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The importance of talking to children about race and racism (including your own)

When parents and other adults are silent about race, it communicates apathy or approval of racism, even if that’s not what adults intend.

By early childhood, young children are reasoning about race and their social world and developing a moral understanding of fairness and unfairness, equality and inequality with input from those around them. Young children perceive much more than we realize: Research shows that infants as young as three months show racial preferences that grow into racial discrimination by elementary school without intervention.

Gail M. Ferguson
Gail M. Ferguson
In a recent study, my team and I surveyed about 400 white mothers in the Minneapolis metro area in the month following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. We found that a majority of respondents were racially silent, making no mention of Floyd’s murder or its impact on their home or community in response to an open-ended question about current events affecting their family.

Among the parents in the study who did mention Floyd’s murder or the unrest, most mentioned race in a vague manner but did not point out longstanding racial injustice in U.S. policing. Only 17% of white parents in the study used color-conscious or power-conscious language or parenting strategies, meaning that only they directly acknowledged race, racism or Black Lives Matter in discussions with their children.

These study results showed that most white Minneapolis mothers surveyed avoided discussing Floyd’s murder or systemic racism with their children, despite the high-profile event happening in their community. When parents and other adults are silent about race, it communicates apathy or approval of racism, even if that’s not what adults intend.

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Importantly, the study also found that white parents’ own level of racial identity development was closely linked to how they socialized their children. The subset of parents who used color-conscious and power-conscious parenting showed more advanced white racial identity development than other parents based on their responses. In other words, it appeared that white parents parented their children around race only up to the level of their own maturity in handling racial information.

Self-reflection + courageous parenting

So what can parents, especially white parents, do to help their children become antiracist? The findings from this study suggest a two-pronged solution: active self-reflection to develop a healthy white racial identity coupled with courageous antiracist parenting.

A white person has a healthy white racial identity when they are fully aware of systemic racism, acknowledge their own racial privilege and role in perpetuating racism, and are committed to self-reflection, self-education and other antiracist actions. White parents seeking this personal growth can join a local chapter of an antiracism organization or use an antiracism workbook.

The other prong of this solution is for white parents to explicitly acknowledge race and racism with children. One common misconception is that having conversations with children about racism will make them racist, when in fact the opposite is true. Such conversations are essential to giving them the skills they need to detect and challenge their own biases and the biases around them.

Adults teach children about concepts like fairness and unfairness and justice and injustice, but these lessons often happen in the context of abstract conversations at home or at school. Children need real-life examples to deepen their understanding of these concepts in relation to race and racism.

White parents can use everyday experiences and events in the media to provide children with concrete examples of justice and injustice, accountability, and antiracist action. They should also engage children’s empathy by humanizing victims of police brutality and racism. Mr. Floyd was someone’s father, son, brother, friend and neighbor, and white children need adults in their lives to help them imagine how they would feel if he had been their father.

If you are new to conversations around race or racism, it also can help to make a plan about how to have a discussion with your children. Short, frequent conversations that occur naturally during teachable moments work better than having one long discussion about the topic.

Race matters in the United States because racism still exists. Parents, especially white parents, can play a role in addressing racism because of the power and privilege they hold in our racialized society. Taking time for honest self-reflection and explicit conversations with children about race and racism (including your own) is, in and of itself, an important act of antiracism.

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Gail M. Ferguson, Ph.D. is an associate professor in the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, where she directs the Culture and Family Life Lab

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