Discussing Racism with White Children

While most parents and caregivers wish to raise their children to be kind and to treat everyone fairly regardless of race, children may internalize racial biases as young as two years old (Healthy Children). A common trope is for white parents and caregivers to teach their children “not to see race” or to avoid having open and honest conversations about race. However, parents who do not talk about race are likely to have children who are racially biased.

According to the American Psychological Association, “It is never too early to engage in direct and indirect communication about race and ethnicity.”

Strategies for White Parents and Caregivers Raising White Children

Children learn their ideas of race from their caregivers. Parents of white children must model positive behavior, which may first require recognizing and undoing one’s own preconceived racist thoughts, actions, and behaviors (Huffpost). Additionally, where children may not be receiving appropriate education on our nation’s history and how race has impacted the structures and institutions around us, parents must be willing to learn about the history of racism and teach it to their children in developmentally appropriate ways (PBS).

It’s important for children to feel comfortable talking with their parents about race and racism (Embrace Race). Let your child know they can come to you with any thoughts or questions, but also continue checking in with them to assess how they are feeling and what they are thinking.

Young children may begin to point out racial differences as they become aware of them. Their statements may imply bias, such as “That man has weird hair,” or be neutral, such as “That man has dark skin.” Parents may wish to hush their child to avoid embarrassment, but normalizing talking about race will help you respond in a calm, matter-of-fact way, highlighting the beauty in differences (Huffpost).

“The underlying message of pretending to be ‘colorblind’ is that Black is bad,” said Valarie A. Chavis, CEO and founder of CulturallyFluent.org. “Kids might look at me and say ‘Look at that Black lady’ and their white mom will shush them and say ‘Oh I’m so sorry!’ But I am a Black lady! I think that discomfort goes back to the false idea that anything not white is bad, so white parents are afraid their child saying someone is Black means they’re saying they see you as bad. Instead of saying ‘Yes, she is a Black lady,’ white parents teach kids to whisper ‘Black.’” (Huffpost)

Parents and caregivers can learn about appropriate ways to respond to questions that their child may ask. They should also go one step further to ask questions and facilitate conversations, themselves. Natural conversation starters can be real-world events or things that the child is consuming through media.

Parents of white children should seek out books, toys, and shows that feature diverse characters. Beyond that, parents can have a conversation with their children about what traits they value in different characters to begin a conversation about race. If a parent or caregiver notices bias in their children, they can address it early by asking questions like, “Why don’t you like playing with this doll? Why don’t you like reading this book?” When parents of white children expose them to multiple nonwhite cultures and histories, encourage them to have diverse friendships, and note the value in other cultures, then white children are more likely to grow up without experiencing racial bias.

White parents, while encouraging their children to learn about race and form cross-race friendships, should avoid “tokenizing” children of color (Embrace Race). This is equally as important for adults when forming authentic friendships and relationships in their own lives, as their children will pick up on their modeled behavior. A profound weight has been placed on the Black community to continuously be scrutinized for the color of their skin, and parents of white children should remember to not add to that burden as they navigate educating themselves on race.

Additional Information

Note that conversations about race might look different within multicultural families or families where white parents and caregivers are raising children of color. Here are some resources for multicultural families:

How White Parents Can Talk About Race With Their Children of Color, Huffpost

Image: Young children play together at a table at an early learning program in Pittsburgh.