Some conversations with your kids make you feel warm and fuzzy, reassuring you of your parenting choices and strategies, while others are downright uncomfortable as you stumble through uncharted territory.
I don’t bat an eye talking to my girls about gender politics or how a family unit can look different from our own, but shied away from discussions of racial injustice. Topics of race were out of my comfort zone. My partner and I are both white, cisgender and able-bodied. Together, we have two girls, ages 6 and 8.
White families don’t have to talk to our children about being a marginalized group. We teach our children to find a police officer if you feel unsafe, instead of giving “the talk” about complicated racial police relations.
In the documentary, “A Conversation with My Black Son,” an African American mother asks, “How old is a Black boy when he finds out he is going to turn into a large, scary Black man? That’s not who he is, but that is how he will be perceived.”
Out of necessity, children of color develop and learn the ways race matters daily. Their family narrative of racial injustice looks very different than ours as it is our privilege to choose to even have these hard conversations.
I was overwhelmed by the magnitude and complexities of racial tension and prejudices, which meant I was unable to break it down into teachable moments for my girls. I wanted to do better. I wanted to know more about racial literacy.
First, I needed to educate myself about my own racial identity, implicit biases and understand my own white privilege. Robin Diangelo’s “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” helped me begin this exploration of self.
After this belly-flop into my own racial identity, I started thinking about my role as a white parent. I want to raise girls who are comfortable in their own skin, while living authentically in diverse and multicultural spaces. I want my children to contribute productively against racism and work toward social justice in their communities.
Sure, that’s easily said, but how do I raise girls who are brave, informed and thoughtful about race and social justice? I began searching for more resources that targeted parents, especially parents of white children. Jennifer Harvey’s parenting book, “Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America,” really resonated with me.
What I learned is that we can’t help the next generation to dismantle racism, challenge racial inequality and imagine an America of inclusion, if we as white parents do not openly discuss the oppression and injustices that are inherent in the very design of our country – a country that was established by white men who believed that they were the superior race.
We began to have those hard, courageous conversations around our family dinner table. We witnessed our children’s hearts break a little when we explained that the hatred and injustices that Martin Luther King, Jr. fought against 57 years ago are still very real today. Each time we discuss racial injustices at our dinner table, we see their eyebrows furrow and their idea of fairness crumble.
When we talked about George Floyd’s death, we cried together and then shared how we can advocate for change. Each time we chip away at our children’s innocence, we are shaping them into the humans we hope they will become. With each discussion and new knowledge uncovered, we can empower our children to take action they are personally capable of, like being compassionate to a friend at school who feels left out, or listening to someone’s story, or accepting and appreciating someone who is different than themselves. These tools of empathy can inspire feelings of hope, acts of kindness and a desire for activism.
[Related: Reading list: Books and resources to help in your journey]
Our family’s road map for change
My husband is an advocate for writing intentions down. The power of the words on paper are stronger than verbalized intentions. So, I decided to create steps we are attempting to implement into our family fabric of conversation:
1. Continue learning. Get comfortable about being uncomfortable. Continue talking and learning about race, racism and racial inequity. It is our responsibility to do the work for our own growth mindset. Don’t rely on our Black friends/family/colleagues to “educate” us. Do not put further burden on our Black communities in order to better ourselves. We need to dig in and do the work ourselves.
2. Cultivate a diverse library. Be intentional and authentic. Characters of color are woefully underrepresented or misrepresented in children’s literature, so look for stories of multidimensional characters living complex lives. Find books that help understand racism and injustice in both modern and historical settings. Just as important, read books that show children of color having everyday experiences that are not about injustice.
3. Take opportunities. When racism or intolerance comes up, keep the lines of communication open, even if our girls say something embarrassing, insensitive or outright racist. Ask questions to find out why they’re thinking what they’re thinking, and how these ideas developed. There is a conversation about race that is nonverbal that our kids are absorbing at school, through the media, and in daily life. Our kids are already noticing these patterns in the world around them and this is our opportunity to help them think critically about what they’re seeing, rather than internalizing those things as cultural ‘norms.’ To raise race-conscious kids, we need to engage in tough and courageous dialogues rather than one-way lectures. Ask questions, gently correct their misinformation, and make sure our girls know that we are glad they brought up their question.
4. Explicitly talk about racial injustice. If we are authentically speaking about race in the U.S., we are almost always also speaking about oppression and injustice. We cannot teach concepts of diversity, equity and inclusion without conversations of racial oppression and injustice. We need to expose the underbelly of systemic racism. Talk about the past and its affect upon our current mindset and cultural injustices. Keep these conversations age-appropriate and draw parallels to their own feelings or experiences of injustice. Ask questions to understand where they are on this journey: If this happened to you, how would you feel? What could you do in this situation to show kindness or friendship? Why does this seem unfair or unjust? What can we do to create change?
5. Encourage empathy. Our oldest is a very empathetic girl. She experiences emotions deep and carries a lot of her world’s injustices and heartache on her shoulders. We often use her keen sense of justice to inspire conversations with her little sister, encouraging both girls to practice empathy and learn to be an advocate for others. Create situations where the girls can interact with people of diverse backgrounds, religions, and traditions. Meeting many new people will lead to questions and “teachable moments” and foster a better understanding of diversity, thus nurturing brave, inclusive, empathetic children.
6. Model behavior. Speak your truth. Model open, thoughtful, and respectful conversations of difficult issues. Create an open dialogue of learning about racism with your extended family and friends. Speak up against racism or bigotry that you encounter. Build authentic relationships personally and professionally with people from a variety of races and cultures. Listen to their stories and lived experiences. Attend cultural diversity workshops. Donate to anti-racist organizations. Actively support organizations and anti-racist role models in our community and advocate for social justice.
7. Accept your mistakes. I’m no expert. I am a white woman. I have put my foot in my mouth (sometimes not even realizing my mistake) and have overstepped my boundaries into race talk. I have limitations and blind spots that are unknown to me because of the very societal construct we are trying to dismantle. I do not know the answers or the “right” way to approach sensitive race relations. So I will make mistakes. When I make a mistake, listen, try to not explain my mistake away and ask for forgiveness. Learn from this mistake and move forward.
8. Repeat. Scaffold knowledge. Continue to build upon a foundation based on education, acceptance, empathy and action in relation to racial injustices. Expand our family racial literacy and advocacy with every new learned experience and shared conversation.
9. Be considered an ally. Being an ally requires action. We don’t decide if we are an ally, the marginalized community identifies us as an ally. We need to put in the work. We need to be a part of the change that we are trying to create. Most of us were not taught how to talk about race, racism, and race relations, but we can do better for our children. We need to educate ourselves and begin having these courageous conversations with our families and each other. We are all human and deserve to be seen, loved, heard and respected.
Elisabeth Lepine is an Eastside resident and mom to two girls. This article first appeared as a blog post on the website of the Woodinville Family Preschool.