“Parents of Black and brown kids know that instilling their kids with a sense of racial identity and talking about how racism will inevitably affect their lives—and possibly even their safety—are essential life lessons. Parents of White kids, on the other hand, often don’t feel the same pressure. But as racist violence continues to erupt, discussing race, racism, and the history of racial oppression in the United States and the world is just as essential for White families.” Sierra Filucci, Editorial Director of Common Sense Media
For years, as a parenting coach and a writer, I have offered guidance on how to talk to your kids about all kinds of things. We’ve navigated the nuances of simple things, taking out the trash and cleaning rooms; and I’ve offered insights on more sensitive subjects, like school shootings, mental health, and more.
Today’s topic on how to talk with your kids about race is one of the most difficult I’ve ever addressed. And that’s saying something, because let’s be serious — talking about depression, suicide, addiction and other challenges facing families with complex kids are not exactly easy topics.
But as I’ve wrestled with writing this, I think I found a way to shed some light and help you talk with your kids, drawing from experiences that are familiar to you. I’m hopeful that it will light a path for constructive, empowering conversations with your family.
Invisible ‘Disabilities’ & Visible Differences
I am driven to work with parents of complex kids because we bear a heavier burden than typical families. Our children’s complex needs require more from us. It’s not about whether it’s fair, or not. It’s just our reality. We deal with it because this is how their brains are wired; and frankly, we have no choice. We work harder than parents of typical kids, advocating like crazy, so we can level the playing field. We go to great lengths for our kids to have opportunities, so that we can enable and empower them to reach their full potential.
Complex kids – with ADHD, Dyslexia, Depression, Anxiety, or related challenges – have an invisible disability. So, we talk to them about their challenges, about their potential, and about the path they’ll need to take to learn to manage themselves in life. We work hard to help prepare them for an adult life because we know it may be more difficult for them than for their peers; we know it will likely require more effort for them to achieve success. Is it fair? No. It just is.
Parents of children of color have a similar experience, only there is nothing invisible about their challenge. In fact, their kids don’t have a disability at all. Rather, they are ‘disabled’ by the way that they are perceived in the world, based on the color of their skin.
Children of color bear a heavier burden than white kids. Their parents have to do more to safeguard them, to prepare them, to advocate for them when the systems of society bend unfairly towards injustice and intolerance. They have dealt with this inequity for thousands of years, because they’ve had no choice. Is it fair? No. It has just been their reality.
We teach kids with neurological challenges to understand and manage themselves, to play to their strengths and reach for all that they’re capable of achieving. We teach them how to accommodate and find success, despite their disabilities.
But for kids of color, their skin creates a barrier that permeates everything. It’s not just something they can learn to manage and navigate. Because the barrier is not coming from within; it’s coming from the outside world. Everywhere they turn.
Talk About Race … Not Racism
I’m going to assume that you are reading this because …
- you want to be able to talk with your kids freely and respectfully about race
- you hold a fundamental value of human respect
- you do not actively hold racist ideals, and
- you believe in treating people with fairness and equality
So, when trying to figure out how to talk with your kids about what’s going on in the world today, I’m going to suggest that you start by talking about race, before you ever get to conversations about racism.
What’s so important about talking about race?
We give enormous power to those things in life which we are afraid to speak about, which go unspoken. I suspect that we are hesitant to talk about race because we’re afraid that we’ll be seen as racist if we do. But here’s the thing: race is obvious. Pigment is evident, even for those who may not see ‘color.’ We can’t hide from it. So when we shy away from naming it, or pretend to be oblivious to it – as if, somehow, anyone could actually be color-blind – we give power to what is unspoken.
To pretend that we are ‘color-blind’ is actually a kind of blindness. It disregards the reality of what it means to experience life as a person of color.
Since we know that 90% of communication is non-verbal, what happens when we do not speak about something that we can all see? When something is right in front of our faces, but we pretend we don’t notice? We avoid essential conversations. We avoid ‘seeing’ our brothers and sisters. And they miss the chance to be seen by us.
The current movement of protests around the world is not really about individual acts of racism; it’s not about whether any individual is color-blind.
It’s about institutionalized racism. It’s about the insidious, systemic way that people of color experience the world. It’s about racism that is only truly experienced by those who are ‘of color,’ hidden to the rest of us because we do not experience it, because we are blanketed in a cultural silence around race.
These protests are about recognizing the reality that those of us without pigment have privilege solely because we lack color in our skin. It has been this way for hundreds of years. But it does not have to be. And we are called upon to no longer allow that to be an acceptable reality.
So, what do you say to your kids? How do you talk about race?
- Be willing to have difficult conversations without needing to make everything immediately okay or ‘fix’ their thoughts or feelings (or yours).
- Be matter-of-fact about race. Talk about what it is. Explore what causes the differences in people’s skin color, and answer any questions your kids have. If you don’t know the answer, look it up together.
- Explain to your kids that people are feeling hurt because they’ve been treated unfairly based on the color of their skin. Kids understand fairness.
- Explain to your kids that when people are angry, when they are triggered, they don’t always make the most rational choices. Your kids will understand this.
- Help them relate by pointing to a time when they’ve felt that they were treated unfairly because of something out of their control, or when they were so angry that they lashed out impulsively.
- Appeal to a child’s natural desire to be just like everyone else, and help them see how uncomfortable it must be when some people are treated differently because of the color of their skin, even though they are really just like everyone else.
- Ask your kids how they’re feeling about what is going on in the world (if they know about it). Acknowledge whatever it is that they’re feeling, even if it makes you uncomfortable. You can “set the record straight” later – for starters, just listen.
- Be willing to be uncomfortable. Chances are, your kids are more comfortable with these conversations that you are. They are our future, and our hope.
- Speak from your own experience, what is true for you, using “I” language. Share times when you were proud of how you’ve handled something, and times when you were not. Let them know how you’ve struggled with these issues, yourself.
- Remember, the goal here is not to pretend that you don’t have any biases around race. You do. We all do. No one is color-blind. The goal is to be honest, to shine a light on it, so that it loses its power.
- Notice how you feel in response to how your kids respond, but try to keep the attention on their experience. Don’t let your emotions hijack the conversation. If you’re uncomfortable, make sure you have someone available to talk with so that you can process your own feelings with age-appropriate peers.
In the wake of too many deaths culminating in the death of George Floyd, this movement is calling upon all of us – of all colors, and faiths, and creeds, and differing abilities – to see color without an implicit judgment. To see color without thinking that it is ‘less than,’ or in any way deserving of treatment that is not just or fair.
As a Jewish kid raised in the Christian south, I’ve been immersed in conversations about race and religious differences all of my life. I have had my fair share of experiences with anti-semitism, with racism, with injustice. It has defined me in many ways. But even though I represent a much smaller minority than people of color, I’ve almost always been able to ‘pass’ through barriers and hide behind the safety of my white skin.
It is easy for those of us who are just and fair to proclaim ourselves as ‘not racist,’ to have some friends of color, and feel that we’ve done our fair share.
It is time for all of us to do more. To talk about race. To see it. To call it what it is – without judgment or shame. That’s the only way we can create lasting change.
Last weekend, while our country burned, fires set by pent-up fear and anger and frustration, fomented by opportunism, two of my kids traveled together on a long-planned road-trip. We supported them in going on their journey, though it was scary. In the grand scheme of things, it was safe enough for them to go because they wore a layer of protection that many of my friends’ kids don’t have the privilege of putting on – their white skin. Let’s be honest — if my children were black, they would not have left the house. And that is what this whole thing is about.
I cannot imagine what a mother to children of color must feel like every time your child leaves your nest, no matter how old they get. It’s time to stop every mother of color from having to fear sending their child out into a world that is not safe for them solely because of the color of their skin.
I was on a group call this week with adults from around the world, of different ages and races, talking about issues of race. One black woman said something that struck me and helped me find the connection to our community that I wrote about above. We parents of complex kids say a version of this all the time. Brandi said, “I’m weary of fighting to be seen and recognized for how awesome I am.”
And then, a Black woman elder reminded us, “As heartbreaking as it is right now, there’s hope.”
The hope is with you, and the conversations that lie ahead for you and your family.
P.S. I’m not sure where I read this, but I thought it was poignant: “Allyship is doing what is right over what is easy, but for others without expecting anything in return.”
Here’s a collection of “how to talk with your kids about…” articles. Many of them will be helpful in this circumstance of talking about race, as well:
P.P.S. Thank you for reading this.
I am honored that one black friend shared this article with her teenage son, and it led to break-through conversations between them. I hope that it serves you, too. I am certain that your reading this will serve the world.
Thanks, also, to my friends Mark, Niiamah, Natasha and Devika for their guidance in recent conversations, talking with me about how to talk with kids about race.