White people across the United States have spent the past several months waking up to a reality that people of color have long since known: Systemic racism is still a daily reality, white supremacists are feeling increasingly emboldened, and white people are inherently privileged.
As adults, many of us are finally trying to play catch-up by talking with each other about these issues and educating ourselves on how to be not just “not racist,” but anti-racist. But we shouldn’t just be talking with other adults about these issues; white parents also need to be talking with their white children about their privilege.
Why the conversation needs to happen
Dr. Erin Pahlke, an associate professor of psychology at Whitman College, tells me something many of us already know: Too many white parents take on a “colorblind” ideology. That is, if we don’t talk to our kids about race, the kids won’t notice differences in race, and therefore they will grow up to be unbiased adults. The problem with this is that children do notice race from an early age and they’re making their own inferences about race based on what they see around them.
And families of other races are having these conversations, even if white families aren’t.
“We know that particularly in African-American families, folks are talking to children about race and about discrimination and preparation for discrimination and things like that,” says Pahlke, whose research focuses on how children and adolescents form their views of race and gender. “There really is a clear divide in terms of what research suggests that, depending on the race and ethnicity of the parent, the ways in which they’re addressing race with their kids. And for many white families, they’re just not addressing it.”
It’s that lack of talking about race that can send a message—not about inclusivity, but that race is not something that is to be discussed in their family.
Start with the concepts of “fairness” and “advantage”
“Privilege” is an abstract enough concept that many adults have a hard time defining it or identifying it when they see it, let alone kids. But a concept that little kids do get on a visceral level? The concept of fairness.
“They care about fairness a lot,” Pahlke says. “And so, pointing out examples where things aren’t fair and how race is involved in those examples of unfairness, is a solid way to start with kids when they’re in early to mid elementary school.”
As kids get older, you can segue from the concept of fairness into conversations about the inherent privilege one receives when they’re not the one being treated unfairly—specifically that this unfairness creates an advantage for white people.
“It’s important to have a conversation about white privilege that focuses on the unearned benefits,” Pahlke says. “I think, psychologically, that can be difficult for people to grapple with. It’s easier to talk, in some ways, about discrimination than about the privilege that has been associated with it. But I think that’s also important in terms of talking to kids.”
That doesn’t mean every accomplishment by a white person is unearned, nor does it mean white people never struggle. But it is, as Teaching Tolerance Magazine points out, a “built-in advantage, separate from one’s level of income or effort.” And Tara Brancato, a teacher and Anti-Racism Project facilitator, explains it this way to HuffPost:
“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,” Brancato said. “It’s the first undeserved reward that white kids get by virtue of their skin color: 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.”
Point out examples of their own privilege
As you have these conversations with your kids, provide them with specific examples of the advantages they have. For example, white children have the privilege of learning primarily about history featuring their own race and culture—with maybe a brief break in February to learn a bit about Black history. White children can easily find dolls with their own skin color, Band-Aids that match their flesh, and plenty of representation in any media they might consume, including TV shows, movies, books, and video games.
White children also have access to higher quality education, they’re less likely to be harshly disciplined in school, and they’re likely to earn more than their peers of color when they enter the workforce.
Possibly one of the greatest privileges I have as a white parent is not needing to have a conversation with my son about how to stay alive if he gets approached by a police officer; but I damn well should (and do) talk to him about the conversation that parents of color have to have with their kids. He needs to understand that being a 10-year-old child who does not have to fear encounters with police officers is a privilege many of his friends do not have.
If you’re not sure where to start on this topic, you can watch this video with your kids:
Current events also provide plenty of examples of racism and white privilege, and we should seize on the opportunity to point them out. (A certain photo of a certain white man who was able to storm into the U.S. Capitol Building with an almost entirely white mob, sit at a desk in Nancy Pelosi’s office for a photo op, and then make it back out alive comes to mind—just for starters.) When you see something timely that illustrates this, it’s an opportunity to enter back into the conversation.
And while talking about all of this is great, your actions will always speak louder, especially when it comes to your kids. So you need to be modeling anti-racist behavior. Do that by speaking up when you witness an injustice or hear a racist joke. Donate to or become involved with organizations that aid marginalized groups. Build relationships with diverse groups of people. And continue to learn about and acknowledge your own privilege.
And finally, keep at it
I’ve had many conversations with my 10-year-old about race and racism over the years. But it’s only within the past year that I’ve realized I need to begin the work of teaching him not just about the unfairness and prevalence of racism but about his own privilege as a while male in this country.
As someone who grew up in a predominantly white suburb and primarily talked about or learned about racism when it came up in school during Black History Month, I am not practiced at this. I am still educating myself about systemic racism (an education I expect will last indefinitely). So I have, admittedly, stumbled over my own words from time to time, as I try to discuss these issues in ways that will resonate with my son.
There is no perfect blueprint here, but you don’t have to be perfect at it—you just have to keep trying. And sometimes, Pahlke says, a misstep you make during one conversation gives you a good reason to continue the dialogue into another conversation.
“If you say something in a way that isn’t quite what you meant, or they misinterpreted or something like that, then you’re able to continue the conversation,” she says. “I think part of this is seeing it not as, ‘Oh, I have one shot’ … but as a continuing conversation.”
Plus, she points out, we are modeling for our kids that having conversations like these within the family are not just okay, they are encouraged.