8 Rules For Talking To My Kids About Race

by Sabrina Joy Stevens

I’m a Black woman married to a white man, and together we’re raising two multiracial kids. We’re also committed to leaving society better off than we found it, and steadfast in the desire to raise our children to do the same. Knowing how to talk to kids about race isn’t optional for us, so we’re always working towards and finding better ways of doing it.

I know not everyone is faced with the necessity of that particular conversation, at least not in the way my family is. I know that, for many families, conversations concerning race aren't considered "vital" or "important" or, sadly, even worth while. I also know that my kids will spend a lot of time with people who are not me (or my partner) over the course of their lives. I wholeheartedly believe that most people they’ll encounter will be good-hearted, well-intentioned people who want to do and say the right thing when they’re in the presence of children (or adults, for that matter). However, intentions and inevitable impacts are two different things, especially when we’re dealing with fraught subjects like race. I'm not above realizing that it's really easy for even "good" people to get things really, really wrong, and I won’t lie: it freaks me out to know that many people my children will encounter will inadvertently teach them unhelpful, inaccurate, or damaging things about race.

So, with that in mind, and recognizing that there is so much more I could say on the topic if I had unlimited time and not, you know, a toddler, here are eight things I hope folks will keep in mind if they ever find themselves talking to my kids about race:

Acknowledge That Even Though Race Is A Social Construct, It Still Has Real-World Implications

Money is a social construct, but I doubt you’d ever suggest that we could or should pretend it doesn’t exist so we don’t have to deal with its effects on our lives. The same goes for race. The fact that race is not a biological reality, doesn’t change the fact that we have all been born into a society where people are grouped according to race and treated differently based on dominant assumptions about people who share their race. We have to be honest about that if we’re ever going to change it.

Do Not Suggest That Our Family Is “Proof” That Race Doesn't Matter

No, skin color doesn't define a family, and yes, it's great that it's now legal for my husband and I to be married and that families like mine are becoming more common and more socially accepted. However, our existence doesn't mean that our society is anywhere close to being “post-racial.” People sometimes assume I'm my son’s nanny, or openly flirt with me while I'm holding hands with my husband, or walk between me and my stepdaughter when we're trying to navigate public places together. That’s because, as “colorblind” as certain people claim to be, they nevertheless fail to read people of different skin colors as being a family, even when we're doing the same things all families do in public. My children are aware of all of that. You saying otherwise dismisses their experiences and could needlessly confuse them, despite even your best intentions.

Don't Promote The Idea Of Being “Colorblind”

In addition to being impossible (even people who are medically classified as being actually colorblind can detect race) it's not a good thing to be “colorblind,” unless you think there's something wrong with color. Please don't suggest to my children that there's something wrong with them for seeing and acknowledging differences. In my home and within my family, we’re working hard to make sure they appreciate the differences among people, because difference is a good thing. Definitely don't suggest to them that there's something wrong or shameful about themselves, or about me, for having plainly observable color. That’s what you’re doing when you promote the idea of being “colorblind”: you’re essentially suggesting that whiteness is normal or ideal, and that people should all strive to see or be seen as white. That’s not OK.

Please Don't Use Food, A Crayon Or Other Silly Metaphors To Describe My Skin Or My Children’s Skin Color

Seriously, it's just weird. My son is not any kind of candy and I'm not some cup of coffee,and none of us are interested in hearing any and all cutesy permutations of chocolate you can come up with. We are people. Just talk about us as people.

Don't Suggest That Racism Is A Thing Of The Past

Every day we are confronted by more evidence of how race continues to affect how people are treated in every aspect of life. Please don't be one of those people who pretends Martin Luther King Jr. "fixed" racism in the ‘60s, when we can all see Black folks being killed live on Facebook. That's not helping them understand the world so they can be safe in it and make a difference. That's just adding confusion to an already confusing issue.

Don't Suggest That Time Will Fix Racial Injustice, Or Any Other Social Problem For That Matter

Time doesn’t oppress people, so time can’t liberate people, either. People are the ones doing the oppressing, so people have to be the ones who will work to stop it. Social progress is the result of determined people working and organizing for change, and I'm raising my kids to be those kinds of people. Messages that suggest “it's only a matter of time before things get better” or “for kids like you, this won’t even be a problem,” lets our generation, and my kids' generation, "off the hook" and free from the obligation to actually do the work necessary to make those aforementioned statements true. Instead, talk to them about how people can work to unlearn implicit bias, rebuild social and governmental structures, and change unjust laws and policies.

Chill Out If They Use Racial Descriptors Or Notice Racial Identities In The Course Of Normal Conversation

There's nothing wrong with noticing difference. Don't make my kids feel like there is. If they notice something about someone, or ask a question about something that references skin color or race, just respond calmly and factually. One of the biggest barriers that keep society from overcoming racial injustice, is the fact that so many people believe that even talking about or mentioning race is somehow "taboo." Having to unlearn that is really hard work, but it's worthwhile work, I can assure you.

Don’t Press Them To Explain Their Racial Identities, Or Their Experiences With Race, To You

If they feel comfortable enough to talk to you about any part of who they are, honor their trust by listening and by being a calm, honest, and empathetic conversation partner. However, if they haven't said anything about it to you, don't put them on the spot or task them with explaining their identities (or anything else about themselves or our family) to you. My children exist for their own purposes, not to satisfy your curiosity or educate you. Don't objectify them in that manner.