It’d be great if racism didn’t exist. If you didn’t have to give your kid an explanation for why a person clutched a bag as a black man walked by. If black families didn’t have to hold multiple versions of “the talk” in hopes that their child doesn’t become the next Michael Brown or George Floyd. But that’s not our current reality, nor has it been across our nation’s entire history.
As psychologist Beverly Tatum puts it, anti-blackness is a smog, one we’re breathing in everywhere, knowingly or not.
“Cultural racism — the cultural images and messages that affirm the assumed superiority of Whites and the assumed inferiority of people of color — is like a smog in the air,” writes Tatum in her book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria: And Other Conversations About Race. “Sometimes, it is so thick it is visible, other times it is less apparent, but always, day in and day out, we are breathing it in.”
How do you raise a child to become anti-racist in a country entrenched in systemic racism?
For starters, begin now. Don’t let uncomfortableness or fear of not having all the answers stop you from diving into the education process, even if it means learning alongside your kid, say experts.
“Start where you can. It’s not a checklist of things that you and your kids do, and then you can say you’re done and you’re not racist,” says Beatriz Beckford, black mom of two and senior campaign director of MomsRising, a grassroots organization cohosting a nationwide family virtual protest for Black Lives Matter. “It’s a constant practice — we have 400 years of racial injustice to unlearn.”
For many, that starting point requires reflecting on your own values, actions, and beliefs.
BECOME YOUR OWN ROLE MODEL
“It always starts with the parents. If you want kids to be anti-racist, then you need to first work on yourself to become anti-racist,” says Tonya Ladipo, CEO of The Ladipo Group, a therapy and counseling practice working with black communities.
You are your child’s first teacher. You’re who your child looks to for reassurance. If you have underlying biases, they will absorb those.
“They learn from you who’s safe and who’s unsafe, who we cross the street when we’re around and who we don’t, what neighborhoods we go to, and which are considered ‘bad’,” says Ladipo.
Check out a book that helps you gain a deeper understanding of the history of racism, racial inequality, and your own underlying biases. There are tons of resources online pointing to where you can start, like this list from Ibram X. Kendi, author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, How to Be an Antiracist, and soon-to-be-released Antiracist Baby.
Then, serve as a role model. If you witness someone doing something racist, don’t remain silent. And be aware of your own actions. If you cross the street as a person of color approaches, your kids will notice it, whether consciously or not.
Recognize up-front that you will make mistakes. That’s OK. Find a way to learn from them.
“No one is perfect in this work. When you mess up, let your kids call you on it or acknowledge it, and then talk about it,” says Dr. Nia Heard-Garris, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics section on minority health, equity, and inclusion.
While black families have no choice but to start addressing race early on, it’s not a topic any parent should wait to introduce.
Studies show that by 3 months old, babies start to prefer faces from their own ethnic group. As they reach toddler age, kids begin to absorb parents’ positive attitudes and negative biases attached to race and ethnicity. And as they near kindergarten, they start to understand name-calling and seek out labels for racial identity.
“This is the age where you’ll hear some kids say things like ‘Is that person made from chocolate?’” says Heard-Garris. “They’re trying to make sense of the world and are highly influenced by how adults answer those questions.”
No matter their age, encourage kids to share their observations and be respectfully curious about race.
“If they’re asking about skin color, rather than saying ‘We don’t talk about things like that,’ making the topic taboo, say something like, ‘Yes, look at their skin, it’s so beautiful, and it’s different from ours, and that’s what makes us all so special,’” says Heard-Garris.
By age 5 or 6, children start to see themselves as a member of a certain racial group, and by age 9 or 10, racist attitudes start to solidify.
“You really have to work hard before kids become preadolescent because at that point, it takes life-changing experiences to change their minds,” says Heard-Garris.
If your kids are older and you haven’t started anti-racism discussions, it’s never too late. Age shouldn’t be an excuse to let things remain as is or to avoid challenging conversations, says Dr. Angela T. Anderson, psychiatrist with the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
“If you’re not having these conversations, it makes it more difficult to find out if your 9-year-old has implicit biases, and they’re going to lean on their peers to have those conversations, when really you want them to be turning to you,” says Anderson.
ACKNOWLEDGE AND CELEBRATE DIFFERENCES
Experts say don’t take a “color-blind” approach.
“When someone says they’re color-blind, they’re saying they don’t see me, they don’t see race, and that can lend a hand to ignoring systematic issues such as oppression and racism that this country was built upon,” says Anderson. “It teaches the child that race shouldn’t be talked about, and this will make it harder for them to talk about these issues as adults.”
Encourage curiosity and celebration of our differences, while acknowledging that both race and racism is real.
HAVE THOSE UNCOMFORTABLE CONVERSATIONS, OFTEN
At the heart of raising an anti-racist kid is developing an ongoing dialogue about racism. If you stay silent, the world will shape your kid for you.
“For some, this will be an abrupt shift because this isn’t how they had conversations before, but parents can be honest,” says Ladipo. “You can say, ‘this might be uncomfortable because we’ve never talked about this, but that was an oversight on my part as a parent.’”
Create a space where kids feel comfortable asking questions, and answer honestly, even if that means saying, ‘I’m not sure, let’s look that answer up together.’ How you talk to your kids will depend on their age, but experts say you can let them guide the way. Their questions are clues about what they’re ready for.
“Talking about racism isn’t a one-time conversation, and you’ll never become completely comfortable,” says Heard-Garris. “But it’s like riding a bike. As you do it more, the better you become.”
EXPOSE YOUR KIDS TO DIVERSITY
Pay attention to who you and your kids spend time with.
“It’s going to be really hard to convince your kids that people of color are good and you should value them if you only spend time with white people,” says Ladipo.
If you lack a racially diverse social circle, now’s not the time to run out in search of tons of new friends. That would be disingenuous, Ladipo points out. Be intentional, and in the meantime, seek out environments where your kids can experience diversity. This could mean choosing a diverse summer camp or place of worship to visit once a month that’s different from your usual spot.
EDUCATE THROUGH MEDIA
Take note of what your kids are ingesting. Invest in books (and toys and dolls) with characters of all backgrounds. The Brown Bookshelf, EmbraceRace, and CommonSense Media all list recommendations online.
Seek out movies and TV shows, too, that don’t feature solely white actors.
“We like to watch a lot of movies, and when I notice a racist moment, I’ll pause the movie and we’ll have a discussion,” says Heard-Garris, mom to a 7-year-old son. “You can’t protect them from ever experiencing something bad or racist, but you can certainly explain it and use it as a teaching moment.”