Talking to Your Children about Race

Talking to Your Children about Race

First, let me say that this article assumes your children are white. Parents with children of color in this country are simply not afforded the luxury of carefully planning the developmentally appropriate time to discuss this complicated topic. The occasion to discuss race seeks them out, ready or not. And rarely on a happy occasion.  

It’s hard for white people to talk about race. So we usually don’t do it. It’s a loaded conversation, full of fears of stepping on vocabulary land mines, and a general lack of knowledge stemming from an incomplete history that has been mostly written and taught by white people. 

I might not be saying things perfectly in this piece, but I’m going to give it a whirl. Because not talking about it has led to some real problems.

Just like any other topic that is difficult to broach with your children, step one is accepting that it must be done. That you really don’t have a choice. I teach about courage and empathy in our Sunday School program, and I’m writing this because it’s a step toward being emphatic, and because – quite frankly – I could not look your children in the eye on Sunday morning if I did not find the courage to say something. 

Step number two, acknowledge that racism exists. If you weren’t convinced prior to Wednesday morning, I hope – at least – you are now. If you still aren’t, then wrestle with the fact that the KKK still exists, endorsed our president-elect, and declared Tuesday a “major victory” for their people, all of which are deeply troubling.  

Step three, find a place to start: whether it’s Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” turned mass genocide that is still shamefully celebrated in most schools across the nation, or whether it’s slavery. The important thing is that we can’t talk about race in America today without talking – even a little – about how we got here. I mean really got here. 

With my own kids, I focus on the history of blacks in America because that feels the most widely misunderstood narrative, and the one they’re least likely to learn in their mostly-white schools in our mostly-white town. I talk directly about slavery, that men and women – just like their dad and me – were kidnapped, intentionally hurt, and forced to live under harsh conditions because white Americans wanted to boost the American economy, or to make more money. And boy, did that ever work. Thanks to black slaves, America’s whites prospered, becoming landowners and systematically amassing wealth. 

I explain that this happened for nearly 300 years, that there were children – just like them – that were born slaves and died slaves, removed from their families and sold off like objects. That their mommies and daddies wept out of fear and anger because their families were considered barbaric and less-than-full human. I wonder aloud about a mommy my age who never held her newborn, or wondered when her babies and children would be taken from her, and what – if given the chance – she might have whispered into their ears. Maybe she cried with them, maybe she shouted out at the injustice, maybe she taught them how to be safe, or how to fight back.

I briefly explain that – although slaves were eventually freed – black Americans were treated as lesser citizens for a long period to follow, that they were denied adequate education or access to home loans, that they were – and are – imprisoned at higher rates than whites for less serious crimes. We spend some talking about how unfair and unjust that is, and how that would make us feel if we were treated that way for no other reason than the color of our face.

I explain that there are many things that we are able to do, that we take for granted. Not having to think about race is a privilege, an unearned luxury. Being able to turn it off (“I just can’t think about it – it’s so depressing”) is a privilege afforded to us and our children that is not afforded to black men, women and children. 

I share with my children my deep sense of guilt and shame for being complacent – until now – about this dark history. I tell them that I once thought I was free from any blame for what is happening today, but that it has become clear that I’ve been rewarded for the pain of others. And that makes me complicit.

Step four is telling your children explicitly that black people are beautiful, that black men, women and children are hard-working and smart, that they are loving and kind, that their ancestors worked – against their will and without reward – to industrialize our nation so whites can disproportionately reap benefits. I tell my children that those who are suffering deserve our kindness and generosity and our solidarity. And in no uncertain terms, I tell my children that black Americans – with good reason – are hurt, scared and angry at the constant stream of injustices that make the basic pursuit of life and liberty unnecessarily challenging, and maybe even impossible.

Because if I don’t tell them, there’s a good chance they might never hear it. 

Or worse, never believe it.

Repeat often.


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