The Dos and Dont’s of Talking to Kids of Color About White Supremacy

By Hilary Beard Aug 17, 2017

Now that you’re settling into the reality that the images we saw from Charlottesville were from 2017 and not the days of Jim Crow, it’s time to get proactive about parenting during the Trump Era. Though you might have hoped that your children would grow up in a different world from where you came from, the swamp has arisen and racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia and misogyny are alive and slithering along the ground.

So what should you say to your children post-Charlottesville? Now is not the time to tiptoe around tough topics or give your children unclear messages about your values and beliefs or the realities of what happens when bigotry and terror suddenly escalate, as Deandre Harris and Heather Heyer tragically experienced over the weekend.

These dos and don’ts will help guide your parenting in this time of unhooded White supremacy.

Do put on your own mask first. Make time to de-stress and let your blood pressure go down. Your children will pick up on your anxiety if you don’t.

Do reflect on your experiences with bias and bigotry. Many parents struggle with what to tell their children about difficult topics because they don’t want to pass along their own baggage and unresolved issues. Consequently, many adults are more skilled in not talking about uncomfortable topics than in talking about them. Thinking about your history with these issues will help you clarify the values you want to convey and the behaviors you want your children to demonstrate.

Do protect them from your own internalized bias. Media and society convey relentless negative messages about people of color and others who are pushed to the margins of society. Like smog, everyone inhales them—even you. Take the Implicit Association Test, which measures unconscious, or implicit, bias you hold around race, gender, sexual orientation, mental health and other dimensions of the human experience. Becoming aware of how we really feel helps us recognize and interrupt harmful behaviors. Also take the bias cleanse MTV developed with the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity.

Don’t wait for your children to initiate the conversation about what happened in Charlottesville. Ask them what they’ve seen and heard. Reassure them that they and their loved ones are safe and that you will take care of them. Use age-appropriate language, explaining to younger children that sometimes people are mean and unfair to different groups of people and you don’t like it. You can address societal issues like racism and anti-Semitism more directly with teens; books and online resources can help provide context.

Do ground your children in a worldview that includes their spirituality, family traditions, heritage, cultural values and self-respect. It’s never too early to start. The story you tell your children about who they are must be stronger than the story they hear from the people who don’t care about them and much of the media, which traffics in negative messages and stereotypes about people with marginalized identities.

Don’t perpetuate the myth that we live in a colorblind society. Everyone is not treated the same, and race and color do matter and America is a not meritocracy where they will succeed if they just try hard enough. Even if you believed this in the past, those ideas lack credibility today. If you need to do an about face, say so and explain why.

Do teach your high-school student about institutional and systemic racism. From the racist policies, practices and procedures that institutions engage in that advantage White, straight, cisgender, able-bodied people and disadvantage the rest of the world to the value system that underpins it all, they need an education. Racist systems are built to oppress. For example, Black and Native American students, LGBTQ students and students with disabilities are all disproportionately more likely to be suspended from school than other students, often for developmentally appropriate behavior. Understanding the various dimensions of racism and bias will help keep your young adult from internalizing structural factors as either their own or their identity group’s deficiencies.

Do proactively discuss encounters your children may experience with racists and other bigots. If you wait until adolescence when you think they can handle the subject, your children will likely have been experiencing macro- and microaggressions for years without you to help them process. For example, the excessive disciplining of Black children by teachers and staff has been documented in preschool. Importantly, if your child is bullied, harassed or told that they are not welcome at their school, notify the administration immediately. Help your children understand that federal civil rights laws protect them from hate speech, violence and bullying. 

Do counteract messages that children of color aren’t as smart or innocent as their White counterparts. Many schools begin sorting students into academic levels in the third grade. Racial hostility toward Black boys from both adults and their peers increases significantly during the tween years. And research shows that by the time a Black boy turns 10, White adults often perceive him as being up to four years older than he is and less innocent than other children. A study released in June revealed that Black girls ages 5 through 14 are viewed as more sexually mature and less innocent than their White peers. These misperceptions leave children vulnerable to mistreatment. Teach them early that they are just as good and worthy of positive interactions as everyone else.

Don’t shut down your teenager’s urge to debate you on difficult social issues. Many people of color, American-born and immigrant, find this behavior disrespectful, but as long as your young person maintains a respectful tone, consider leaving room for constructive pushback. This back-and-forth is rewarded in most schools and helps to develop critical-thinking skills. In a world where they will often be marginalized and underrepresented, asking questions teaches young people that their opinions matter and that you will consider their perspectives. Bonus: If you listen, you will gain insight into what’s on their mind.

Do role-play to help them practice what to say during stressful encounters. Help them create a loose script they can use in various scenarios—from a classmate telling them to go back to their country, to a teacher making an Islamophobic remark, to a transphobic street bully. Having a default response will soothe a bit of the sting.

Don’t be silent on issues of misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, ableism, religious intolerance or other racial or social-justice issues. Model for your children that they should not put up with bigotry, whether it’s directed at them or others. Then arm them with strategies they can use in different environments—from using a script to stand up for themselves, to seeking a trusted adult to intervene, to making signs and rolling to a direct action.

Do teach your adolescent to be aware of their surroundings. While they probably experience love close to home, not everyone will appreciate them as they travel more independently and with less supervision. Teach them to recognize the iconography of Neo-Nazism, White supremacists, the so-called alt-right and other hate groups. If you have a college-bound student, read and share the Southern Poverty Law Center’s publication about how the alt-right operates on college campuses.

Do teach older students media literacy. This will help them dissect biased images and messages, debate stereotypes, stand up for themselves and manage the conflict and stress that can arise when others challenge their identities. Also talk about critical consciousness theory, so they understand how oppression and privilege shape the world and their place in it.

Hilary Beard is creating a world where everyone can thrive. She is the co-author of “Promises Kept: Raising Black Boys to Succeed in School and in Life” and “Health First!: The Black Woman’s Wellness Guide.” Follow her on Twitter @HilaryBeard.