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What Should White Kids Be Taught About Race?

iStock_000005155982SmallIn an open letter to parents of white children, Huffington Post writer Jennifer Harvey called out white parents everywhere on our anemic approach to teaching our white kids about race.

The problem isn’t our intentions, which are often good. It’s our fear of saying the wrong thing and our lack of momentum towards saying anything at all. Harvey is a college professor, and her experiences with white college students confronting race head-on for the first time has shown her what a poor job parents are doing communicating with their kids about this important subject.
Harvey writes:

Dear Parents of White Children, I vote that we strike the following from our parental lexicon: 1. “Everybody is equal.” 2. “We’re all the same underneath our skin.” I realize this is counterintuitive. But I’m completely serious. These statements are so abstract they’re mostly meaningless when handed to a 7- (or even 17) year-old. That’s at best. At worst, they’re empty filler — stand-ins for the actual conversations about race, racial difference and racism we need to be having with our kids. Sugar when our kids need protein.

While Harvey is addressing parents, and is writing from the perspective of being a white parent with white kids herself, the message applies more broadly. Everyone who has a close relationship with white children, as a parent, teacher, caregiver, or friend, has the opportunity to communicate with kids about race.

Parents certainly have the most influence, but we all share messages; even our silence speaks volumes about how much race matters and what we can do to work against racism. So if we’re done telling our kids that everyone is equal and we’re all the same (a move I resoundingly agree with!), what should we say instead? There are no easy answers, but here are a few suggestions from my social media network:

  • Look at race in TV and movies. Talk about what the heroes and villains look like. Who are the secondary characters? How is appearance used to give you cues about what a person will be like? Is that how people really are, or are these stereotypes? How might stereotypes be harmful?
  • Talk about differences between your child and their social peers. One reader said, “How might your non-white friend’s experience of the world be different from yours? Why is that important? How would you feel if people teated you differently? What are the things that you take for granted that non-white people can’t?”
  • Tell kids directly and clearly that race matters, and that racism is real. As a reader on Twitter responded: “people will tell you that race doesn’t matter, but some people are treated badly because of their race, so it matters”
  • Be clear that racism is a systemic problem, and one we can do something about. So often we focus on “racists” as bad actors, but racism is often perpetuated by people who mean well and simply haven’t thought critically about how their actions or words will impact people who are different from them. As that same awesome tweeter wrote, “Sometimes people can say or do racist things without meaning to. It’s still hurtful, and you should still say sorry.”

Dealing with white kids and race is hard. I’ve been doing it as a parent for 11 years, and longer than that as a teacher and caregiver. I’ve had clear intentions and good support from a diverse community that whole time.

And I’m still messing it up. I can provide dolls in a wide array of skin colors, but it’s a struggle to get the kids to play with the darker-skinned ones. When we sit together, we read stories and watch movies about heroes and princesses and regular people from every race, class, culture and gender I can lay hold of, but when the kids make their own choices they watch Phineas & Ferb on repeat.

It’s a work in progress to make my kids – who have one white parent and one Latino parent – aware of race and their role in ending racism. And as with all big, important topics, we make missteps. The great thing about parenting is that you *do* get a do-over. You can come back the next day, or the next week, and again the next year, and say, “Look, race matters. We need to talk about this.”

It’s not a conversation to have once, but over a lifetime. And like all these lifetime conversations, what matters as much as what you say is that you keep the conversation open, so that your kid can trust you to hear tough questions and look for the answers together.

For more great writing and resources about talking to kids about race, you should rush over to the Love Isn’t Enough blog. It hasn’t been updated in awhile, but the archives are amazing.

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