Hard Conversations: How to Talk to Kids About White Privilege

“Mommy, who is that?”

My preschooler asked me this last May when he noticed me staring at Ahmaud Arbery’s headshot in my Instagram feed. I froze up.

I thought, how do I even begin to explain to him that this young Black man was killed by white men in broad daylight while he was jogging?

Close to tears, I fumbled my way through an answer, which went something like, “This is Ahmaud. He loved to run. Some men hurt him because his skin was darker than theirs. It was a very bad thing to do. And it makes me feel angry and scared.”

My son’s face fell. I could tell he was upset and confused. We hugged and talked a little more until his attention shifted. Mine hadn’t. This wasn’t our first talk about skin color or even racism, but I knew I needed to do more to educate myself and empower our white family to disrupt racism.

In the weeks that followed, the entire nation’s attention was drawn to another senseless murder: George Floyd had suffocated to death under the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis, igniting Black Lives Matter protests across the United States and around the world.

My grief—over George’s death and the deaths of too many others due to racism, that racism was more pervasive than I realized, that it had taken me far too long to wake up—overwhelmed me and catalyzed action. With humility, I committed to supporting BIPOC-led organizations and to antiracism education, including journaling through Layla Saad’s Me and White Supremacy.

 

My grief—over George’s death and the deaths of too many others due to racism, that racism was more pervasive than I realized, that it had taken me far too long to wake up—overwhelmed me and catalyzed action.

 

Working through Saad’s journal prompts made me uncomfortable. She showed me that an awareness of my white privilege and of white supremacy was critical to understanding why racism persists. What’s more, I could use that knowledge to dismantle white supremacy.

Saad defines white supremacy as a “racist ideology that is based upon the belief that white people are superior in many ways to people of other races, and that therefore, white people should be dominant over other races. White supremacy is not just an attitude or way of thinking. It also extends to how systems and institutions are structured to uphold this white dominance.”

I wanted to pass on what I was learning to my 3-year-old, but I wasn’t sure where to begin. 

Here’s what the experts advise when it comes to teaching kids the harmful effects of white supremacy and how to disrupt it.

 

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“None of us are born fully conscious of systems of oppression or our own privileges and unconscious biases.” – Excerpt from #MeAndWhiteSupremacy ••• One of the reasons why anti-racism is life-long work is because white supremacy is life-long conditioning. It happens before we’re even fully consciously aware of it, and it is reinforced directly and indirectly throughout our lifetimes. It’s okay that you didn’t know. What’s not okay is coming into awareness or being made aware, and then choosing to keep your eyes closed anyway. That moves you from being unconsciously ignorant, to intentionally ignorant, and purposefully choosing to uphold white supremacy. White supremacy is designed to keep people with white privilege unaware of their privilege. But once you’ve had the experience of coming into awareness (and honestly, even just watching the news will give you awareness), it’s time to do the work. ••• Get your copy of Me and White Supremacy at www.meandwhitesupremacybook.com, or click the link in my bio.

A post shared by Layla F. Saad (@laylafsaad) on

 

Start with our common humanity and beautiful diversity

Beverly Daniel Tatum, a psychologist, and author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? recommends parents work against white supremacy—the false notion of racial hierarchy where white people are more valued than People of Color—by talking to kids from infancy onward about appreciating and valuing human differences.

“Children need to understand that the idea of ‘race’ is a made-up idea, made-up in part to justify the treatment of People of Color,” Tatum said. “If you don’t think of Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC) as equally worthy human beings, it is easier to exploit and mistreat them. There is really only one race: the human race. Though there is lots of variation in how people look on the outside, on the inside we are all the same. No group of people is inherently better than any other group of people. The people who think so are wrong.”

Books and television shows or movies that center and celebrate BIPOC families are critical to your children’s education, said Ramon Stephens, executive director of The Conscious Kid, an education, research, and policy organization dedicated to equity and promoting healthy racial identity development in youth. Unfortunately, due to racism, diverse media is not yet the default. Stephens recommends parents audit their family’s media consumption and make adjustments so it better reflects the diversity of our world. 

 

Books and television shows or movies that center and celebrate BIPOC families are critical to your children’s education.

 

All the Colors of the Earth by Sheila Hamanaka, All the Colors We Are: The Story of How We Get Our Skin Color by Katie Kissinger, and Antiracist Baby by Ibram X. Kendi are great investments for your home library. The Conscious Kid offers a myriad of resource lists to its Patreon community as well. 

One exercise Tatum recommended parents employ to teach this concept was to show your children two eggs, one that is brown and one that is white. “You can explain that they look different on the outside, but if you crack each open you can see that they’re the same on the inside, just like people,” she said.

 

Discuss fairness and unfairness with young children

The phrase “white supremacy” is an abstract concept for young children and best introduced when kids are in middle school, Tatum said. However, parents can lay the groundwork for understanding with early conversations about fairness and the unfairness of racism.

Young kids can recognize “the unfairness of giving someone more goodies (benefits or privileges) just because of their light skin or giving someone a harsher punishment for the same bad behavior just because of their darker skin,” she said.

 

The phrase ‘white supremacy’ is an abstract concept for young children and best introduced when kids are in middle school. … However, parents can lay the groundwork for understanding with early conversations about fairness and the unfairness of racism.

 

“The idea we talk about with our kids is it’s a set of rules that was set up a long time ago to give white people [unfair] advantages,” Stephens noted. “We’re pushing against the psychological and racial bias that really stem from these rules that were put in place.” 

Jennifer Harvey, a professor and author of Raising White Kids, suggests using descriptive language with young children to help them understand what they see. For example, you might share with your kids that, for a long time, certain rules prohibited Black or Latinx people from buying houses in some areas and now, as a result, neighborhoods are segregated. Parents should be clear with children that white people are the beneficiaries of the unfairness that we call racism, Tatum added.

You want to impress on your kids that such unfairness isn’t right, Harvey said, and then counter it with a statement of your family’s values such as, “We believe everybody has a right to thrive.” 

 

Source: @scottystyle

 

Have the hard conversation

So, what happens if your younger child hears someone referred to as a “white supremacist,” say on the news? Harvey said it’s imperative parents partner with their kids in age and developmentally-appropriate ways to answer their questions.

Tatum offered this script: “A white supremacist is someone who believes that white people are better than other people and for that reason thinks that white people should stick together, live together, go to school together, and keep People of Color out of those spaces.” You can then stress that this is wrong and your family believes that people of all skin colors should live and work together in harmony.

Children who observe conversations about or media detailing excessive police force against People of Color may have other questions for parents. Jenny Potter, a co-host and producer of the antiracism video series, “The Next Question,” recalled that, while she watched coverage of protests following George Floyd’s death, her 6-year-old son wondered who George was.

“I remember hearing that George had a 6-year-old daughter—his daughter doesn’t get to be protected from this story,” she said. So, Potter told her son the truth; that George was a Black man killed by a police officer. Her son then asked if the officer who killed George was white. When Potter answered yes, she said she could see the innocence leave from his eyes. 

Harvey affirmed that what’s happening is scary for adults and children alike, and children need trusted adults who want to make sense of the world alongside them. She suggested parents can supplement hard conversations with statements such as, “Everybody deserves to be safe when they are with the police; we are going to be part of a multiracial movement so this must stop.” 

Potter and her family later participated in a Black Lives Matter protest to show their support.

Other questions will come up, especially as families actively pursue antiracism education and action. Even though it may feel awkward, ongoing open dialogue with your children about race, rather than silence, is key. 

 

Even though it may feel awkward, ongoing open dialogue with your children about race, rather than silence, is key.

 

“You’re gonna make mistakes … that’s a natural part of the process,” Stephens added. “Remember there will be gaps in knowledge. Even with folks of color, because white supremacy is so embedded in our culture.”

“I try to remind myself I don’t have to have the perfect answer,” Harvey said. “Most of us can come back to [the conversation] a few hours later and say, ‘I read something else and I want to share. I didn’t know how to explain it, so I found this book.’”

Parents of older kids can check out Facing History and Ourselves for middle and high school curriculum to equip themselves for conversations with their mature children addressing the harm of white supremacy.

 

Disrupt white supremacy together

Because white families receive many privileges due to racism, it is especially important for them to speak out against that unfairness, Tatum said. At the same time, no matter their racial group, children need to be able to recognize the unfairness of racism, name it, and speak up against it, she added. 

Stephens has observed that it’s powerful and important to name white supremacy because “power maintains itself by disguising itself.” When families learn to see through the disguise and recognize unjust rules and attitudes, they can work together to identify and disrupt racist power.

One exercise Stephens and Tatum suggested for families is to audit their environment and discuss discrepancies. Ask: who lives in your neighborhood? What resources are available there? Is the curriculum at your school diverse or Euro-centric? If Euro-centric, are you advocating for change? For white families: are People of Color part of your friendship circle?

 

Because white families receive many privileges due to racism, it is especially important for them to speak out against that unfairness. … At the same time, no matter their racial group, children need to be able to recognize the unfairness of racism, name it, and speak up against it.

 

“It’s important for parents to know that even if they live in predominantly white spaces they can find ways to engage their kids about racial justice,” Harvey said. She recommended parents check out Integrated Schools, which equips white families in the segregated enclaves to take a different approach to education.

Harvey and Potter suggest families glean inspiration for action by looking toward visible examples of people challenging racism in the past and present. This shows kids that it’s “a normal and good thing to do that people challenge racism when they see it,” Harvey said. 

Harvey also suggested parents plug into and answer calls to action of BIPOC-led organizations such as the NAACP. They could join also antiracism groups in their place of worship or community center. Kids may enjoy hosting a physically-distanced lemonade stand or bake sale to raise money for an antiracist organization such as the Equal Justice Initiative.

Potter encourages families to come up with an antiracism plan together. “What are the ways your family will learn, advocate, and engage with the ongoing work of racial justice? What traditions will you start? Maybe every Black history month/Juneteenth/Asian American Pacific Islander month/Indigenous Peoples Day, you do something,” she said. “Put those dates in your calendar. Plan for it.”

 

 

Your actions speak louder than words

A crucial piece of advice I picked up while in my research is that parents who want to raise kind, antiracist children must keep doing their own antiracism work

“You have to do your own training,” Stephens said.  “You can’t teach what you don’t know.” Parents need to commit to ongoing education and action. Pushing against white supremacy isn’t one talk, it’s a long-term commitment, he stressed. 

Fortunately, children learn best when they observe parents in action, Tatum said. When your children see you learning or even speaking out against a racist remark at, say, a family gathering, they will take note. 

 

A crucial piece of advice I picked up while in my research is that parents who want to raise kind, antiracist children must keep doing their own antiracism work.

 

At times, the ubiquity of white supremacy in society today may feel overwhelming and disheartening, but as families who value a just society, we need to remember that it is vital we participate in the longstanding fight for racial justice. 

Also, we don’t do this work in a vacuum. If you’re looking for extra accountability beyond involvement in an organization like Showing Up for Racial Justice, Potter recommends linking up with other families to form an antiracist cohort. 

The joy of this work is that it is incredibly healing for all involved. For BIPOC families, in particular, Stephens said, “us naming inequity as part of our lives has a healing effect on our bodies.”

According to Harvey, white families doing antiracism work also “start to experience the ways our own liberation and freedom is bound up in the freedom and liberation of Black and Brown people in this country. I’m not gonna banter away my two white kids’ humanity for the sake of their innocence. I’m fighting for their humanity by letting them be equipped for this moment we’re in.”

Maybe the question we face when confronting white supremacy with our kids isn’t “How do I begin?” Perhaps it’s actually, who will we be? Will we passively accept an unjust system or will we actively disrupt it for the greater good of our society?

I know my answer. How about you?

 

Additional Resources for Parents and Children

 

For Parents:

 

For Kids:

 

Read More: 18 Kids’ Books to Help Start a Discussion About Race

 

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