Race, Kids—and the Peril of Silence

I grew up white. My family did not talk deeply or sensitively about race at home.

Whiteness is the default identity in mainstream American culture. My white 7-year-old son doesn’t have to search for characters or heroes who look like him—they’re easy to find. Unless his awareness is brought to bear on race, he doesn’t have to think critically about it.

This whitewashing goes deeper than entertainment. Because history is written by those in power, many of the historical figures we learn about in school are white and male. American schoolchildren like my son proudly recite the words “all men are created equal,” not aware that by “all men” the Declaration of Independence meant white, land-owning, adult Christian males of certain means and educational level. The poor, the uneducated, the indigenous, people of color, non-Christians, and every woman were left out of that vision of equality. It was no error when President Obama, addressing the Democratic National Convention in July 2016, revised that line to “all of us are created equal.”

American schoolchildren learn a handful of names, largely during Black History Month, meant to exemplify the contribution African Americans have made to this country. The majority of those figures, such as Harriet Tubman or Martin Luther King, are put in the context of slavery and the civil rights movement to illustrate how racism has been overcome, and President Obama is pointed to as proof. In this way, white Americans are not encouraged to even discuss racism as a contemporary problem.

Many white Americans may have been raised to believe that not acknowledging race was a liberal, unprejudiced attitude and an aspirational way of being. “I don’t see skin color,” I’d sometimes hear my mom say when I was a child. “People are people.” This creates an air of exceptionalism, as in “sure, the world may be racist, but I’m not racist.” It doesn’t grapple with structural racism or locate the white speaker as existing within a system of hierarchy. It also doesn’t acknowledge racist “jokes”; my dad and his friends cracked these jokes when gathered around the grill at summer picnics, beers in hand. In the context of humor, this was fine. Just like, in the context of personal safety, it was okay to glare at the black youth who walked down our suburban street and prepare yourself for trouble. This wasn’t racism either, I was taught—it was “common sense.”

All of this is to say that it’s a challenge on many levels for white Americans to figure out how to talk about racism to our kids, when our personal and cultural background has given us the privilege of “humor” or silence. Yet, we must—because that silence equals complicity and that humor equals erasure.

The women’s movement of the sixties and seventies demanded that men question masculine norms and think critically about their roles in the patriarchy—an ideological shift our culture is still experiencing. So too is the Black Lives Matter movement showing white Americans that they must talk about racism and their role within a historical set of circumstances, attitudes, and systems meant to benefit whites, which result in oppressing people of color.

For many white Americans, this isn’t a comfortable discussion to have. But it shouldn’t be comfortable, and that lack of comfort is okay. White people are passively, if not actively, contribute to our country’s racial problem, and it’s very tough to confront your own failings. But it’s also confusing because I think white Americans are not quite sure how to begin talking about it. For those who prefer staying quiet on topics of identity or for those who like not to say anything until arriving at some sort of conclusion, it’s a daunting task.

But it’s a task white parents can’t shy away from or defer to their kids’ schools to do in their stead. I am committed to raising a son with a deeper sense of racial awareness than I have, with a more critical, questioning mind, and without the same blind spots and prejudices. My blind spots and prejudices exist because my baseline for thinking about race was established in an almost entirely white elementary school and during childhood evenings sitting through the latest episode of Cops, hearing my dad and grandmother jokingly exchange racial slurs. As an almost 40-year-old living in New York City, I have no close black friends, despite having had plenty of opportunities to make them through work and school and around my neighborhood. My critical framework on race and white privilege is still very much in development, and I am in many ways not living the values of diversity and equality in which I believe. I hope for something different for my son.

So, how do white parents talk to their children about race? Here are a few thoughts:

First, it isn’t one talk. It’s an ongoing conversation, the terms of which will change as your child ages. My son is 7, so at this point, our conversations are blunt, and the topics huge. Why have we never had a black president before Barack Obama? What was slavery? Why do some people not like others because of their skin color? Why do people have different skin colors? Isn’t it sad that some white people think it’s okay to treat badly those who look differently from them?

Race is a topic that you can’t wait for your child to address; you should tackle it head on. We’ve listened to the news and discussed current events at the table for my son’s entire life, but he doesn’t participate without encouragement. In part, it’s because the terms, names, and concepts confuse him. But our hypersensitive son is also reticent to weigh in on a topic for the fear of getting it wrong. He takes our educating him as correcting him, which I can understand—learning about prejudice in the world and in yourself can feel like a moral reprimand even for adults. So, my wife and I have begun directly asking our son to talk out his thoughts on our conversations around race. We try our best to gently but firmly ask him to think critically and with compassion about privilege and whiteness and to verbalize those thoughts so that we may further guide him. We’re grateful that we can harness the luxury of this slow and sensitive approach; we don’t have to fear the police might aggress upon or jump to lethal conclusions about our white boy. And we’re also reading about how to talk with him, using resources like this excellent list by the organization Border Crossers.

We’ve made sure that our son consumes culture in which people of color play a part, and that he’s not just purchasing toys with white faces. We also talk about the race of characters he sees on TV to point out the lack of diversity in certain shows or movies. We’re seeking out books that feature characters of color in roles on par with white characters doing normal, everyday things and in ways that deal smartly, sensitively, and more directly with race. This is hard, given his young reading level and the white-centric selection available at bookstores, but this list at We Need Diverse Books is a great place to start.

We’re modeling our engagement with race and educating ourselves about white privilege. My wife and I discuss the Black Lives Matter protests, and we seek out culture that features diverse casts and addresses race (current obsessions on this front: Ta-nehisi Coates’ Black Panther comics, HBO’s The Night Of, Paul Beatty’s acclaimed novel The Sellout). On social media, I follow people of color involved in the current cultural conversation around race and identity and think deeply about their posts. I discuss all of this with my white wife and my white friends, and I make no effort to lower my voice or shield my son from overhearing frank conversations about the terrible imperfections of our world. I want him to see that there’s no shame in admitting you’re part of the problem as long as you’re willing to grapple with the issues and ask the tough questions of yourself to help solve it.

Even with the work I’m doing, I’m open to the fact that I’m still wrong, not sensitive enough, and blind to prejudice. But I have to put aside my fear of making a mistake as I try to make myself better. I cannot sit quietly and let other people do the hard work for me or place the burden of educating myself and my son upon others. As difficult as it is to talk about race with our little ones, staying silent feels like a much greater wrong. I want my son to come from a place of deeper compassion and self-awareness than I have. Where he goes from there, I can only imagine. My hope is it’s toward a country of greater and more equitable opportunity for those who have historically had less than the people who look like me.

Share your thoughts.

Let’s keep our discussions reflective, productive, and welcoming. Please follow our Community Guidelines and understand that we moderate comments and reserve the right to delete comments that don’t adhere to our guidelines. You must sign in or sign up to comment.
  • Charity Wakamau

    Thanks an ocean for your in-depth article.As an African living in Germany, deeply sensitive to those unspoken words,l really admire what you are tackling and the fact that you are sharing it.I wonder how l should talk about race to my grandchildren,or to other mothers and grandmothers with my racial background?

  • Matt

    continuation

    It is an on-going dialogue we have with our children I always want to be well set for. I have actively sought out black and Asian colleagues at work and hear their stories and sometimes I get to share in their lives. I think the death of Stephen Lawrence in London some 23 years ago and the campaign for justice sought by his mother has brought about some very positive changes in attitudes to black (afro-Caribbean children) here and has been a really boon for our children. But as a society in the UK we seem to fail to learn and are less tolerant of Asians (Indian/Pakistani/Bengalis) and most recently of Eastern Europeans (so it’s not even a colour thing).
    I wish you well my friend. You are a credit. You know, one year we cut our Christmas cake late, very late. It turned out to be Martin Luther King Day (not a holiday here at all or one we were familiar with). Once we realised, we saluted MLK and ate cake. The next year we did the same and read a
    speech. And we have done the same each year. It was very hard work some years, our children did not always take it seriously and I got angry (so much for peace). These days, the kids don’t want to miss it. If they are away they Facetime in; and our friends and their (white) friends want to come round to. As parents, we are putting dots on the page but little by little the picture takes shape; and we keep on, so in time, even the bad dots don’t show.

  • Matt

    Brian, I really enjoyed your article and applaud what you are doing.

    I am white from a stable middle class family, university educated (and a thinker/introvert). I am married, to my wife of 25 years, who is black, from somewhat more chaotic working class family, left education at 18(and a talker/extrovert). Clearly, none of these things make her any less a person, although some might think so. She is a wonderful wife and mother to our 3 children.

    So I guess for me, I never wanted ‘black’ to be a negative in our family or for my children. No matter how ‘white’ or white they are, we knew society will always see them as black. So, we have celebrated every aspect of who they are and validated the choices they make (e.g. academic or vocational educational paths; music; fashion; friends; campaigns they support). I have sought to educate myself reading the works and becoming familiar with the lives of prominent and influential black and Asians. Martin Luther King, Steve Biko, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Mary Secole (I use some good stuff we have on the TV here in the UK as well as films like Mississippi Burning, Cry Freedom Schindler List and latterly Grand Torino to test and re-test my own prejudices).
    (I ended up writing quite a long reply and have split it in 2 to post it all)

  • I’m glad more people are having this conversation. I appreciate the honesty of the author in stating that he has no close friends who are black, and that his discussions are with his white wife and white friends. But is it enough to follow people of color on social media? There’s a lot of “talking” here, which is good… but where’s the follow-through, the action? Having these conversations among ourselves, as white people, is circular and ineffective. We need to take a seat and LISTEN to people of color, and then find a way to live what we’ve learned.

  • Marlana Sherman

    Thanks for writing this! Very thought-provoking.

  • newscaper

    I hope you’re equally concerned about the snowballing trend in media, particularly tv, film and commercials (worst offenders by far) to take fairly showing some diversity way overboard and going to the point of intentionally marginalizing white boys — apparently the plague of dad bashing isn’t enough..
    Worst offender recently, the two GE commercials featuring the woman building jet engines. First one, with multiple versions, has parents with a teenage taking the plant tour. We have the full on grrl power in STEM thing going on, with the boy shown as functionally retarded. A later ad has her at home where we see her shaming her own husband for lack of manliness because he’s a software guy and not a wrench turner like she is.

  • Mo86

    “Whiteness is the default identity in mainstream American culture.”

    So what?

    And why do only white families have to talk about race? Especially these days, when most of the racism is AGAINST whites? This is appalling!

    ” My white 7-year-old son doesn’t have to search for characters or heroes who look like him—they’re easy to find. Unless his awareness is brought to bear on race, he doesn’t have to think critically about it.”

    So? Why should he? Only racists are obsessed with race and think in terms of race. Children don’t even think that way!

    That’s as far as I read. I am disgusted to find this sort of thing on a site that has nothing whatsoever to do with race.

    And before I start getting called names, no, I am not white. Not remotely. So, save it.

  • Laura

    Sincere, honest and thought-provoking. One of the most well-written and open reflections I’ve ever read. Thank you for adding to the conversation this way.

  • Weston

    Thank you, Brian. Although saying thanks to you seems to be a very measly gesture of gratitude for such a deep, brave and humble outpouring. I am an avid reader but have seldom seen anyone other than people of color speak openly about the issues of race in this way. Likewise, Jon Stewart should be enshrined in greatness for using his platform as one of the most famous people in the nation to speak in a similar way about race and white privilege. FYI, I am a 37 year old black woman living in Houston Texas but raised in rural Alabama. I grew up in a region where race was perhaps even more prickly than some other parts of the country. Historically, Alabama, Georgia and Mississipi carry an unfavorable reputation (even now) as being one of the few unenlightened places in the nation and for good reasons, despite me having an indescribable love for my home state. For now, that is neither here or there, the present is where we all find ourselves and I agree with your approach for encouraging dialouge about race with our young people. My hope is that your blog post will have tons of comments but I will settle for viewers to simply read it from beginning to the end.

  • Jones Mereu

    Very honest and ennobling read. Kudos.

  • Michael Gurley

    The problem we seem to have is the approach to the conversation, and not simply the conversation alone. And part of that conversation needs to happen where emotions and anger can be understood, but not feel threatened by the violence that can exist as a result. I can write about my experiences and memories from the 50’s and 60’s, but those people of color that are my friends, neighbors and worship with me at church are the long term victims of hundreds of years of oppression and not just what is going on today. It can not be resolved in a single conversation, or even by a deadline on some calendar. It will be generational changing, years in the making.

  • Quiet Revolution

    How do you talk about race with your children (or your loved ones)?

    Talking about race isn’t easy—but we carefully chose to speak up about it because it’s critical to discuss how our racial identities intersect with our natural temperaments. If you choose to voice your thoughts, please have an open mind and speak kindly. Thank you for respecting our shared space. We plan to explore other intersections in the future, so stay tuned!