How to Talk to White Kids About Racism

 I have found myself struggling with how to talk to my children about racism.The news has been heavy with racially-motivated crimes and acts of violence, and I have found myself struggling with how to talk to my children about it.

The challenge is multi-faceted. It is partly because it is always difficult to talk to children about scary things like people dying at other people’s hands. Yet, there is another level of despair and horror in trying to explain racism and how toxic it is in both overt and insidious ways.

My mother – my children’s grandmother – came to Canada as a teenager from Hong Kong. However, both my children and I essentially present as white. Our life experiences are informed by this and our inherent privilege. In so many ways, I don’t feel equipped to teach them about the mental, emotional, and physical violence of systemic racism because I have none of the experiences that people of color have.

Yet, because I am trying my very best to raise good, decent, aware people, NOT talking to them about racism is not an option.

Related: 10 Resources to Address Tolerance and Social Justice

Merlin Hargreaves is a member of White Nonsense Roundup, a Facebook group of about 70 volunteers mostly in North America with some in Europe. Members are white people who volunteer for four-hour shifts around the clock to monitor social media for tags, usually by people of color who are facing ‘white nonsense.’

Volunteers will then jump in on the problematic conversations and call out other white people on racist behavior, and provide them with factual resources. It’s a way to take on a small portion of the emotional labor that people of color have to face daily in their lives.

I met Hargreaves through a local parents’ Facebook group. I had a conversation with her recently about how to talk to white kids about racism, and to hear what she and her partner do with their young daughter.

Here are some of her tips:

1. Don’t pretend race doesn’t exist.

It’s problematic to say that one ‘doesn’t see color or race’ because that ignores the reality that people who are racialized have a very different lived experience than white people. Not seeing race is to not see one’s own privilege. Hargreaves says, “Not acknowledging difference doesn’t mean those differences cease to exist… And it doesn’t change the fact that POC have unique experiences different than ours.”

2. Give them the words.

One of the things that White Nonsense Roundup does is “give white people the words” to educate others help other white people come up with what they can say to intervene when people are being racist so that they can do it themselves.

Hargreaves does the same with her daughter, teaching her things she can say when she witnesses problematic behavior. “She’s five-years-old, so at this age it means teaching her to be a ‘stander-upper’ which is basically bystander intervention,” explain Hargreaves. “We speak to her about how to intervene when a friend or classmate is being bullied. Phrases like ‘stop that’ or ‘leave her alone.’ It seems simple, but it’s something kids need to be given the tools to do.”

3. Read books.

Read books that can start conversations – not necessarily about racism, but that feature people of different races and cultures. There are also many children’s books about inspiring leaders and human rights activists, like Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and Viola Desmond, and also just everyday people.

Use moments in books to ask your child about what they would have done in that situation. For instance, there is a page in ‘Viola Desmond Won’t be Budged’ where Viola is being led out of the theatre. “In the drawing, there are many white people just sitting while she is dragged out of the theatre,” says Hargreaves. “We took this as an opportunity to ask our daughter what she would have done in that situation.”

Here are a few other books worth checking out:

Love is in the Hair by Syrus Marcus Ware

Thunder Boy Jr. by Sherman Alexie

The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles

Abigail’s Wish by Gloria Ann Wesley

How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? by Jane Yolen (or any other books that simply include people of color)

Related: Sharing Martin Luther King Jr.’s Legacy with Young Children

4. Weave it into daily conversation.

Instead of sitting down and having a big heavy talk with a child, it is more digestible and impactful if messages are delivered in little bits within the context of things that are encountered in everyday life. Perhaps it’s an item on the news, or police presence at an event. Kids are observant and curious, and they will often be the initiator of the conversation if there is something they want to know about. “We also try not to self censor, and talk openly about situations with each other while our daughter is in earshot,” says Hargreaves. “Many of our best conversations have come out of her asking us what we are you talking about.”

5. Use real people as examples.

Kids understand things on a literal level. Use people you know as examples. It makes it easier for kids to relate to, especially if you are talking about children. For example, you can say “why might Sean get treated differently than you?” when talking about police violence.

6. Empower them to create change.

The goal with these conversations should be to empower children to create change and to be an ally to people of color. Use examples of things they might say, and ask them how they might respond to a situation involving their friends. Encourage them to look around their own community each day for small ways they can get involved: joining support rallies, making signs, and coming up with chants are fun to do and give your child an opportunity to be involved in her community.

“When our daughter was three years old, we brought her to a Black Lives Matter tent city, where a friend of hers was protesting police brutality with her dad. We helped make signs, hand out umbrellas and put down cardboard to keep people warm. She still remembers it, and we can use it as an example of helping people fight for her rights.”

7. Be honest about your own feelings.

You don’t have to pretend to be infallible. Be honest about your own feelings of sadness, anger, frustration, and confusion. Talk about the injustices and how you want to help. Talk about how racially-motivated crimes are affecting your mood. It is useful for children to see adults working through difficult feelings in a healthy way.

Model taking action yourself. “Join in when there are calls for volunteers or marchers, and talk to your children about why it’s important for you to do this,” says Hargreaves. “All of this goes to raising the sort of kind, compassionate thinkers we need.”

One thought on “How to Talk to White Kids About Racism”

  1. Thank you for your thoughtful article. As a teacher, I feel these things should be handled by the parents in the home and your values are passed to your children. After a certain age, perhaps the school can involve itself.

    I recall a teacher showing a film about Ruby Bridges to her second-grade class. I do not recall what preliminary lessons the teacher used leading up to the film, but some of the class were traumatized and they feared that something could happen to them. The racial mixture of the class was 10% black, 60% white, 30% latino. The teacher was Italian. This was a religious, private school. The parents complained, and the film was not shown again. The children were counseled by an outside source, not sure about who or what that was. The situation was handled – apparently, not enough preparation for the lesson for the children to understand.

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