White parents must do better to raise anti-racist kids. Here's how.

This is so much more than just a single conversation

A mother and child.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

My first thought, as I considered whether to write about racial injustice and the ongoing uprising against police brutality, was that the world doesn't need to hear another white person's voice right now. But as someone who has benefited from centuries of oppression, who can't begin to understand what it's like to experience racial trauma, and who is also committed to raising children who are good and fair and kind, I'm here to admit that I need to do better. If I don't challenge myself or the systemic racism all around me, I become part of the problem. I don't want that, and I really don't want that for my kids.

White people, it's long past time to ease some of the hurt we've caused through our ignorance, and a big part of that effort is raising our children to be anti-racist. But many of today's parents didn't see this behavior modeled by their own families, says Jennifer Harvey, Ph.D, author of Raising White Kids: Bringing up Children in a Racially Unjust America. "The best most of us got was 'silence' about race," Harvey says. "So, we just literally haven't learned the practices, and the courage that goes with it, of interrupting racism when we encounter it or working with others to challenge racially unjust structures in the places we live and work and go to school."

Now is the time to change things, and no child is too young to learn about difference and race. In fact, the earlier we talk about this with our kids, the better. "Research shows that by 5 years old, children already show many of the same racial attitudes held by parents; they have already learned to associate some groups with higher status than others," says writer and anti-racism educator Holiday Phillips. "As long as we live in a racist society, you have to be active and not passive in educating your children otherwise."

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Phillips suggests explaining to children that there are many different skin colors, and that people are sometimes treated unfairly because of the color of their skin. Explain why this isn't right. "Whatever you do, don't adopt a colorblind 'I don't see color' approach," she says. "Don't shield them from the realities of racism hoping this will mean they don't adopt the biased views of mainstream society."

And don't censor or shame your child as they try to figure out what all this means. "If they question why someone has 'different skin,' don't shush them and tell them not to be rude," Phillips says. "Don't make black a dirty word, it's not. Navigate conversations with patience and compassion to help them reach understanding not censorship. So much white silence on issues of race comes not from lack of caring, but fear of saying the wrong thing. This serves no one."

If you have older kids and you've never talked about race or racism, the conversation is long overdue. Harvey suggests an opener like: "We've never talked about this, but we need to begin to do it now, even though I don't completely know where to start."

The conversations you have with your children about racism should be absolutely honest. Our kids need to know that for a long time, black people have experienced unjustified stops by police, and that this is a common part of the black experience in the U.S. and in many other countries. They need to know that police brutality and killing of black people has gone on for a long time and that the police are rarely held to account for it. We need to tell them this is part of the reason black people and their allies are rising up now, that they have been experiencing anger and pain for a long time and not enough white people have taken it seriously.

A next step might be watching some educational pieces or reading black literature together, Harvey says. Documentaries and movies about race, racial prejudices, and privilege include I Am Not Your Negro, The House I Live In, Do Not Resist, 13th, Just Mercy. If you're not sure which films are age- or stage-appropriate for your kid, watch them yourself first and then decide.

To start building a more diverse collection of books for your child, these are some good starting points:

But modeling anti-racism of course goes beyond the media you consume. Ask yourself a few important questions: Do your children actually have any people of color in their life? Do you have any friends of color? If not, why not? And can you change that?

Look for opportunities to buy from black businesses, both locally and online. Donate to grassroots racial justice organizations, who largely work for nothing. Or give money to the Minnesota Freedom Fund to help pay criminal bail and immigration bonds for those who can't afford to. Tell your kids why you're doing this, and how it makes a difference.

On social media, share black organizations to follow, petitions to sign, and resources to educate other white people. Follow and highlight black activists, and if your kids are old enough to have social media accounts, encourage them to do the same.

Start uncomfortable conversations about prejudice with white family and friends. "You need to initiate these conversations so that race isn't a topic only addressed after a black person has been persecuted," says racial and climate justice advocate Marie Beecham. "Be proactive rather than reactive." When someone says something racist in your company, call it out. And don't wait until your kids are out of the room. They need to know that this is the right thing to do.

"No matter how uncomfortable this conversation is, it pales in comparison to the discomfort black people and people of color feel every time they leave the house," Phillips says. "Every person of color who has to worry about running into a policeman every time they leave their house, who has to feel the shame when a white person crosses the road walking past them at night, who has to wonder whether the reason they didn't get that job is not because of the contents of their mind, but the color of their skin. Let the insignificance of your discomfort stand starkly against this, and allow this to fuel your courage."

At the same time, don't expect to be able to change every mind. "That's not your job," Phillips says. "Your job is to keep showing up day after day and being a role model for your kids. Begin with doing the work on yourself, look at your own biases, initiate your own program of allyship and bring your children with you. Don't worry so much about convincing other people, they need to go on their own journey. Make your own home an anti-racist space and the rest will follow."

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