Now that you have talked to your child about protests and fairness and then followed up with a discussion about the importance of being a person of honor and good conscience, it is time for a talk about racism.[i]
Why take the time to talk about racism? Because racism is wrong, it is un-American and it is continues to be a systemic blight on the foundational institutions of our country. If you think this travesty will go away, you have not been paying attention to the last 70 years.
Racism will tear this country apart if these attitudes and beliefs are not changed. You will not be able to turn your head from the unpleasant ugliness of prejudice, racism and bigotry just because it doesn’t happen to you. The people who perpetuate these injustices will no longer be able to hide the mistreatment of Americans by Americans. There are too many phones with video. The internet now connects humanity from across the planet to your own front yard. You cannot be a person who believes in justice and fairness and ignore it. It is wrong and everyone knows it (even racists, they just don’t care).
What’s a parent to do? There are lots and lots of resources for you to help your child understand racism and to raise an anti-racist child. Here are some of the main issues to address.
Educate yourself. Before you can talk to your child about racism, you will need to understand it yourself. And when you are not a person of color (i.e., white), it is almost impossible to just imagine your way through it. You will be stunned by how much you didn’t know or neglected to notice. Take some time to read what people of color have been writing about racism and how subtle the effects can be. You can find some resources here. Be prepared to be uncomfortable. You will want to deny that systemic racism is happening in America. You owe it to your child for their future in a multi-cultural society to be aware and to actively work against it.
Explain it. Your child has been exposed to racism. They have noticed it, especially recently. Children as young as 3 recognize that people have different skin colors. By 5 years old, children begin to have racial biases that exist in the culture around them like lighter or white skin is better than darker skin. So, make sure your child understands what racism is.
“Racism is when someone is treated differently because of the color of their skin. Racists think that if your skin is lighter, or white like ours, that makes you better or smarter than people who have darker skin. That is wrong. It is very hurtful and unfair to people who don’t happen to have white skin and people who believe it is OK to be racist are wrong. We don’t believe that and real Americans don’t believe that. Skin color is just something that makes a person look different, that’s all.”
Model it. Parenting always begins with modeling appropriate attitudes and behavior. Your child should see you embody the values and morals you are teaching them. Show your children you are open to diverse people and cultures and experiences. Celebrate the new and different. Be excited and interested in learning about other people and cultures. Avoid using skin color as part of how you initially describe someone.
Expect it. Your child needs to know what you expect of them. This means telling them how to behave in ways that are not racist.
“We are always kind to other people.”
“We don’t treat people differently because of how they look or where they are from.”
“Racism is wrong and that will not be tolerated in our home.”
“We don’t use that word in our family. People use that word to try to hurt someone who has different color skin and that’s wrong. Don’t speak like that again.”
Comment on it. Look for real world examples of racism and of inclusiveness that happen around you or occur in movies or books. Remark on instances of racism and prejudice and bias, highlighting why it is wrong. Be critical, disappointed and angry when someone is being racist. Point out when people are inclusive and accepting making it clear you admire that and consider that an important way to be as a good person.
Acknowledge differences. People are different. People of different races have different skin tones and hair and other physical characteristics. It isn’t racist to recognize these differences. Racism is a belief that these differences make some people better than others or indicate that people of a particular race have different innate abilities. It is important to celebrate differences between people. It is also important to expand your child’s view of differences across racial characteristics to contradict stereotypes. People who like math (not just people of Asian ancestry being good at math). People who wear their hair in dreadlocks (not just people of African American ancestry wearing dreadlocks).
Limit exposure to racism. It is important to be aware of the messages contained in videos, TV programs, movies, books and performances your child is exposed to. Make sure the values you cherish are not being undermined by your child’s entertainment and educational materials. Limiting exposure to racist material also includes limiting time with people who promote racist beliefs and behavior.
Promote diversity. At the same time, make an intentional effort to expose your child to diverse people, cultures and perspectives. You will be able to find people of all races and ethnic backgrounds who share your personal values and priorities who also have different cuisine, traditions and lifestyles.
- Look for opportunities to talk about the value of different ideas, perspectives and traditions
- Insure that your child has books with stories populated by a wide variety of people and traditions.
- Use inclusive, respectful and accepting language to avoid perpetuating harmful stereotypes
- Have more diverse people in your life and your child’s life (even if you have to arrange it)
- Help your child appreciate the experiences of people from different traditions and backgrounds by talking about what their life is like when racist people treat them as though they are “lesser than.”
Color as simply one of many differences. Emphasize the range of skin colors across people, not in terms of racial groups. This includes “white” skin.
“His skin is a deep brown but not as dark brown as your friend Colin. There are so many different skin colors!”
“People call our skin white because it is so much lighter in color but it isn’t really white. See, this paper is white. Your skin is more like very, very light brown, especially when you have been in the sun.”
Call racism what it is: hate. Expression of hatred, threatening violence, name calling or having animosity toward another person because of race or other group characteristics is hate speech. Don’t mince words when it comes to hate speech. When you hear others use it; if your child uses it; be absolutely clear that hate speech is totally unacceptable.
“A good person would NEVER say something like that!”
“I had better not hear that kind of talk from you ever again!”
“You are never to talk like that about someone like that. That is a terrible way to be!”
“They should never talk like that about someone. That is very wrong! You would be in so much trouble if you thought that!”
Ally is another word for being a decent person. An honorable person stands up for what they believe is right. Being an ally to someone treated unfairly because of their skin color is simply doing the right thing. You will be hearing and reading a lot about being anti-racist. For children, being anti-racist is not overlooking the mistreatment of someone, especially because of their skin color. As was mentioned in the column on protests:
“Everyone should stand up for what they think is right. They should speak up when they think something is wrong. There are lots of ways we can stand up for what is right. Tell people to stop when you see someone being mean to someone else. Be a nice friend to someone who is lonely. You may help fix something in the neighborhood that people have hurt/damaged. Or put up signs or write words to encourage people to do what’s right. Or, some day, when you are older, there may be something you think is really wrong. You may march with people too.”
And, then, repeat it. Repetition is one of the most effective techniques to have your child internalize values and priorities. As Sachi Feris wrote in a column on talking to your kid about white supremacy, it “isn’t one 100-minute conversation. Thankfully, it’s more like ‘100 one-minute conversations.’” Wash, rinse, repeat encouragement of inclusiveness, kindness, anti-racism, fairness, justice and acceptance.
Good luck. We have a long way to go still.
[i] The suggestions provided in this column are for families who do not experience racism. The more difficult conversation with children who are people of color about the subtle, unfair, cruel and sometimes deadly way people treat them solely because of the color of their skin is heartbreaking, shamefully necessary and beyond the scope of this column.
James G. Wellborn, Ph.D.
Dr. James G. Wellborn is a clinical psychologist with a private practice in Brentwood focusing on adolescents and families. He is an expert on motivation, coping in childhood and adolescence, academic engagement, parenting and adolescent development. An invited speaker to groups, agencies and churches on parenting and teenage issues, he conducts workshops for parents, teens, teachers and counselors on parenting teens, teenage issues, adolescent development, motivating teens, mental health issues and intervention strategies. Dr. Wellborn is the author of Raising Teens in the 21st Century: A Practical Guide to Effective Parenting. Dr. Wellborn and his wife live in Nashville, Tennessee and are the parents of two grown children and, now, of two adorable grandchildren. You can learn more about Dr. Wellborn by visiting his website at www.DrJamesWellborn.com.