Whether you choose to acknowledge it or not, white privilege is nothing new and in fact has been around for centuries. The recent spotlight on police brutality and systemic racism has a lot of people wondering what they can do to help break the long-enduring cycle going forward. For many, that involves teaching future generations to have better values, and that means having some difficult conversations with your kids. In order to bring about change and fight injustice, white children need to understand that they live in an unfair system, and one which is likely to benefit them at the expense of others. We’ve found a few tips that could help you out when you’re figuring out how to talk to your kids about privilege and race.
Why is it important to talk to white children about race and privilege?
“Black families discuss race because it’s necessary for survival in a culture that is systemically built to make whiteness the default. White families often don’t discuss it because they have the privilege not to,” Tara Brancato, a teacher and Anti-Racism Project facilitator told Huffpost.
Brancato argues that while white parents may avoid tough conversations about race in order to save their children from the anxiety, discomfort, and trauma, children of colour – whose reality forces them to have these conversations – are spared none of those.
“We set white kids up for privilege right off the bat: We allow them to be innocent at the expense of someone else’s trauma. It’s the first undeserved reward that white kids get by virtue of their skin colour: They get to be kids first and white people second. Black kids have to be both simultaneously, whether their parents want them to remain innocent of race or not.”
We’re by no means saying we all need to traumatise our children, but it’s important that when opportunities to discuss race arrive, we make use of them in a constructive manner.
With all that’s going on in the world, information about racial injustice, police brutality and anti-racism protests are coming at us from all angles and on all our devices. Kids are going to hear things and have questions. Parents are now uniquely positioned to equip their children with valuable information about the world they live in in a way that feels less confusing and stressful.
How should we do it?
1. Start early
According to Heather Greenwood Davis, writing for National Geographic, children recognise race and skin colour from as young as three years old. From that age, their race become an integral part of their identity and they’re not afraid to ask questions about it.
“Race is relatively simple to address when a young child notices skin colour for the first time,” Writes Davis, “Racism is understandably harder to talk about. Few parents would consider themselves or their children racist, with its connotations of intentional, angry, or mean behaviour against different groups of people.”
But intention isn’t always part of racism. That means that though people don’t intend to cause harm, they may still be making decisions based on their race and the race of the people around them. Making children aware of this, and encouraging empathy and compassion from an early age is the first step to raising anti-racist children.
In addition to talking about it openly, parents need to ensure that, from day one, their children are being exposed to toys, books, and media that promote and celebrate diversity and not only white, blue-eyed Disney princesses. Have a look at your library at home (whether that be books or DVDs or even Youtube playlists) and see if any patterns pop up. Then try to introduce more diversity that deviates from those patterns and turns the notions of what neighbours, friends, heroes and princesses should look like on their head.
“If you are sincere in a desire to build anti-racism into your kid’s values, you start as early as possible,” Brancato told Huffpost. “The same way you wouldn’t say you value teaching your kids to be honest and then have your first conversation about honesty when your child approaches puberty, you don’t delay conversations about race and privilege if you want your kids to grow up anti-racist.”
2. Educate yourself first
It should go without saying, but you can’t have a discussion about something if you don’t really understand it yourself. If you’re reading this, you probably already understand that and have started doing the legwork.
There’s a plethora of great literature out there that can help improve our understanding of systemic racism, implicit racial biases, and our own microaggressions. Read and learn, and then share that with your children, perhaps in bite-sized, easy to understand packages.
There’s no need to pretend to have all the answers either. Talking to kids about privilege is hard partly because it’s hard to talk about in general, with people of any age. Use this as an opportunity to learn and grow together.
3. Watch out for statements that link race and value judgements
When your kids point out differences between peoples’ races, as in “that lady is different from me because she is brown,” just agree with them.
“It’s not racist to notice someone’s race,” says Caryn Park, a professor at Antioch University in Seattle, whose research focuses on children’s understanding of race. “An unwillingness to acknowledge her observation might send the wrong message to the child.”
The problem doesn’t lie with children noticing difference, but parents do need to listen out for any value judgements that children may be associating with those differences. If you hear your child expressing prejudicial ideas – which they obviously might not recognise as such – engage them in conversation about it.
You can help your child work through stereotypes by responding to any problematic statements by asking open-ended questions such as “why do you think that?” or “what makes you say that?”
4. Describe privilege and racism in terms of fairness (or a lack thereof)
According to Caroline Bolgona, writing for Huffpost, “young children may not know the words ‘privilege’ or ‘racism’ yet, but they can understand the concept of fairness and unfairness. And there are many opportunities to break it down to them in those terms from an early age”.
Describe what “unfair” treatment based on skin colour might look like in their environment and in their age group. No doubt they’ll encounter it, so get them aware of it as early on as possible by explaining it using age-appropriate examples.
Beverly Daniel Tatum, a psychologist, and author of “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” uses the following examples to describe how to do this:
“Imagine a conversation like this: What if every afternoon I gave your brother two cookies for snack and I only gave you one? And I did that day after day after day,” Huffpost quotes Dr Tatum. “Would that be fair? No, it wouldn’t. Or what if you did something wrong, and I took away your favourite toy as a punishment, but when your brother did exactly the same thing, I didn’t take away any of his toys. Would that seem fair? No, it wouldn’t.”
“But racism is like that,” she continues. “Racism means some people are given extra benefits/privileges just because they are white, and other people are given less just because they are Black or brown. It means some people are treated harshly when they make a mistake just because they are Black or brown, but when white people make the same mistake, they don’t get the same kind of punishment. Sometimes they don’t get any punishment at all. That is very unfair.”
6. Discuss your own privilege
It’s important to be open and honest about how privilege has shaped your own life, and the life of your children. Talk about your own mistakes, and help them realise what they have that others may not.
You could work through privilege checklists as a family, or talk about the fact that so many of the characters and heroes they see on TV are white. You can ask your kids what they can do to make sure the age-old cycle of racial injustice doesn’t continue on their watch.
Talking about your own privilege doesn’t only bring it closer to home, and make it relatable for your kids, but may also make them more aware of their own privilege and encourage rectifying injustices caused by it from an early age.
7. Don’t make talking to your kids about race and privilege a one-time event
Most importantly, talk to your kids about privilege often and openly. Create a safe space in which they can express their feelings about the issues as often as they need to.
Davis says you don’t need to set up a scheduled “race talk” hour, but can let these conversations happen naturally by paying attention to your child’s statements and any bias that may slip in.
“For instance, if your child notices a commercial that lacks cultural diversity, chat with him about how the ad could be more inclusive. If your tween is wondering why there aren’t any Black people on Friends, engage with her on what might make the show more representative,” she says.
These conversations can lead to fruitful discussions that can help your child examine the world around them more critically and develop anti racist views.
It might seem like you’re doing them a favour by waiting until they’re older to talk about such serious topics, but Park insists that underestimating children’s abilities to comprehend the issues that surround race and privilege would be a mistake.
We become the information we absorb, and introducing your child to antiracist sentiments and understanding of the issues from a young age by talking to them about race and privilege will improve their critical thinking skills, and help them grow into more empathetic and compassionate adults. And really, it’s pretty clear that that’s exactly what the world could use more of.