It’s been disturbing enough for adults, this season of unrest. Just a few months ago, the world watched the brutal police killing of an unarmed Black man, followed by massive, largely peaceful protests that unleashed yet more police violence—billy clubs cracked over heads, people punched to the ground, rubber bullets fired, tear gas canisters shot into panicked crowds. Some of us may have been in those crowds, or marching not far away. Amid the chaos, we also glimpsed acts of great courage, steadfastness, and caring on the part of protesters and some officials. Still, the images of violence are indelible.
If adults are deeply shaken, then what’s it like for children? Unlike protests of the past—the anti–Vietnam War rallies, the marches of the civil rights movement—scenes of mass tumult today are readily available, in real time, to any middle-schooler with a cell phone. Even very young children have likely seen flashes of angry or terrified crowds on TV, and have heard adults talking, worrying, and perhaps arguing over the issues. It’s a good bet that a lot of kids are scared, and nearly all are confused. Why do cops kill Black people? Who are the good people? Am I safe?
If ever there was a moment to talk with children about racism and antiracism, it’s now. This is especially true for parents of white kids. By the time Black children are preteens, most of their parents have already sat them down for “the talk”—usually, many talks—about the hazards of being a Black person in this country, and the precise ways they must behave to stay safe. Clearly, white parents need to start a different kind of conversation with their kids.
In the wake of George Floyd’s killing, among so many others, and the explosions of protest it’s unleashed, the media have responded with numberless articles and videos on “how to talk with your child about racism.” But a larger question looms: how prepared are white parents to confront their own myths and biases about race so they can talk constructively with their children about racism—if they’re willing to talk at all? And can therapists play a role in facilitating these sometimes halting, often demanding conversations between parents and kids?
The Silent Treatment
Thus far, white parents have largely kept mum on the subject of race. A 2019 national survey of more than 6,000 parents of children ages 3 to 12 found that while most parents say they’re comfortable talking with their kids about race, only 6 percent of white parents say that they do so often, while 41 percent admit that they never talk with their child about racial issues—a proportion that may surprise some in this age of Black Lives Matter and highly publicized police shootings of Black people over the last decade. A 2018 study in the Journal of Family Issues found that white parents typically don’t talk to their kids about racism, even when the parents are responding to a situation involving clear racial bias.
Psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum isn’t surprised by the pervasive silence. “A lot of white parents still suffer the illusion that ‘if I don’t talk about it, my kid will be colorblind,’” says Tatum, president emerita of the historically Black Spelman College and author of several books on racism, including the landmark Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? “Many parents will say, ‘I want to maintain my child’s innocence; why would I want to introduce such a difficult topic at a young age?’ They say to themselves, ‘I don’t use racial slurs at home, and I feel accepting of Black people, so my child won’t be picking up prejudicial attitudes.’”
This is a dangerous illusion, says Tatum, because the notion that a child is somehow “racism proof” is a virtual impossibility in a world suffused with racist attitudes, behavior, and policy. “Just because you’re not talking about it doesn’t mean your child isn’t learning,” she says. The media, in particular, are happy to provide all manner of images and perspectives about people of color, not all of them accurate or affirmative. “It’s like sex education,” Tatum says. “If a parent doesn’t bring it up, the child will absolutely gather information elsewhere”—and the parent loses power to influence the child’s developing narrative.
Some white parents maintain silence because they don’t want to upset their child, but others may keep quiet because they don’t think racism is a significant problem to begin with. In the national survey cited above, jointly conducted by the National Opinion Research Center and the Sesame Workshop, only 28 percent of white parents thought that race or ethnicity had a major impact on children’s ability to succeed in this country, with a quarter believing it had no impact at all. Just 15 percent believed that their own child’s whiteness had a significant impact on how others treated them.
When parents shrug their shoulders about racism, they abandon children to their still-emergent capacity to make sense of the world, says Marianne Celano, a family psychologist in Atlanta and director of the Emory Parent Child Interaction Therapy Program. “If a white parent says, ‘We’re all the same’ and says nothing else, kids will draw their own conclusions,” says Celano, coauthor of the award-winning Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story about Racial Injustice. She offers an example: “If a white child sees a part of the city where houses are crammed together and there are no trees and it’s not as pretty as their own neighborhood, and then they see only Black people living there, they might think, ‘There must be something wrong with those people,’” says Celano. “If the child isn’t aware of racial injustice, that’s a logical conclusion. And that’s why parents need to talk about it.”
And younger is better. Kids start to notice and interpret racial differences at strikingly early ages. In a study that followed approximately 200 Black and white children from ages 6 months to 6 years, researchers found that infants could recognize racial differences by the age of six months. By age two, toddlers use racial categories to reason about people’s behaviors. And by preschool, biased behavior begins to show up. In one yearlong study, sociologists found that 3- to 5-year-olds in a racially diverse daycare center had begun to use racial categories to include or exclude their classmates. Tatum illustrates: “In the dress-up corner, a white child might tell a Black child, ‘You can’t be the princess. Princesses have to have blond hair.” Some kids are smacked with still more devastating rejection: “Your skin is dirty, so you can’t play with us.”
Psychologist Celano, who specializes in work with parents and children, believes that clinicians can play a vital role in helping white clients talk about racism, as well as model antiracism, with their kids. She’s aware that some clinicians may instinctively resist such involvement. “A lot of therapists ask, ‘Should we really be talking about any of this in the therapy hour? Shouldn’t we keep our political beliefs out of the room?’” But Celano believes that racism in our country is such a core trauma, and is reverberating so loudly now in our collective consciousness, that to not talk about it creates the proverbial elephant in the room.
The videoed police killings and beatings, the answering roars of protest, and the demands that all white people confront their own implicit racism has shaken a lot of people awake. “The 30-year-old me, or even the 40-year-old me, wouldn’t have said anything in a therapy session,” she says. “But now I ask all of my clients about it”—how they’re feeling about recent events, and what they might be doing in response. When she explores the issue with parents, she finds that they often struggle with the prospect of talking about racism with their children.
Celano says that few of the white parents she works with resist the idea of having these talks. And some genuinely want to start the conversation. “But a lot of parents don’t know when, or how, to bring it up with their kids,” she says. “They worry that they won’t get the language right, or that they don’t know enough about racism to be accurate.” Celano assures them that they don’t have to get things exactly right; that given the intricacies of racism, nobody does. “When your child asks a hard question, you can say, ‘You know, I’m not really sure about that. Let me get back to you.’” Tatum suggests that in a therapy session, “you could say to a parent, ‘This is an opportunity for you and your child to learn together. You can read a book together, and talk about it as you read. Or watch a movie.’ There are resources everywhere now.”
Indeed, there are. Therapists can steer parents to numerous listings of children’s media on racism and antiracism—books, games, movies, TV shows—which can be found at such websites as commonsensemedia.org and socialjusticebooks.org. Of course, conversations with kids on any topic need to be tailored to their developmental stage, and this information, too, is easy to access. Hundreds of how-to articles and videos on age-appropriate parent–child conversations are available online, along with suggestions for how kids at each stage can take action against racism. There are now parenting books entirely devoted to the topic, including Jennifer Harvey’s Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America, which Celano calls “the best book I’ve ever read on the subject.”
Gazing in the Mirror
Whatever their child’s age, white parents need to deal with their own, unconscious racial biases before they can pass on accurate and constructive information to their kids. And, of course, white therapists must do the same kind of self-exploration. This inner inventory “isn’t comfortable work” for either white clinicians or their clients, acknowledges Celano. “It can be painful to become aware of racism in yourself—not just at a cognitive level, but as a real emotional experience,” she says. It’s no small thing to face your own racial privilege, and to acknowledge that your cherished “colorblindness” is a myth that actually perpetuates racial injustice because it glides right past the ugly truths of racism. But when a therapist does this personal work, it can generate a powerful domino effect: by exploring and owning their own biases, clinicians will be better able to support white parents in facing theirs, which in turn can empower parents to teach genuinely antiracist beliefs and behavior to their children.
The Moment is Now
It’s a reasonable bet that, in the whole of U.S. history, white people have never been as eager to learn about racism as they are now. Podcasts and webinars and blogs and op-eds on race are rocketing back and forth across social media. And for months now, books on racism have dominated both the Amazon and New York Times bestseller lists: during one week in June, a mind-boggling 9 of the 10 top-selling nonfiction books on the Times list focused on racism and antiracism.
Children’s books on racial injustice are likewise sailing off the shelves, with the most popular titles frequently out of stock while publishers scramble to reprint. Even books for the youngest readers are having their day: Ibram X. Kendi’s Antiracist Baby, a board book for babies and toddlers that came out in June, was originally slated for a first run of 50,000 books, but in response to prepublication demand the publisher printed an additional 100,000 copies. Sesame Street teamed up with CNN to air a town hall special on racism that reached more than 4 million kids and parents, and dozens of other children’s shows have presented programming that eschews the “we’re all equal” fable and calls racism by its rightful name.
The explosion of interest is extraordinary, heartening, and pretty close to the definition of a teachable moment. Of the many actions adults can take to combat racism, educating children to become conscious, active antiracists has to be among the most vital. To illustrate the stakes, Tatum recalls a Washington Post story she read, an account of four white teenagers who, as a “senior prank,” spray-painted racist slurs and “KKK” all over the sidewalks, trash cans, and loading dock of their Maryland high school—more than 100 insults and threatening images in all. All four young men were arrested, tried, and convicted of a hate crime.
At his son’s sentencing hearing, one father stood before the judge to say that throughout the boy’s childhood, he believed that he’d modeled racial acceptance. But the thing was, he’d never actually talked with the boy about the ugliness of racism. He’d never told his son how profoundly hurtful certain words and symbols could be. “It’s not what I said in my home,” this father said. “It’s what I didn’t say.”
And that is why, says Tatum, “Silence is not an option.”
Photo © Upsplash/Nathan Dumlao
Marian Sandmaier is the author of two nonfiction books, Original Kin: The Search for Connection Among Adult Sisters and Brothers (Dutton-Penguin) and The Invisible Alcoholics: Women and Alcohol Abuse in America (McGraw-Hill). She is Features Editor at Psychotherapy Networker and has written for the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, and other publications. Sandmaier has discussed her work on the Oprah Winfrey Show, the Today Show, and NPR’s “All Things Considered” and “Fresh Air.” On several occasions, she has received recognition from the American Society of Journalists and Authors for magazine articles on psychology and behavior. Most recently, she won the 2021 ASJA first-person essay award for her article “Hanging Out with Dick Van Dyke” on her inconvenient attack of shyness while interviewing. You can learn more about her work at www.mariansandmaier.net.