Responsibly Responding to Racism
by Kathy Slattengren, M. Ed., Priceless Parenting (more parenting articles are available)
(listen to article read by the author)
Tragic stories rooted in racism continue to explode across the United States. Leaders set the tone for what is acceptable versus unacceptable behavior. As the leader of the United States, President Trump’s racist behavior has emboldened others to follow. White Supremacists are embracing the moment to terrorize others with their words and actions.
When you witness or hear about a harmful act motivated by racism, how do you respond? You are the leader in your family. How you respond sends a powerful message to your children about your values.
Deepening Your Understand of Racism
Unfortunately the United States has a long history of mistreating nonwhites. Your knowledge about this painful history is colored by what you learned in school plus what you’ve learned on your own.
You know some of the horrific stories behind the European settlers driving the Native American Indians off their lands to reservations. You also learned about the horrendous treating of blacks through slavery. Often left out is how this history of oppression of black people continues on. It’s built into our institutions in ways that perpetuate injustice against blacks. It includes things like black kids being excessively expelled from school, black people unduly suffering from police brutality and black people being disproportionately put in jail.
Racism is also contributing to the cruel way undocumented Latino immigrants are being treated. Arresting and imprisoning people who have built their lives in the United States and have not committed any crimes is immoral. Young children witnessing their parents being taken away is heartbreaking.
The problems caused by racism run deep and are wrought with emotion. Racism provides permission for people in power to abuse entire groups of people based on their race.
Wrestling with your own moral values
can prepare you to talk to your kids. How do your moral values impact the way you treat others? How do your values guide your actions when you see racist behavior? How does it feel when you act in alignment with your moral values?
Talking to Your Kids About Racism
How do you talk to your kids about racism? Depending on their ages, you can use current events, books or movies to help them see that people are treated differently based on the color of their skin.
For younger children, you can read stories together which address racial issues. For example, Ruby Bridges Goes to School: My True Story
tells the story of a 6-year-old black girl who was the first to attend an all-white school. The many challenges Ruby faces are rich for discussion with your kids.
You can help your kids develop empathy for those experiencing racism by discussing stories like these. Here are some questions you might ask:
- If you were Ruby, how would you have felt going to an all-white school?
- What do you think Ruby was thinking and feeling as she was escorted to school by federal marshals?
For older kids you can discuss current events involving racism. Ask your kids to imagine being the person being mistreated. How would they feel? What would they think? What actions could they take to help the person being victimized?
Talking to your kids about racism can be uncomfortable especially if you are white and realize all the privileges you enjoy simply because of this. A person’s race affects how they are treated in society. Pretending that someone’s race doesn’t matter or pretending you don’t notice race denies this reality.
You don’t need all the answers. You just need to start the conversation. If you and your kids are white, you will not have negative experiences due to your skin color. However, you will be in positions to stand up for others who are being mistreated due to racism.
If your kids are not white, they may run into negative experiences due to their skin color by the time they enter elementary school. For this reason, black parents tend to do a far better job talking to their kids about racial prejudices than white parents.
Exploring Your Kids’ Ideas About Race
What do your kids think about people of different races? A study commissioned by Anderson Cooper’s CNN program, 360, explored children's perception of race
. When researchers asked these kids about being friends with someone of a different race, many expressed concerns that their parents would not approve. Parents were surprised by their kids’ responses. How comfortable are your kids in inviting over someone from a different race? Have you talked about it?
Kids notice racial differences by the time they are preschoolers. One way to talk about race with young kids is to use the example of eggs. Buy some white eggs and some brown eggs. When you’re cooking, let your kids crack a white egg. What does it look like on the inside? Now have them crack a brown egg. What does that one look like? Discuss the differences on the inside versus the outside. Compare this to how people have different skin color and yet are the same on the inside.
When someone is being treated poorly due to their race, ask your kids about their thoughts and feelings. Ask questions and listen. Kids who develop empathy are the ones who will stand up against racist behavior. Talking to your kids about racism will help them become a source of healing instead of hatred.