Raising Kids to Understand Race

My heart, and the hearts of people I love, are hurting. The events in the last few weeks have been horrifying, including the 49 people (mostly Latinx) killed at a gay nightclub in Orlando, the shooting and killing of two black men (Alton Sterling and Philando Castile) by police officers, and the subsequent shooting of 5 police officers at a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas.  But these events are not new, and they do not exist in a vacuum.  They are a result of ongoing systemic racism and oppression, of very intentional and not so intentional cementing of white privilege.

In the midst of this news, it is easy to feel hopeless, and overwhelmed with stagnating sadness.  Many white people I know are asking, “But what can we do?”  In fact, there is a LOT we can do.  And many people have said it better than I ever could, such as here.

In addition to that, parents have a unique space in anti-racist activism.  In honor of that space, and considering the current relevance, I’m re-posting a blog post I did back in October on our duty to raise anti-racist allies.  In the blog I have two amazing guest speakers talk about how they are having these conversations with their children.  The hope is, if we start from the beginning, right from the beginning, we have a chance at shaping something better for them.  Thanks for reading.

Image from uua.org

Image from uua.org


The Waking Life “scandal” in 2016 stirred up a lot for me, as well as for many of my clients, friends and colleagues.  One of the aspects that it brought to the forefront of my mind was something I’ve thought about on and off since the moment I knew I was giving birth to a son.  Specifically, a white son (who may, or may not, turn out to also be a white cisgender heterosexual son… to be determined).  I still remember the moment my wonderful OB/GYN, along with my midwife, pointed to a little splotch on the ultrasound screen and said “See that?  That’s not a third leg”.  I was delighted, filled with love and picturing snuggling a little boy’s warm, soft head of curls.  And then, shortly after that, I was thinking “Dang, I’ve got my work cut out for me”.

Mainly, how do we raise our kiddos to be aware of injustices, to take an active part in the social justice community if they feel driven, while at the same time protect them from feeling shamed or overwhelmed?  That is a BIG, terrifying task.  And it’s one that I think about every single day.  My son is only 9 months now, but I already see how much he takes in his environment, how he is a little sponge that soaks up what people say and how they act.

That being said, I knew I couldn’t tackle this particular blog on my own.  Nor should I, since I’m not the expert.  So I reached out to some dear friends who I knew could help.

Below, you’ll find Part I of this blog, looking at two sides of raising our kids to understand and deal with race.  I’ve pulled in some amazing guest “speakers” for this one, so enjoy.

A: Raising my Brown Daughter to be Proud by Susana Parras, LCSW:

I was talking to a white social work intern today about how to talk to little kids about race and gender inequalities in group/individual therapy sessions. She also shared her struggle with how to talk about these topics with her own daughter. She said, “I made the mistake early on of teaching her to not see color and therefore not discuss it but that has backfired.”  I didn’t dare ask in the moment what that looked like- the backfiring part. Not because I was afraid or nervous to know but because I would become triggered, meaning I would shake my head, validate and find some supportive statement and immediately feel angry and resentful. Self-preservation is teaching me to pick my battles.  White people, whether it be a far right overt racist or an anti-racist organizer, must grapple with their own anxieties and guilt.

My part in all of this is to create a space in my home where:

–        My daughter loves the skin she’s in and is proud and empowered by the history she comes from while developing her own protective shield against the world she will interact with on a daily basis.

–       Having her know her culture is about more than talking Spanish to her. Loving herself and her Guatemalan/Mexican ancestry is about loving herself just as she is– light skin and everything but also loving brown skin, her father’s brown skin which she came from. Instilling self-love as a norm.

–       I also want her to appreciate my love handles and know that mom enjoying her body just as it is, is normal. Self-hate and self-deprecation will be an anomaly in our home.  I have her kiss her mirror image as I whisper in her ear “tu eres bella, mi vida.” (“You are beautiful, my love”).

–       I read books to her that have brown/black characters

–       We plan for her to attend public school where the majority are brown and black kids and we plan to continue to live and plant our roots in a community that looks like us and is in close proximity to black people, where we have intimate and loving relationships with black and brown people. Our baby girl will not grow up with a fake/empty approach towards darker skinned people-she will love, respect and value those that are traditionally marginalized.

–       Her dad will tell her stories of how white people have used/use their power for bad and how men use their power for bad. He will make history palpable and accessible for her.

–       We will instill in her a sense of pride and strength. She will know the resiliency and power that runs through her veins from those that came before her.

–       The foundation for her consciousness, insight and self-love will be laid strong so when she interacts with men, white people and people of color- she will have the tools and knowledge of how to interact and stay true to herself.

I also know that her dad and I will not be able to control this in its entirety, but we will be able to control the foundation we lay.  And while I am an optimist at heart, I know that the reality is that she will go out into the world eventually and decide for herself, but the hope is that her decisions later on in life are informed by our work and dedication to shape a strong girl of color early on.  (For more from Susana Parras, check out her beautiful blog).

image from studentaffairscollective.org

image from studentaffairscollective.org

B: Raising My White Kids to be Anti-Racist by Shuli Lotan, LCSW

As a White social worker who is passionate about issues of race and privilege, having children really shed a whole new light on the importance of learning how to talk about race with White people – little White people, who are my responsibility to raise.  I have to admit that I hope they will one day become activists in the anti-racism movement as well, but I may not be able to control that – so at the very least I can help them become aware of their privileges as White people in a racist system.

Here are a few things that I have learned (so far) along the way that have been helpful:

  • It’s never too early to start the conversation. Children’s books offer plenty of opportunities in this arena, where we can notice who is and who isn’t represented in the pictures of books we have at home or at the library, where we can name color and shades of skin and pigment to make sure that Whiteness is neither the norm or un-named and invisible. For more on this topic, check out the organization Reading While White.
  • Although exposure to diversity is important (whether in books or real life interactions), exposure alone does not necessitate anti-racist attitudes. So its important to talk with kids about the history of the white supremacist system we live in, as well as privilege, oppression and power dynamics that continue to play out today – the level of these conversations is sure to evolve as kids get older but its always possible to discuss these complex topics in a developmentally appropriate way.
  • An attitude of curiosity goes a long way in terms of wondering about the meaning that kids make of race; as much as we might feel moved to quickly react if we hear something that sounds racist from one of our kids, we risk shaming them or shutting down conversations if we don’t slow down and try to respond with curiosity. For example, my son mentioned at the dinner table that he was “glad he didn’t have dark skin”. Instead of saying “it’s not nice to say that” and unintentionally sending the message that it’s not “polite” to talk about race, I asked him what he meant.  We can’t assume until we explore.
  • Allies are key. We can’t do this work alone – the more I talk about the challenges I face as a white parent committed to raising anti-racist kids, the more I find other parents that are experiencing the same issues. With the explosion of social media, the racial justice movement is growing and there are so many great resources out there. A few of my current favorites are Raising Race Conscious Children and the Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) Families Group. For me, it has become essential to integrate the activist and parent roles in my self, as it feels too compartmentalized when I feel like I am not being a good enough mom if I’m spending too much time in my activist role, and not a good enough activist if I am spending my time with family.  Being a parent activist can be a both/and, instead of an either/or situation. Hopefully we can join together in the work of raising the next generation of anti racist white kids so that they won’t have to do the same.

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