White parents can’t possibly tackle racism or instill anti-racist values in our children if we aren’t ourselves doing the work. This means that as parents, we need to already be actively engaging with and acknowledging our own privilege, dismantling our own racism, and listening to and learning from POC before we can be remotely successful at teaching these skills to our kids.
In other words, anti-racism needs to be a way of life for white parents if we want to pass it on to our children. Kids aren’t going to respond to a lecture about anti-racism if it’s treated like the kind of one-time, awkward, sit-down conversation no one wants to have about drugs or sex.
To be clear, the fact that I’m writing about this doesn’t mean I’m the poster child for White Allyship. I mean, I’m qualified to talk about it because this is a conscious way of life for me and my family, but, like all allies, I fuck up. I’ve been gently called in and not-so-gently called out, and that’s not fun, but it’s how we grow and learn. It’s also helped me to understand that, as a white person, it’s best to defer to people of color when it comes to issues of race.
But white people must also speak truth to power, which means that as a white person, part of my responsibility in dismantling white supremacy is speaking to other white folks about our part in that process. As a white parent of white children, I believe that teaching our children about privilege and justice is some of the most important work we can do with our kids.
Talking about racism is a heavy subject, but there are plenty of ways to make these conversations work for kids of most ages. A five-year-old is not going to grasp colonization like a 14-year-old would, so approaches to such discussions vary.
For instance, when Thanksgiving, Columbus Day, or MLK Day come around, I briefly explained the holidays, what they represent, and the injustices surrounding them to my five-year-old in a fact-based, open-ended way. These conversations with my tween and teen, on the other hand, have evolved into more in-depth discussions that include more thought-provoking questions, like, “Why do you think the U.S. still celebrates violent colonization on Columbus Day?” and “Do you think most white people revered MLK during the time of the Civil Rights Movement? How do you think that compares to white people’s current perception of the Black Lives Matter movement?”
Everyone knows their kids best. There is no concrete timeline as to what approach is best at what age. But all kids can handle some conversations about race at almost any age. The earlier you start, the easier the more complex conversations will be.
Here are some things white parents can do in their effort to raise anti-racist kids:
1) Make Sure Your Kids Aren’t Isolated
If you live in white suburbia and your child’s experiences begin and end there, well, you’ve got an uphill battle. Jesse Williams once said, “It’s so hard to relate to things you can’t relate to. By the way, if you don’t live around Black folks and you just watch TV, you’re gonna be racist. . . . it’s a mathematical equation: you and media and a fake-ass history system that makes you believe that white people created any of this, makes you think that Black people ain’t worth a damn. That’s the way the algorithm works.”
That probably just made some folks bristle. No one wants to think they’re racist—especially just for passively living where they happened to grow up.
The reality is that even if we didn’t personally construct or condone it, we still live in an intentionally white supremacist nation. And internal biases—and yes, even racism—are a part of that. If we can’t even admit out loud that we are actively working against our own racism, we’re failing.
As white people, we are either working with—or working against—our racism. Racism isn’t limited to being an active skinhead. Racism is broader and more nuanced than that. Once we come to understand that racism includes more passive things, such as internal biases (the false stereotypes and prejudices that we believe about people), we can better grasp our own racist tendencies. And while these more subtle forms of racism may seem benign, they’re not. They are the energy that fuel white power structures and systems.
Considering how deeply isolation and racial separation affect our ability to understand or “other” each other, it’s important for us to consider our inputs. Thinking about whether we and our kids are reading work by authors of color, what kinds of media we are consuming, and whether they reflect the true, lived experiences of POC are great places to start as we explore new ways of expanding our perception of the world.
2) Talk Openly with Your Kids About Privilege and Racial Disparities
My kids know that their skin color is the most privileged in our world. They know that their whiteness increases their chances of receiving better jobs and better pay, and they’re aware that they’re less likely than their friends of color to be randomly stopped by police or thrown in jail for minor offenses.
My kids know about the school-to-prison pipeline and how their school resource officer plays a part in that. They moan as we drive by the business sign that reads, “We support our police officers” on our drive to school because they know that saying Black Lives Matter doesn’t mean police officers’ lives don’t. They know that advocating for Black Lives should not be a divisive “us or them” statement, and they feel irritated when they see this ignorance openly displayed in their community.
My kids know these things not because we had a single lecture about privilege but because of the ongoing conversations that we have in our home, on car rides, and after movies about race, racism, and privilege.
We talk about the election, the results, what the divisive rhetoric around Trump’s platform means, and how these things impact society. We talk about how their fears around Trump’s impending presidency compare to their friends’ fears and how their worries are more pronounced than some of their family members’ and why that might be.
We discuss the latest news of police shootings of unarmed Black people and how that fits into our country’s historical oppression of POC. We explore what has changed over the past four hundred years, what hasn’t, and what obligations the most privileged hold around all of it.
There is fodder for conversation everywhere. You don’t have to look hard at all. I teach my kids anti-racist values the same way I try to combat the fear-based sex ed our schools teach—by actively seeking out ways to start these conversations, pointing out how some things that are reflected in entertainment or media might be perpetuating negative ideas or systems, and making sure that my kids feel comfortable talking to me about these things.
Through these conversations, we’ve explored the concept of whiteness, the history of it, and the violence associated with it. Colonization in the United States and across the globe is something that is important to explore when talking about racism because it shows how pervasive this central system of power is in our world. Racism isn’t an isolated concept that is unique to the United States and its own history. Rather, racism exists within an even larger historical power structure. Coming to terms with that is important for understanding not only the foundations of racism in the United States but also why it continues to be a persistent and prevalent problem.
My kids feel sad that they and their peers of color aren’t treated equally in a white supremacist society, but they feel neither defensive nor in denial. The sooner kids interact with the concept of privilege, the more likely they will be able to understand and interface with it as a matter of fact rather than react against it in a misguided attempt at self-preservation.
3) Take Them to Racial Justice Rallies and Events in Your Community
Kids, like the rest of us, need ways to see how these issues are affecting people in real life, especially in their own communities.
In my community, Black Lives Matter (BLM) is active and usually open to white allies supporting most of their events and actions. Sometimes actions are specifically intended for POC only, and white folks should always check in with their local chapters and affiliated events to be sure that events are open to allies before jumping in.
Showing up for Racial Justice (SURJ) is a quickly growing ally organization with chapters in many communities centered on helping allies understand how to work in solidarity with racial justice organizations like BLM.
Of course, when talking about kids and rallies, safety is an important consideration. Last summer, my community was planning a BLM rally that received numerous social media hate messages and threats from white supremacists in the weeks leading up to the event. Because of the threat of violence, I chose not to bring my children with me to that rally. I felt affirmed in that choice when gun toting people in trucks decorated with large American flags followed through on their threats and circled the park where we gathered. Fortunately, the hundreds who had gathered remained safe, and aside from the emotional toll, there were no physical injuries or altercations.
But despite my kids’ physical absence from that space, the conversations around the event about the threats and intimidation offered lots of examples of the kinds of hate and ignorance that we are working against. My kids (and I) were shocked that there were people in their own community who would so viciously enact what felt like a throwback to the Jim Crow era. And our white shock and awe was, in itself, a cause for pause and conversation. Something that we have realized during this election cycle is that white people are pretty much the only ones who are so bowled over by this seemingly “newly” emboldened overt racism.
Rallies aren’t the only places you can show up with your kids. My middle child attended a recent forum on policing and community relations with me, where he listened to neighbors tell some intense and painful first-hand accounts of the kinds of disparate treatment from public safety officials that contributes to their mistrust of police officers. Those stories matter, and they have more impact on their audiences than sterile news stories.
4) Make Sure That What Kids are Learning in Their History Classes Lines up with Historical Reality
I’ll never forget the time years ago when I attended a Thanksgiving performance at my kids’ elementary school. I wavered between beaming pride at their musical participation and internal turmoil over the celebration of the white domination over land and humanity. I squirmed because I’d squirm anyway but also my children’s school was mostly attended by students of color. And it perplexed me to no end that a predominantly Black school could make such an error in choosing to narrate a performance with “blessed to have this land” and “gratitude.” I wanted to hurl at all of the omissions of fact and truth we were all supposed to just sing over until it felt just fine.
A few weeks later, I volunteered for my then-Kindergartner’s school-day holiday celebration. The kids rotated through different stations to learn about the various holidays that were celebrated during the season. There were stations for Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa. As the kids rotated through my station, where we worked on a craft, I kept hearing my child’s aide read a story about Kwanzaa in the background. I kept hearing her say something about “South America,” which was confusing, but it wasn’t until the last group of kids went through that I had time to sit down and listen to what she was saying.
“Kwanzaa is a celebration of African heritage. Africa is a country found in the continent of South America. . . . Kwanzaa’s flag represents the flag of the country of Africa because, like America, all countries have their own flags.”
You wish I was kidding.
We all probably already know that the social studies and history lessons that our kids are learning in school are white-washed, but the insensitive and inaccurate “facts” my kiddo learned in that first year of public school were mind boggling.
Of course, I addressed these issues with both the school and my child. From then on, I started asking my kids about the ways that certain historical issues were discussed in their classroom. We deconstruct things like the trouble with the glorification of Columbus, the implications that come with confining Black history into single month, and what it might feel like to have the historical reality of the atrocities that were done to your people glossed over in history lessons.
5) Help Them Be Politically Involved When They Are Ready or Express Interest
Some kids are going to be more politically wired or fueled by their passions around justice issues than others. The more politically and socially active you are, the more your children will want to join in and the earlier they will seek out ways to independently work on these issues themselves.
This past election cycle, I volunteered for a local candidate who I was extremely passionate about. For many months, I added juggling work on his campaign with the rest of my work and obligations. And when it worked out, sometimes my kids would come with me to canvas, especially because it was the only way we were going to spend time together with my busy schedule.
One evening, as my teen and I pounded the pavement for several hours after school, he asked if he could volunteer more for the campaign. I suggested he talk to the campaign manager, who eagerly asked me if she could set him up as an intern from then until election day. “Of course,” I said. From then to election day, if he wasn’t in school, he was at the campaign. He worked so hard, in fact, that people couldn’t believe he was only in high school. He was, as they say, “hungry.”
We need to be ready to help feed the eagerness in kids who are ready to get to work.
6) Be a Parent Your Kids Can Talk to Openly
Talking about justice and racism is best done in conversations, not lectures. Make these conversations a natural part of your everyday discussions. Weave race and justice into things you’re already talking about, like what happened during the day, what your kids discussed in class, what you heard on the news, or that racist bumper sticker you both just saw.
Trust building is a big part of making sure that kids will want to talk openly with you about race. How do you react if they say something that might be considered offensive? Do you instantly correct and shame them, or do you try to ask them questions that might help them figure it out, themselves? If they casually try out an inappropriate racial slur because that is what their Black friends say at school, do you freak out and yell, “DON’T EVER SAY THAT AGAIN, THAT’S RACIST”? Or do you gently explain why their Black friends may say that but they never should?
The way we react to their words and the space we give them to process things affects how receptive our kids will be to these (and most) conversations. Leave room for dialogue. Make a comment and let it linger. Ask questions. Do it over and over and over until your kiddos are comfortable having these uncomfortable conversations with you.