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The Myth Of The Perfect Time To Discuss Race With Your Child

I’m a Black mother and my 5-year-old stumped me with a question recently. He asked me, “If I’m mixed with mom and dad, which half of me is Black and which half of me is white? Is it my head or my feet?” Talking to kids about race is hard. Talking about racism is hard. Many white parents who were activated after George Floyd’s murder or after the attack on Jacob Blake are asking themselves very real questions about how to dismantle racism starting from home and when to have these conversations with their children. I’m here to tell you the hard truth: The answer is now and always.

Change does not always happen incrementally, but in big, overnight leaps, as we have seen through the summer of 2020 (though decades of organizing create the framework for any progress). There exists a whole oeuvre of internet articles specifically explaining how to talk to kids about these issues. The violent death of a Black person compels parents to find a way to talk about police violence and racism, but many of those parents are still waiting until their child is “old enough” or until a “better time” presents itself. This approach simply isn’t going to work. Parents need to talk about race early and often to support kids in fighting racism. Whether your child is a newborn or a 14-year-old, now is the time to talk about race — let me explain why.

Racial biases form at an early age, showing up in studies led by University of Toronto Professor Kang Lee as early as 6 months of age. Lee’s team found that babies show racial preference toward members of their own race and have indicated bias against people of other races. He hypothesizes that a lack of exposure to other races is the main cause — 90% of the people that infants usually interact with are people of their own race — offering the possibility that reducing or mitigating bias in those early months can be done if the parents’ circles are diverse.

The idea of a 'right time' to talk to your kids about race is a symptom of white privilege.

Just last month, a new study from the American Psychological Association (APA) found that waiting too long to talk to your kids about race may actually make it more difficult to correct misconceptions and, even more important, that kids are ready to talk about race long before their parents think they are. Parents believe age 5, on average, is the right time developmentally to have the first conversation about race, but the study shows that kids have the capacity to process social and racial dynamics much earlier than that.

“There is a myth that a parent may damage a child in some way by talking to them about racism,” says Sarah Harris, LMFT, a family therapist and registered play therapist (RPT), who argues that these conversations can in fact heighten kids’ emotional intelligence, build confidence, and encourage critical thinking. Doing so, she adds “models for your child how to have difficult conversations [and] helps to give words for much of what they are already observing in their world.” The idea of a “right time” to talk to your kids about race is a symptom of white privilege. Not only is it a disservice to kids to wait for them to broach the subject while they struggle with these issues internally, but starting these conversations can easily be done.

The first time Niko Bialek, a white parent who is co-parenting with a non-Black POC (person of color), spoke to their child about race was when she was 2 days old. “She was born the Saturday before Martin Luther King Day, and on Monday, my partner put on the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in the hospital,” Bialek says. “I don't remember exactly what we said to [my baby], but I was glad for the opportunity to tell her what we were fighting for: equity and safety for Black people.”

How many of your child’s school teachers are Black people? How many of them are white? How many of them follow an outdated method of education that does not include a critical view of colonialism and systemic racism and bias?

While watching Black Panther earlier this week, Imani Chapman, an afrolatina parent, found herself discussing one scene in particular with her 6-year-old daughter. As the story in the film goes, the now-exiled royal family of King T'Challa seeks assistance from the Jabari Tribe. Agent Everett Ross (a CIA agent who is white) has accompanied them. Each time he begins to speak, the Jabari begin to bark.

Chapman’s daughter asked, "¿Por qué están haciendo eso?” (Why are they doing that?)

"Porque no quieren que hable y es su lugar." (They don't want him to take up space and it is their home.)

"Hm," came the response.

While Chapman did not mention the word Black or white, she knows that her daughter intuited that the dynamic was about race and power. They’ve had enough conversations along these lines for Chapman to know her daughter, upon hearing the words, "It's their place/spot/home," understands they are now talking about a world in which Black people, Black royals, can determine what happens in their environment. And that world is fictional.

Do the characters in your books look like you and your child? Are the stories being told only a reflection of a certain identity that is similar to yours? Photo credit: wundervisuals/Getty

Once you commit to anti-racist parenting, there are many windows to talk about race with your children. Some examples are:

  • The first time you really think about your child’s school teachers. How many of your child’s school teachers are Black people? How many of them are white? How many of them follow an outdated method of education that does not include a critical view of colonialism and systemic racism and bias?
  • The first time your child interacts with the police. Are you framing police as a body that protects them or as foot soldiers in a racist system that harms and kills Black people? For Black parents, talking to our kids about racist policing is necessary from an early age to save the lives of our kids. Tamir Rice was 12 when he was shot dead by police while playing with a toy gun. Black people are required to teach our children that police will assume guilt, assume bad intention, and assume that what they are doing could warrant our deaths.
  • The first time your child has friends over to your home or goes on a playdate. How many kids of color, particularly Black children, are close enough to your child to be in their inner circle? This isn’t an opportunity to talk to your child about being sure to make friends with Black kids. This is an opportunity to talk to them about why none of their close friends are of any other racial identity and the systems set up to keep segregation in place.
  • The first time your child notices someone else’s skin color. This may be in public around the person or in private. Either way, this is an opportunity to ask them questions and listen to what they think about skin color and what they’ve learned from their community about differences.
  • The first time you notice if Black people are living freely in your neighborhood. Have you examined if your neighborhood is homogeneous? If you are surrounded by white people, you may not notice this. If you’ve never taken the time to notice this, now would be a good time to reflect on how many Black people are existing, living, walking, jogging, shopping in your neighborhood without being stared at, looked at twice, and harassed by police or by white people.
  • The first time you notice the race of the majority of people in your child’s life. People tend to spend time with others that they have the most in common with. You may notice that you tend to hang out mostly with family, and maybe your family is all white. You may notice that all your parent friends are white and, by extension, your dinner parties, Halloween parties, barbecues are all made up of white people.
  • The next time you open up a book to read your kid a bedtime story. Do the characters look like you and your child? Are the stories being told only a reflection of a certain identity that is similar to yours? Children’s books expose kids to new facets of life, especially during this pandemic when kids are homebound. Are you using this opportunity to introduce your little one to different backgrounds and experiences?

This list is by no means exhaustive. Once you start to notice and seek out these opportunities, more will become obvious to you. If none seem apparent, then you have to create them. A fundamental part of this journey is committing to your own internal education and unlearning around racism. It’s an ongoing process because, especially for white parents, there are decades of systemic racism and oppression to address and dismantle.

Dismantling systemic racism with children takes hard work and commitment. The discussions can be difficult and you won’t have all the answers — but don’t shy away. Be prepared to listen without judgment. And, most importantly, be prepared to see it through when it becomes even more difficult or when your life tries to de-prioritize racial justice work. It’s up to you to stick with building an anti-racist home and ensure that you’re raising kids who know that it is their responsibility to dismantle racism not only in the future, but in the here and now.

#OneAction To Take Today:

The Brooklyn Public Library is hosting a workshop for parents on Sunday, Oct. 4, called The ABCs of Racism. Today, commit to making time on your schedule to attend. It’s at 7 p.m. ET, so aim to get the kids to bed early so you can give it your undivided attention.

For more resources on talking to your kids about race and racism, there are actionable steps you can take to start these discussions and lots of guidance available.There are ample resources to provide guidance for you in your family life and lots of tips to get started from a young age.

Previously: How Can Learning Pods Be Equitable? They Can’t.

Raising Anti-Racist Kids is a bi-weekly column written by Tabitha St. Bernard-Jacobs focused on education and actionable steps for parents who are committed to raising anti-racist children and cultivating homes rooted in liberation for Black people. To reach Tabitha, email hello@romper.com or follow her on Instagram.

Studies referenced:

Naiqi G. Xiao, Paul C. Quinn, Shaoying Liu, Liezhong Ge, Olivier Pascalis, Kang Lee (2017) Older but not younger infants associate own‐race faces with happy music and other‐race faces with sad music. Developmental Science, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/desc.12537

Naiqi G. Xiao, Rachel Wu, Paul C. Quinn, Shaoying Liu, Kristen S. Tummeltshammer, Natasha Z. Kirkham, Liezhong Ge, Olivier Pascalis, Kang Lee (2017) Infants Rely More on Gaze Cues From Own‐Race Than Other‐Race Adults for Learning Under Uncertainty. Child Development, https://srcd.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/cdev.12798

Sullivan, J., Wilton, L., & Apfelbaum, E. P. (2020). Adults Delay Conversations About Race Because They Underestimate Children’s Processing of Race. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication, http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/xge0000851

Expert:

Sarah Harris, licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT), registered play therapist (RPT), founder of SG Therapeutic Services