Why White Parents Need to Talk to Their Kids About Racism
By Cory Silverberg*
Photo © rawpixel / 123RF
Aug 16, 2017
Even before my kid was born (let’s call her Olive, after her favourite food), I was worried about how equipped I was to raise her to understand race and racism. I knew I had sex and gender covered. And I was pretty comfortable talking about spirituality and religion. But I’m white and Jewish and grew up in a middle class liberal Canadian home in the '70s, so I was raised with two contradictory messages about race and racism:
- Racism is bad.
- You should never talk about race.
I think the idea was that we shouldn’t talk about race because it reinforces racism. But teaching kids, particularly white kids, that they shouldn’t talk about race isn’t a step toward less racism or greater equity. Instead, it creates silence where existing systemic racism — and the white supremacy that underlies it — continues.
It teaches white kids that they don’t have to think or talk about race, and it contributes to a white, mainstream world that doesn’t care about or acknowledge the ways that black, Indigenous, and kids of colour experience prejudice (and pride).
But teaching kids, particularly white kids, that they shouldn’t talk about race isn’t a step toward less racism or greater equity.
I was especially nervous, because just as Olive was born, we left our racially (and otherwise) diverse circle of friends and family in Toronto and New York City and heading to Houston, Texas. Making these friends and building this community took time and work. What if I couldn’t do the same thing in Houston (a city I incorrectly imagined to be full of real-life Yosemite Sams)? When you’re white it’s easy to spend all your time around other white people.
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The first time that racism came up with Olive in an obvious way was just after we moved to Houston. Olive was around nine months old and had begun her life-long love affair with dolls. I took her to a store and found a display of tiny dolls, all more or less the same except for their skin colour. One doll was beige, one a darker brown, and one was peach.
My mind raced.
Was I going to pick one for her? If so, which one would I pick? If I let her pick and she picks the one who looks most like her, should I insist we get a different one? Or get two? All three seemed a bit much given the $16 cost of each doll.
If we want to confront racism, white people like me need to pay less attention to our comfort and more to everyone else’s discomfort and pain.
She picked up the dark brown doll first. Then she threw it on the floor and picked up the peach one indicating to me that that was the one she wanted. I was mortified, and I swear that I looked around to see if anyone was watching. In that moment I actually worried if my nine-month old was being racist.
Most of my white friends hear this story and laugh (with me) nodding (recognition, curiosity). When my friends who aren’t white hear this story they (justifiably) laugh (at me) and shake their heads (exhaustion, disbelief).
What’s real is that, with few exceptions, white people are not well equipped to deal with race. We spend too much time focused on the things that make us uncomfortable. If we want to confront racism, white people like me need to pay less attention to our comfort and more to everyone else’s discomfort and pain, which are a direct result of racism.
Very young kids do understand difference. They can learn when something is big or small, fat or skinny, happy or angry. But we forget (or fail to recognize) that when we teach difference we are almost always teaching about value and discrimination. Thin is better than fat. White is good (fluffy snow, angels), black is bad (evil villains, the dark of night). These messages are everywhere, so even when we’re not teaching, our kids are learning.
One of the first pictures books about race that Olive really loved was Martin and Mahalia, a picture book about Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahalia Jackson. One of the pages describes segregation by talking about swimming pools. This really stuck with Olive. She wanted to know why black people weren’t allowed in the swimming pools, and if she would be allowed.
But we forget (or fail to recognize) that when we teach difference we are almost always teaching about value and discrimination.
When I told her that she would have been allowed to swim because she was white she was happy and said she would like to go swimming. So we talked about why it would be important not to go swimming at a place that denied some people access based on skin colour.
Thinking about the conversation later, I felt like a failure. Talking in the language of ‘skin colour’ I was suggesting that a) race is reducible to skin colour and b) segregation was about skin colour, rather than about the system of oppression white people invented to maintain certain distributions of power, which discriminately wields skin colour as one of many weapons.
I brought it up with her the next day, making it both more complicated and more concrete by pointing out kids and grown-ups we love who would also be excluded. This quickly expanded to people who weren’t allowed in some pools because they are Jewish (like us), and all the people who are still not welcome in swimming pools today because they are disabled (again, like many people we love) and the pools shut them out by design.
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After many years of trying to make the world a better place I have come to the conclusion that, for myself, it starts with changing my own world. How I understand and experience racism is directly related to how many black and brown people are in my family and community. That conversation about swimming pools felt like proof that the diversity of my world was going to allow Olive to learn better lessons about race than the ones I had.
But then, a few days later I found Olive sitting on the kitchen floor playing a game with her dolls: who gets into the swimming pool. I felt like a failure (again). We talked about why I didn’t think that was a fun game to play. And I began to wonder how much of any of this she was understanding.
A few days after that, while I was getting her into the car she noticed that in the car next to us a woman was putting her child in a car seat. “They’re black” she said, loud enough for them to hear. My white liberalism flushed my face and I felt uncomfortable. Later, a friend pointed out that what Olive did probably wasn’t a problem for that woman and her kid, who, after all, know they are black.
After many years of trying to make the world a better place I have come to the conclusion that, for myself, it starts with changing my own world.
True enough, but does this mean that it’s okay for my white kid to point it out, even if she’s not doing it in a spirit of fear or hate? I have no answers for this.
As I continue to think through this question, I’ve become aware of the need to distinguish between my experience (in this case, of profound discomfort), Olive’s understanding (certainly not one that includes race as I know it), and what happens when those things meet the world (maybe a confirmation of white privilege, maybe an opportunity to learn differently about difference, maybe neither).
Being a new parent is an exercise in emotional, physical and spiritual discomfort and upheaval. I understand why for many of us all this may seem like just too much to take on. Luckily, part of being raised Jewish (in an anti-Semitic world) is not thinking that life will always be comfortable.
I continue to wade through the discomfort of talking to my white kid about race, and I continue to be committed to doing so. Amid all the uncertainty and failure there is one piece of advice I can pass on: Read good books.
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Less than 15% of children’s books feature characters that aren’t white. The world of kids videos is a bit better, but only because there are so many animal characters, and let's face it, most of those tigers and bunnies are white on the inside. So, when I say ‘read good books’ I don’t mean run out and pick up any and every book for kids about race or with characters that aren’t white.
Books with tokenistic non-white characters are just as bad, if not worse, than all-white books. Make sure your kid has books that feature both characters of a wide range of colours (and genders and ages, and more), and well-developed social worlds that are different than yours (in terms of race, class, family composition and more). And make sure those characters and worlds are well developed.
The best way to do this is to get books that are written by the very people the books are written about. This used to be called “first voice” books, these days people are using the term “own voice.” Whatever it’s called, the point is: diversity in kids books isn’t about the same white authors adding more characters of colour. It’s about radically changing whose stories are told, and by whom.
The more that kids see fully realized, exciting people in their books that don’t look like them, the better. Among the many ways this helps, it cultivates context, curiousity and care, three things that can only help you (and I) navigate the discomfort of conversations to come.
Picture Books About Race and Racism
Although they are a small percentage of the books published featuring white characters, there are many great books that feature characters of colour. In this context, any book that features a character of colour might become an opportunity to talk about race with your kids. The books below however are written specifically to encourage those conversations. They are not recommendations so much as a place to start your own search for books that will work for you and your family.
A photograph picture book, for ages 3+, that explains how we come to have different skin colours.
This brightly coloured picture book for kids age 4+ uses the author’s personal story to introduce race as one of many important aspects of what makes you you.
A beautiful picture book for kids 4+ about a child who doesn’t see herself in her local museum, and creates a museum of her own.
Historical picture book for kids 6+ about Sylvia Mendez and her parents, who helped end school segregation in California.
Another historical picture book for kids 5+ about a Nova Scotia woman who refused to move seats in a segregated movie theatre in 1946.
*Thanks to Tracey Brown, Caitlyn McIntyre, and Zoë Wool for talking through these ideas with me and providing feedback and input.
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