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.