Growing up in the predominantly white Puget Sound region, I don’t remember a lot of family conversations about race. But my lawyer parents, both public defenders, shared a law practice in Tacoma’s racially diverse Hilltop neighborhood, where I could see race all around me. I saw how their clients with black and brown skin fared differently in the criminal justice system than those with white skin, even if I didn’t fully understand why.
Some 30 years later, I know a lot more about how racial identities impact our lives. My daughter now attends middle school in the same neighborhood where I first started thinking about racial equity, less than half a mile from my childhood home. Her school feels inclusive and welcoming, and her teachers are great guides. But that doesn’t mean I get to skip important conversations about race with her, because I’m learning that we still have a lot of ground to cover together.
Why talk about race?
Before they can even talk, kids are forming ideas about race. A number of studies, including Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s famous 1947 doll study, show that children can identify racial characteristics in early childhood, associate positive characteristics with white skin, and show a preference for their own race from infancy.
Education and systems consultant Erin Jones of Lacey, Washington, cites the doll study in her workshops on racial equity. “We’re making decisions about skin color really early in life,” says Jones, a former school administrator. “We’re getting messages from the world about what’s good and what’s bad and who’s smart and who’s not, and we have to disrupt those messages that kids are getting.”
Adults need to be understanding but also use a teachable moment to help build language to talk about uncomfortable or tough topics.
Create a safe space
So, how can parents start “the talk”? Begin by establishing a safe space where kids know it’s okay to say the “wrong” thing because you’re all learning together. Kids should know that if they use the wrong word, parents or other trusted adults won’t flip out, says Hope Teague-Bowling, an English teacher at Tacoma’s Lincoln High School and cohost of the “Interchangeable White Ladies” podcast.
Focus on a kid’s intent, not on terms that might be outdated or misinformed, Teague-Bowling says. “Adults need to be understanding but also use a teachable moment to help build language to talk about uncomfortable or tough topics. In the classroom, I hear all sorts of terms, and I usually ask students to explain their thinking or choice of words. Then, we discuss the impact of their words or how they come across.”
When people are afraid of messing up, they stop talking about race, says Jones. “I approach this topic with grace and mercy — I assume the best intent. We have to create a dynamic where we let people make mistakes.”
In episode two of the “Interchangeable White Ladies” podcast, Teague-Bowling notes that students are seeing and experiencing different things related to racial equity, but they don’t always have the capacity to talk about it. Parents can help by giving kids the most basic building block for communicating about race: language.
Jones starts workshops this way, because talking about race gets easier once people learn and use common language. “We talk about the difference between race — which is kind of a created thing but still something we need to talk about — and ethnicity and culture, and why it’s important for multi-ethnic and biracial students to have the power to identify themselves as they choose. And why we might say ‘black and brown people,’ which I tend to use more than ‘people of color.’”
Keep talking and be willing to grow.
From color-blind to color-brave
Well-intentioned white parents might be squeamish about race conversations because they embrace a “color-blind” ideal — an “I don’t see color” world in which racial identities don’t matter. Though color blindness comes from a well-intentioned place, it’s problematic.
“As white people, we tend to promote color blindness because we think that’s the best way to make the world fair and equal,” says Teague-Bowling. “But the reality is that our racial divide is our history. Whether it’s slavery or the internment of Japanese Americans, we need to see all the pieces as part of our history — we aren’t removed from it.”
“When you say you’re color-blind, what I hear is that you don’t see me,” says Jones. “Instead of color-blind, be color-brave.”
That means acknowledging the role that race plays in our country’s history and how racial identities impact people today, Jones says. And while this does involve broaching some difficult topics, such as oppression and white privilege, it also involves casual, everyday conversation about the people in your child’s world.
“We can talk about black excellence, for example, and talk about someone’s race as another positive attribute and part of who they are,” says Teague-Bowling.
For today’s kids, who are growing up amid deep political, social and economic divides, conversations about race can build critical thinking skills and empathy, tools they need to understand and navigate their world, says Teague-Bowling.
And for white people like me who want to do a better job of communicating about race, listening is just as important as talking.
“This is a process for all of us, and you’ve just got to arrive knowing that you’re not going to get it all fixed,” says Jones. “Keep talking and be willing to grow.”