In Part 1 of this story, I addressed the concept of why it’s important to talk to our children about racism. I specifically addressed white adoptive parents of black children. The truth is, I feel strongly that all parents need to talk to all of their children (no matter their race) about racism. If we are going to change racist attitudes and behaviors, it will take action – and that includes explicit teaching. This video, Traffic Stop, has haunted me since I saw it months ago. It underscores the fact that our unconditional love, alone, cannot protect our children. Within the safety of our homes, we must teach our children and have regular discussions about racism so when they are on their own, they will be prepared.
Okay, so it’s important, but what do we do now? I had a conversation with a friend, Rachel Galbraith, another white adoptive mom. She worded my own feelings so perfectly. Rachel shared “how imperative it is that we teach our beautiful children how this world works. If they lived with their biological family, they would be learning this [about racism]. Ask any black parent what they are teaching their children. They are the source we need to turn to because they know!” Some of the simplest advice I got was from some of my black friends. I have compiled their thoughts with my own in a short list:
How To Talk to Your Children About Racism
1. Teach your children what racism is.
According to Dictionary.com, racism is defined as “a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human racial groups determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to dominate others or that a particular racial group is inferior to the others.”
For simplicity, I break racism down into two types: blatant racism and subtle racism. We need to teach our children about both.
Blatant racism is easy to teach because it is concrete. Younger kids will understand it more clearly, and discussing it is a really good place to start. Blatant racism includes conceptional ideas like slavery and segregation, but also includes specific acts and events.
Subtle racism, on the other hand, encompasses attitudes that are less apparent. Because it’s not so obviously racist, it can create a great amount of confusion for children. For example, when referring to riots, an agitated white co-worker asks her black co-worker, “Why do you guys always do that?” Subtle, and wrong.
I recently saw a documentary about Jackie Robinson. His wife mentioned that they experienced a lot of subtle racism when they moved into a predominantly white neighborhood. She felt it was a far more dangerous racism than what she grew up around because it was unpredictable. When we see it or hear it, it’s good to point out to our children why it’s wrong so they can start identifying blatant and subtle racism themselves.
2. Teach your children what racism isn’t.
In our attempt to be proactive, let’s remember that our children will face a lot of negative situations as they grow up, and it won’t all be about the color of their skin. If they don’t get picked for the kickball team, it may not be because they’re black—it could be because they aren’t good at kickball. Not everything will be about race and, especially as kids get older, they will need to distinguish the difference on their own.
3. Be honest.
Racism is evil, but lying about it won’t make it go away. Certainly we want to protect our children, but we should never hide truth. Be honest, even when it’s uncomfortable or painful. Our kids are strong, resilient, and deserve honesty. All children will be judged about something, and if you have black children, they will be judged based on the color of their skin at some point. It would be advantageous to them to understand attitudes that some people still have, why they have them, and what others in the black community have done to combat such attitudes.
4. Use age-appropriate language.
Be mindful about your child’s age and maturity, and teach for understanding. When Callie was younger, I didn’t use the term “racism.” As we read a children’s book about Rosa Parks, the author didn’t use the term “racism” either. However, using language that a young child would understand, Callie grasped the idea of what was clearly wrong during many parts of the Rosa Parks story. When people were on the streets, upset about the Trayvon Martin case, I explained to my first grader that they were upset because a young African American boy was killed. I left out details that I felt were unnecessary . . . details that might have been disturbing to her. She understood the situation, the sadness of it, how it would fuel anger, and maybe most importantly, how I felt about it.
5. Look for teaching moments.
Sometimes the most effective teaching opportunities are the small, unplanned moments. We may have a great conversation all planned and ready, but then at an unexpected moment a short discussion is sparked that sticks for life. For example, recently my daughter was watching “The Prince of Egypt.” I felt a moment and took it. I asked her what was going on. She understood that the Jews were slaves. “When was there another time in history when there were slaves?” Her eyes lit up as she understood the connection.
While I had her attention I tried to slide in a quick lesson. “There’s always been slavery, prejudice, and racism, even in the Bible. It’s sad that some people believe that they can treat other people that way, just because they are different. But we are all made of the same stuff on the inside. No one is better than anyone else just because they believe something else or have different skin color. That’s not how God wants us to treat each other.” That was it before my time was up, and I left it at that. It was fast, simple, and reaffirmed a lesson.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of current events that can help you teach your child about racism. Use current events as a tool so our kids not only know history, but know what they are facing today.
6. Teach your child how to stand.
No matter what race they are, I worry about the safety of our children. But I especially worry about young black boys who will grow to be adult black men. How do we keep our children safe? We teach them to stay clear from the bully, how to seek appropriate help, and when to stand up for themselves. Unfortunately, for some black men the lines can be blurry. Who is really there to help? Who will really protect them? When is the right time to let racism roll off your back and when is the right time to stand up? These judgment calls can be very confusing, but we can teach our children how and when to appropriately use their voices and stand up for themselves.
Standing up against racism can be big: signed petitions, picket lines, and confrontation. But standing up against racism can be done in our daily words and actions. In fact, it should be done this way. I believe there are some people who make racist statements but are not racists—or at least they don’t know it. Some may not agree with me on that, but I don’t believe it’s all or nothing.
What I do believe is that subtle racism has seeped into the minds of so many people that they’ve developed thoughts or beliefs without realizing what they even mean. The good thing is that these beliefs are stuck in their minds; they have not infected the heart, and so when they are shown the right way, the can more easily change. These people – our friends and family – often don’t realize what they are saying and how it hurts our children. As my friend, Terra Cooper, has said, “People do better when they know better.”
Our families can be a strong or gentle source of helping others know better and start doing better. I love this clip of Melissa McCarthy on Ellen. Not only do I love her and think she’s a rock star on screen, I love how she thinks and handles herself. Here, she addresses how she handled a situation of sexism. It was done with so much class as she used her voice to personally teach someone else and create a ripple effect of change. This man had his own moment of clarity when he realized what he was saying was wrong.
We can coach our children to change racist beliefs that have seeped into the minds of their friends, teachers, classmates, co-workers, and maybe even family members. But they need to know how to appropriately stand for right. It would be appropriate for us to not only discuss, but even role play these potential situations so our kids have their own plan on how to help teach others they meet.
7. Lovingly, always have your child’s back.
Whether you personally understand the feelings of racism or not, our kids need to know that their parents always have their backs. If your daughter is sick of the kids touching her hair, don’t blow it off. Talk to the teacher to get support. If your son tells you he is called “Blackie” at school, back him up. This is different than being called a jerk, and you need to have your kid’s back. It won’t always be comfortable, but this isn’t about YOU. It’s about your child(ren). Or, maybe it’s about YOU ALL. Think of it this way, you aren’t white parents with black kids. You are a transracial family. And your kids need to always know that they will always have the support of their parents. Always.
Maybe the most important step is to start. I’m a believer that it’s never too late . . . for really much of anything. Talking about racism with your child may feel uncomfortable and overwhelming, but it’s better to have discussions too late than never at all. Just as we gently shelter our children, we can gently broaden their vision and help them slowly gain an understanding of their world. It doesn’t have to be difficult, but we do need to start.
Join the conversation and share your experiences. How have you talked to your kids about racism?