white parents who do discuss race with their children often use what are sometimes called "color-blind"
approaches that downplay racism's significance in American society. These conversations usually involve emphasizing the sameness between all people, and minimize or deny the idea of differences between races. Typical themes include "not seeing race" or "treating everyone the same," which ignore or even reject the existence of white privilege and racism.
These discussions can promote a myth of meritocracy
that claims anyone can succeed in the US regardless of their race -- a belief shared by 57% of the white respondents in our survey. The problem with this colorblindness is that it ignores how racism is embedded in society
-- for example, in where people live and what kinds of jobs and educational opportunities people have.
Sometimes conversations can also be explicitly or implicitly racist, relying on racial stereotypes premised on the idea of inherent differences between race groups.
Seldom are conversations anti-racist. An anti-racism dialog with children involves acknowledging racial inequalities and the historical and current reasons why they exist. They also include talking about ways a child could help actively undo racism and how not to be a bystander when they see racism being perpetrated.