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White parents: Talking to your children about racism is part of the solution

White parents: Talking to your children about racism is part of the solution
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Having “the talk” — discussing racism and buffering children from racist experiences — is a task shouldered by families of color. Seldom do white parents have “the talk” with their children about how they benefit from a system that privileges their whiteness. 

When white parents have critical and honest conversations with their children about the advantages they have unfairly inherited, they can play a profound role in remedying the pervasive legacy of racism and eliminating discrimination and prejudice. 

We are public health, developmental and critical race scientists who study race, racism and parenting practices. Along with colleagues across the country — Anjum Hajat (University of Washington), Elizabeth Reed (San Diego State University), Margie Skeer (Tufts University), and Kara Chung and Connor Martz (Auburn University) — we collected data on more than 2,000 adults in Chicago, Los Angeles, New Orleans and New York to study how people’s racial attitudes are shaped by how they were parented.

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Among white respondents, 73 percent said their parents or caregivers “never” or “rarely” talked with them about racial differences, and 65 percent said their families “never” or “rarely” talked to them about racism.

White children learn from their parents’ silence. Children may view differences that are more often talked about, such as those around gender, as being important. They may interpret the dearth of conversations on race to mean that it is less important, doesn’t matter, or should be ignored.

Even when race and racial injustice become visible in the news, like the racial justice rallies occurring across the globe, most white parents actively avoid having discussions about race and racism. One study showed that only 30 percent of white parents discussed race with their children following the protests in Cincinnati in 2001 and Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. 

Research shows that on the rare occasions when white parents do discuss race, they are often reactive, meaning that conversations are initiated in response to an incident — something that happened at school, for example — and not proactively initiated by the parent. Those conversations also tend to be around the “happy diversity rhetoric” or the lens of “we don’t see race.” Though well-intentioned, colorblind conversations can actually undermine efforts to achieve equity. 

What happens when white parents break the race silence and talk to their kids about racism?

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In our study, we found that those who had conversations about racism with their parents while growing up had a greater awareness of white racial privilege and institutional racism. Perhaps even more telling — of those who were parented about racism at least “on occasion,” 91 percent had discussions about racism with their own children.

The problem is that too few white parents are having these discussions. One commonly cited reason is that they want to prevent their children from needless worry. Children, however, possess a strong sense of right and wrong and can even feel empowered to intervene. This makes discussions around racism and unfair treatment developmentally appropriate even at early ages.

Part of the solution is to have more critical conversations about race and racism. These conversations should happen between parents and their children, but also with other family members and relatives. Open dialogue about racism can be part of a larger comprehensive, intergenerational and societal movement to eliminate racism and its consequences. These conversations are not about instilling white guilt, but rather providing children with the tools to become strong anti-racist partners.

What would our country look like today if these conversations were more pervasive a generation ago? 

David Chae is Human Sciences associate professor and director of the Society, Health, and Racial Equity (SHARE) Lab at Auburn University. Leoandra Onnie Rogers is an assistant professor of psychology director of the Development of Identities in Cultural Environments (DICE) research lab at Northwestern University. Tiffany Yip is chair, professor of Psychology and the director of the Youth Development in Diverse Contexts Lab at Fordham University.