My Young Kids Don’t Understand Racism. How Do I Explain It?

A dad tries — and fails — talk to his kids about racism. Does he need to keep pushing the point? The Goodfather weighs in.

Originally Published: 
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I have young children who, sure, have been told about slavery in school, they know their civil rights heroes, and they understand that racism is a thing. But do they? I’m trying to explain this moment to them — to explain that police violence happens, that because of racism, it happens to brown and black people more often, that racism is held up by the way we vote and also laws that might not seem racist on their face but very much are… And all I get it “Why?” “Wait, What?!” and again, “But why, daddy? It’s wrong.”

As you may have gathered, I’m white. My kids are white. And I think this might be at the heart of why I’m not breaking through. The question I have is, do I really need to break through or should I enjoy my kids’ innocence and shelter them from the world of racism — one that doesn’t right now put them in immediate danger?

Privileged in Pennsylvania

I have listened to the angry, pained voices of a lot of Black parents in the past week and I have heard, loud and clear, that their children don’t get the luxury of a racism-free innocence. They are Black. The country they live in sees them as Black from the moment they take their first breath. By the time they are the age of my boys, 7 and 9 years old, they have felt the weight of America’s racism. Black parents have to witness their children coming to terms with their place in this country and pray the hate is not internalized.

I’m not proud to say coming to that understanding was a revelation for me this week. I’ve had 45 years to recognize these inequities. I can’t know the acute pain of being a Black parent. But I can see it. I can believe it’s real. I can, and have, taken it to heart — a hard and unyielding truth rattling around like an ever-present irritant.

Like many White politically progressive parents, I lived under the blissful notion that if I taught my boys to love all people equally, listened to enough Bob Marley, and read them children’s books about Martin Luther King, I could cultivate a world approximating a United Colors of Benetton ad. And that, my friend, is the biggest load of bullshit I have ever gleefully wallowed in.

White parents teach our kids about racism as if it’s something we’re not a part of. We teach our kids about racism as if it’s a dusty, old cultural artifact that other, less evolved White people still embrace. We teach them that if we just love hard enough and give out enough hugs we can chase that dirty old racism away. Meanwhile, we can send them out the door knowing that if they brandish a pellet gun in the park they are unlikely to be shot dead by a cop — as happened to Tamir Rice. We raise them in the relative safety of neighborhoods that were marked for economic development while Blacks were concentrated in neighborhoods, denied investment and opportunity.

Our children get to have their innocence because of racist structures that were built specifically for them to succeed. Racism isn’t some rickety ineffable concept dying in fits and starts. It is the essential and constant substrate on which Whiteness thrives in America.

And that’s where we begin with our kids. Not by teaching them about racism, but by teaching them about Whiteness.

Because, here’s the thing: If our kids don’t recognize their Whiteness in the context of this country’s history, then they will never see their privilege. If they never see their privilege then they will never have the opportunity to use that privilege to dismantle the racist system they inherited.

I didn’t come to this conclusion overnight. I’ve been worrying over it for years. When our current president was elected, I lost my mind trying to figure out how he managed to slip into office despite his racist rhetoric. I let the consternation flow on my social feeds. Eventually my dismay caused a cousin to pop up in my messages. He’s a father himself. We went back and forth for a bit before he sent this:

“You’re going to raise kids that hate themselves for being white.”

And, dang, that phrase pretty much sums up one of the most persistent and damaging fears of White parents, doesn’t it? And that fear has been a blockade to progress. It has kept White parents from having meaningful and important conversations with their kids about Whiteness.

The thing is, I don’t want my kids to hate themselves for being White. But I do want them to recognize it. I want them to see how their Whiteness is the default skin on the video game. I want them to understand that when toy companies make ads for kids, the joyful peers depicted are mostly White. I want them to know how the Whiteness of the Ohio suburb they live in was manufactured through systemic oppression.

This is not to make them feel shameful. It’s to help them see their Whiteness, and understand how it eases their passage through a world that was manufactured for them. And then? I want them to tear that shit down and start building a new world built on the goal of righting the generations of wrongs they have been burdened with.

White parents have an opportunity, and I would argue, a responsibility to raise White children who will join Black people in tearing down structural racism. That’s one of our most important jobs now.

It’s not an easy task, for the exact reason you’ve already recognized. The way we talk about racism with our kids does not make it real. Hell, it’s debatable that most White adults understand how real it is. How could we expect kids to get it? Your kids are confused about racism because it is anathema to a child’s innate sense of justice. Besides, they don’t experience it. Which means we need to be explicit about race.

The path to helping them see where they fit travels through lessons rich in cultural histories. As White parents, we need to raise our kids so that they become aware of other cultural traditions and viewpoints. They need to stop seeing their Whiteness as the norm. They also need help shedding the implicit biases that we’ve passed down. We can only do that through open, age-appropriate dialogue. It’s okay to admit that we’ve said or done racially insensitive things that we now recognize are wrong. At the very least we can help repair the damage of those wrongs by showing our kids that we own them and are trying to change ourselves. We are powerful models for our children and we need to recognize that.

We don’t have to start with police brutality. We don’t have to try and tackle American racism in one go. We bring our kids to an understanding of their place in the world through small moments of recognition and discussions over the dinner table night by night. We ask and answer questions about race the best we can. And if we don’t have the answer, we say so and work with our children to find out. We learn with them.

You’ve taken an important first step and I applaud you for it. But I also implore you not to give up because it’s tough. And it is tough, but certainly no more tough than a Black parent trying to teach their kid how to interact with cops without getting killed. It’s our responsibility as White parents to be uncomfortable with our children, and tackle the hard truths about Whiteness so that maybe, someday, Black parents won’t have to live with so much incalculable pain.

Finally, I encourage you to seek out resources to help you along. It’s not the responsibility of Black folks to show us the way. Do your own research. The world is full of books and organizations that are aching to help white folks along. Personally, I’m a big fan of an organization called EmbraceRace. Not only do they have incredible webinars devoted to helping parents dismantle racism, they also have a ton of resources that will help in your mission. And if you find those resources helpful, please give them money. Our journey out of White blindness will be long and hard. But it’s also right and just. Parents are important to the anti-racist movement. Let’s bring some others along.

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