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Discussing Race with White Children: Part 1

July 08, 2020
by Jessica Wilen and Anna Warbelow

The tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery have once again highlighted the role that structural racism plays in American society, and many white parents are now feeling a sense of urgency to discuss race and racism with their children. These types of conversations are new for many white families but are an essential step for creating a more equitable and just future for all children. Some parents feel nervous discussing these topics with their children because they fear that pointing out differences reinforces stereotypes. In fact, research shows us that the opposite is true--frank conversations about race reduce childrens’ racial bias (Hughes et al., 2007; Katz, 2003). Because of current events, these conversations feel pressing and they are. However, before talking with kids, it is important to engage in both self-reflection and education.

All challenging parenting conversations benefit from prior introspection, but self-examination is especially important on this topic since most white people aren’t socialized to think about their “whiteness.” Being white in America means our privilege is often invisible to us, and that we are not forced to grapple with issues of race on a regular basis. Before starting a conversation with your children, take the time to reflect on the following questions. If you have a co-parent, it is useful to discuss these topics together:

  • When did you first realize you were white and that other people weren’t white?
  • Growing up, did your family ever talk about race? What explicit and implicit messages did you receive about race from your family? Your school? The media? What messages did you receive about police officers?
  • What was the racial makeup of your neighborhood? Teams and organizations you were a part of? Your faith community? What about now?
  • Who were your friends growing up? Who are your friends now? If you are friends with people of color, do you talk about race, racism or oppression?
  • What are the racial identities of your colleagues and mentors? What are the racial identities of key professionals you interact with (doctor, dentist, childcare providers, etc.)?
  • How have the messages you received in childhood impacted your adult life and the decisions you make now? What kinds of messages would you like your children to receive?

In addition to self-reflection, it is important to educate yourself about race and racism (an important first step of allyship) and make sure you understand current events before you try to explain them to your children. Read about race, bias, racism, whiteness, and how to be an antiracist. Stay up-to-date on the protests and the conversations around police reform. We recommend the following resources:

-Smithosian's "Talking About Race" Portal

-Welcome to the Anti-Racist Movement, Here’s What You Missed

-Implicit Bias Explained - Perception Institute

-Book Recommendations: “How to be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi; “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo; “White Like Me” by Tim Wise; “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates; “The Blind Spot” by Anthony Greenwald and Mahzarin Banaji

-Other Media: “13th” (documentary), “1619” (New York Times podcast), Ibram X. Kendi TED Talk “How to Build an Antiracist World”

The more informed you are, the more comfortable you will be initiating a conversation with your children. Confronting privilege and acknowledging biases can be painful and emotionally draining, but it is important work that needs to be addressed on an ongoing basis. In the next installment, we will provide specific talking points and helpful conversation starters.

Jessica Wilen, PhD is an assistant professor at the Yale Child Study Center, where she manages the Viola W. Bernard Fund for Innovation in Mental Health Care, focused on promoting health equity and access for vulnerable children and their families. She is also the mom of a five-year-old son and two-year-old daughter.

Anna Warbelow, PhD is Director of Equity and Inclusion at Whitfield School, an independent middle and high school in St. Louis, MO and the mother of two young children.

Submitted by Lauren Perry on July 08, 2020