Talk to Your Kids (and Other Parents) About Racism
Looking to raise children with the knowledge and skills they need to show up for social justice? A new book gathers the experience of diverse families into a thoughtful, collaborative, and heart-centered parenting guide with a difference. Parenting for Social Justice: Tips, Tools, and Inspiration for Conversations and Action with Kids weaves context, comics, personal stories, and how-tos for ages 0-10 in chapters on race, class, gender, disability, and collective liberation.
“Beloved community is formed not by the eradication of difference but by its affirmation, by each of us claiming the identities and cultural legacies that shape who we are and how we live in the world. …We deepen those bondings by connecting them with an anti-racist struggle.” —bell hooks, from killing rage: Ending Racism.
Chrissy: I was born in Newark, New Jersey—“Brick City”—a city infamous for its racial riots, its failing schools, its murder and car theft rates. This is the city I was born in, grew up in, learned to read in, built relationships in. It was here that I experienced and learned about racism. The baby of five children, I grew up in a housing project in “Down Neck Newark”—the Ironbound section. I was raised by a village in a single parent home, to a fiercely Puerto Rican mother.
Angela: I grew up in an all-white family with Danish, Irish, English, and German ancestry that I know hardly anything about. I still don’t have anybody in my whole extended family who is a person of color. I married a white man who also grew up in a white family and doesn’t have any people of color in his extended family. I grew up in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota. I went to a high school of about 2,000 students, which was over 95% white. This context shaped my understanding of racism.
Be Brave—Start Talking
Most of us, and white folks in particular, have not been taught how to talk honestly and constructively about race, so we just avoid it. But we know that kids pick up on the racist messages all around them, both subtle and overt, whether or not we talk about it. Kids have an innate sense of fairness and justice, and the unequal valuing of people in our society doesn’t make sense to them. Giving kids a historical and present-day context both of the problem and of the vision for justice is important for their understanding so they can have a strong sense of self and their place in the world, and so that they can start to learn the tools they need to show up for racial justice.
No matter what race or ethnicity you are, it is really heartbreaking to talk about the violence carried out to ensure the continuation of white supremacy—people who bomb Black churches and Jewish synagogues, police officers who kill Black men with their hands up in surrender, and are then acquitted, a political system that intentionally cages millions of people in for-profit prisons and detention centers, including separating detained parents from their children. We want to protect our kids from this violent reality. However, our avoidance has serious ramifications. We cannot solve a problem if we keep avoiding it, and we cannot prepare our children to face and change the realities of the world if we hide difficult truths. Violence is a daily reality for many people in the U.S. and around the world. So let’s start seeing it and talking about it. Our kids are part of the present and future world, so let’s get them in on this discussion and action as early as possible.
As parents of kids of color, we have to talk to our kids about race and what it means to grow up in a racialized society. We might already be talking about race with people in our racial group, but we will also still need to examine our learned biases and internalized racial inferiority so that we can communicate across races from a place of awareness and reflection. We have a choice in what we teach kids about race. Do we only teach them how to survive in a racist society (which is already a lot)? Or do we also teach them where racism comes from and how to fight for racial justice?
I realized early on in my parenting that I would have to be very intentional about keeping the conversation about race and racism open and relevant in my children’s lives.
As a mother, if I (Chrissy) ignore this work, I leave my son vulnerable and risk his sense of self. I want my son to develop a strong sense of self worth, to honor and celebrate his identity so that he can cope with the racialized messages he will encounter throughout his life. At the same time, I want him to recognize his resilience and power in confronting racism and in being an advocate for change. I find that being in community with other parents of color who are actively thinking about what this looks like provides me with perspective, language, and approaches to try at home. In addition, intentionally doing my own work—reflecting on my identity and my position in the world—helps me develop the language, stances and skills I want to transfer to my son.
As white folks, we have to be really intentional in talking with our kids about race and what it means to grow up in a racialized society. The privilege of whiteness in a racist society has blinded us to the ways we benefit from racism. To continue to recognize how whiteness works, it is really helpful to meet with other parents or white peers, especially groups that have accountability to POC-led anti-racist groups. We too have a choice in what we teach kids about race. Do we only teach them to be kind to people of all races? Or do we also teach them where racism comes from and how to fight for racial justice?
As a white person raising white kids, I (Angela) recognize how easy it is to avoid talking about race. I notice many white people around me talking about kindness and compassion and civic engagement as a stand-in for talking about issues of racial injustice. These three qualities are good, but they do not go far enough. They do not ensure that the root causes of injustice are named and addressed.
It is much easier and often more politically correct to say, “We are all the same!” than, “In our society it is harder for Black and Latinx folks to get good housing, good food, well-paying jobs, educational opportunities, and to find justice in a court of law. All humans are valuable, race has nothing to do with value. Our family is showing up with lots of other people so that every person will be treated fairly and justly and have the food, housing, jobs, and education they need. And we advocate for reparations for past harm that has been done.” I realized early on in my parenting that I would have to be very intentional about keeping the conversation about race and racism open and relevant in my children’s lives. I can now see the fruit of those early conversations. They are noticing and naming racism when they see it, and they are also naming where they see the need for justice.
Excerpted from Parenting for Social Justice: Tips, Tools, and Inspiration for Conversations and Action with Kids by Angela Berkfield with co-authors Chrissy Colón Bradt, Leila Raven, Jaimie Lynn Kessell, Rowan Parker, and Abigail Healey. Illustrated by Brittney Washington. Forewords by Autumn Brown and Chris Crass. Excerpt appears with permission of the publisher, Green Writers Press. www.parenting4socialjustice.com
Chrissy Colón Bradt is an educator and mom to two children under the age of 6. As an Afro-Latina in an interracial marriage, Chrissy is keenly aware of her family’s intersecting identities and privilege.
Angela Berkfield lives in southern Vermont and is a parent of two young boys who are advantaged because of race, class, gender, and ability. Angela has taught in a variety of settings over the past two decades and is a co-founder of the Root Social Justice Center, ACT for Social Justice, and Equity Solutions.