The importance of talking to children about race and racism (including your own)

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From early childhood, young children reason about race and their social world and develop a moral understanding of fairness and injustice, equality and inequality with input from those around them. Young children perceive much more than we realize: Research shows infants as young as three months old show racial preferences that turn into racial discrimination in elementary school without intervention.

Gail M. Ferguson

In a recent study, my team and I interviewed approximately 400 white mothers in the Minneapolis metro area in the month following George Floyd’s murder in May 2020. We found that a majority of respondents were racially silent. , making no mention of Floyd’s murder or its impact on their home or community in response to an open-ended question about current events affecting their family.

Of the parents in the study who mentioned Floyd’s murder or the unrest, most mentioned race vaguely but did not point out the long-standing racial injustice in the US police force. Only 17% of white parents in the study used color-conscious or power-conscious parenting language or strategies, meaning only they directly recognized race, racism, or Black Lives Matter in discussions with their children. .

The results of this study showed that most white Minneapolis mothers interviewed avoided discussing Floyd’s murder or systemic racism with their children, despite the high-profile event that occurred in their community. When parents and other adults remain silent about race, it communicates apathy or approval of racism, even if this is not the intention of adults.

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Importantly, the study also found that the level of racial identity development of white parents was closely related to how they socialized their children. The subset of parents who used color-conscious and power-conscious parenting showed more advanced white racial identity development than other parents based on their responses. In other words, it appeared that white parents raised their children around race only to the level of their own maturity in dealing with racial information.

Self-reflection + courageous parenting

So what can parents, especially white parents, do to help their children become anti-racist? The results of this study suggest a two-pronged solution: active self-reflection to develop a healthy white racial identity coupled with courageous anti-racist parenthood.

A white person has a healthy white racial identity when they are fully aware of systemic racism, recognize their own racial privilege and role in perpetuating racism, and engage in self-reflection, self-education and other anti-racist actions. White parents looking for this personal growth can join a local chapter of an anti-racist organization or use an anti-racism workbook.

The other part of this solution is for white parents to explicitly recognize race and racism with children. A common misconception is that having conversations with children about racism will make them racist, when in fact the opposite is true. Such conversations are essential in giving them the skills they need to detect and challenge their own prejudices and the prejudices that surround them..

Adults teach children concepts like fairness and injustice and justice and injustice, but these lessons often take place in the context of abstract conversations at home or at school. Children need concrete examples to deepen their understanding of these concepts related to race and racism.

White parents can use everyday experiences and events in the media to provide children with real-life examples of justice and injustice, accountability and anti-racist action. They should also instill empathy in children by humanizing the victims of police brutality and racism. Mr. Floyd was someone’s father, son, brother, friend and neighbor, and white children need adults in their lives to help them imagine how they would feel if he had. been their father.

If you are new to conversations about race or racism, it can also help you make a plan for how to have a discussion with your children. Short, frequent conversations that occur naturally during good learning times work better than a long discussion on the topic.

Race matters in the United States because racism still exists. Parents, especially white parents, can play a role in fighting racism because of the power and privileges they hold in our racialized society. Taking the time for honest personal reflection and explicit conversations with children about race and racism (including your own) is, in and of itself, an important act of anti-racism.

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Gail M. Ferguson, Ph.D. is Associate Professor at the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, where she directs the Culture and Family Life Lab.

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