There are many things I was not prepared for when I became a stepmom. But one topic that’s glaringly at the front of my mind these days is how to talk to and teach my white kids about race and social injustice.
Talking About Race Is Hard. And I’ll Probably Say The Wrong Thing.
George Floyd’s senseless death hit hard. The callous and brutal murder of a man by the very people who are supposed to protect against injustice was a wake-up call.
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And I’ve struggled with how to express myself on the topic. Both to my readers and to my stepchildren.
Look, the reality is that I’m white. Really white.
Like so white that when my husband and I got our 23 and Me results, they confirmed that (with apologies to Lizzo), “I’m 100% that WASP.” Literally all my genes trace back to Ireland, Scotland, England, and France.
And I’m privileged. I don’t mean Kardashian privileged, let’s be clear. Not even close. But my parents worked hard to allow me to attend private school growing up and to ensure that if I worked hard, too, the opportunities would be there – in part due to privilege.
I’ve always known racism is wrong. I remember conversations with my parents about that. But I don’t ever remember talking to them, or to my peers or my teachers, about the systematic injustice that props up racial divides. Or about unconscious bias.
While we did not have many students of color at my high school, the school was small enough that to my knowledge there were not real racial social divisions. At least that I noticed. I had black, brown, and white friends. In retrospect, I’d love to know how my friends of color perceived things. I wish I had asked. It simply didn’t occur to me.
I now know enough to understand that I’ll never fully comprehend what Blacks and people of color experience in our country on a daily basis. But I can comprehend that their feelings (which are non-negotiable) are real and rightfully painful.
When I was in law school, I was fortunate to study under a renowned death penalty defense lawyer. I also interned for him and went to death row to meet with clients. That experience opened my eyes to a system that was built upon injustice. Among other inequities, it was patently clear that if you were white and had the money for a good attorney, you had a chance. If you weren’t and didn’t, even if you were innocent, the system worked against you.
Since school, I’ve had a very fortunate and successful career. I have absolutely worked for it. But I’m also very sure that it would have been far more difficult with systemic racism working against me.
And so I’ve never felt like I had the standing to write about race. What if I said the wrong thing – or worse unintentionally offended someone? But George Floyd’s death and the unrest that followed have made me realize that now is not the time for any of us to stay silent or sit still.
And that those of us who have a platform, whatever size it is, should use it.
The Only Thing Worse Than Saying The Wrong Thing Is To Say Nothing.
My husband and I have talked to our kids about racial injustice over the years. And we’ve tried to set a good example for them on doing the right things and treating all people with respect.
But I’ve learned a lot in the last couple of weeks. Namely that there’s more we can and must be doing. We must do better ourselves – and also lay the groundwork for the next generation to build upon the progress and usher in systemic change.
So let’s do just that and discuss how to talk to our white kids about race and social injustice.
Stepmoms have a unique role to play in talking about race with our kids. We’re not a biological parent so sometimes we can have a more open discussion with our kids about all this.
I’ve noticed times when our kids are willing to have more candid talks with me than they would with their dad. Not always, but around certain subjects. If that’s the case for you, use the opportunity.
I don’t have all the answers and I don’t pretend to. But please bear with me as I try to use this small platform to speak from the heart.
Nine Ways You Can Talk To Your Kids About Race
Talk To Your Kids About Race Openly And Often.
Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of “How to Raise an Adult” and “Real American,” told NBC that, “Parents need to take stock of the community in which they are raising their kids, talk about the racial differences and how people are sometimes treated unfairly on the basis of race, and prepare their child to be self-aware, smart, and safe out there.”
There’s no right way to talk to kids about race. The important thing is that you talk about it. Explain that yes, people look different. And unfortunately, our country has a long unresolved history of mistreating and unlawfully killing Black men.
And that perhaps this most recent, horrific murder will be the tipping point for positive change.
Ask your kids how they view the world and what they’ve observed that’s been unfair or unjust. I think you’ll be surprised at how much they see.
It’s tempting to teach your kids that everyone is the same and that they shouldn’t see color. Of course, true equality should be what we aspire to. But it’s not the reality. So telling them that we’re all equal, or that we’re all the same beneath our skin, really doesn’t combat racism. It could actually stunt your child’s understanding of racial inequality.
And shying away from talking about race won’t help either. It will just mean that your child’s assumptions will largely come from what they observe in and about society. Which means they might start making some unhealthy assumptions or adopting troubling beliefs.
Instead, renowned author Dr. Jennifer Harvey recommends having “diverse . . . imaging in their books, in their dolls, in their toys” and “talking about skin color when they’re really little. Discussing language and physical observation early with our children also sets them up a little bit developmentally for the next stage of life when they are learning that race is this thing and they start having words for some of that.”
As kids learn and grow, they look at the world around them. And they really do take in much more than you think they do.
They see that people come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Which means you can help them embrace and value the differences.
When kids are really young, talk to them about different cultures. Ask them what they think it might be like to be a member of those cultures. If they can put themselves in others’ shoes it will help them develop empathy.
Through elementary school, you can slowly advance the conversation. Talk to them about how things can be unfair because of a person’s skin color, culture, or religion. And how important inclusiveness and tolerance are.
With teens, the conversations can get more nuanced. They may begin to see things at school they’re uncomfortable with. Talk to them about their feelings around that. And around current events, even the hurtful and heartbreaking headlines.
If the senseless death of George Floyd has taught me anything it’s that even if you don’t consider yourself racist, you could (and should) still stand to learn more about your unconscious attitudes towards others. As you consider how to talk to your kids about race, put together a plan to educate your family.
If you can embark on a learning journey as a family, you’ll have the opportunity for some great discussions around the dinner table. And you can plan some family activities that might help you to bond.
I’ve put together a list of resources at the end of this piece that should help you get started.
Read with them.
Despite my hesitance to put pen to paper on the subject, I do talk to my stepkids about race.
My stepdaughter and I read the book Just Mercy last year. (if you haven’t read it, it should be required reading)
We had a number of discussions about race and the legal system as we each devoured the thought-provoking book.
And when it was made into a movie, I had the opportunity to attend a screening at the National Museum of African American History and Culture here in DC. So I took my family.
I introduced my stepdaughter to Bryan Stevenson, the book’s author, and stumbled over my words trying to express how meaningful his work was to us.
Pick a book or two and get a copy for everyone. Establish a “family book club” where you can dedicate some time to talk about what you’ve read. Even if you just talk about it over dinner, it will be a meaningful way for you all to learn.
Talk about the news.
We watch the evening news with our kids every day. We use news stories to springboard discussions on various issues. With current events, lately, our discussions have focused on racial injustice and our country’s checkered and hurtful history.
We’ve discussed with them why things have been unfair in the past. How things have and haven’t changed as history has marched on. And how we might make a difference.
Depending on their age, let your kids watch the extremely disturbing and painful George Floyd video. It’s hard to watch for anyone with a beating heart. While disgraceful, it’s an important moment in time.
Take them to important race-related historical sites.
In DC, we have the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. If you’re coming to the city, it should be a mandatory visit, especially with kids.
Most major cities, and a host of smaller cities, have some sort of cultural center or museum with opportunities for education and reflection. When you go to a city, do the research to find out. In fact, do the research to see what you might have in your city.
We were in Arkansas with my youngest stepson when he was ten and we took him over to Central High. We spent a lot of time in the visitor’s center talking with him about the significance of the school.
And we walked the steps and to the school’s front door with him. We asked him what he thought it must have felt like having a crowd of rioters in front of your school, outraged at you just being there. We asked him how he thought those kids felt, being escorted into school by the military.
He thought hard for a second or two and responded, “they must have been really scared. That’s not right.”
Being able to walk those steps and have that discussion with him was incredibly impactful. For him and for us.
Encourage Them To Ask Questions.
Kids, especially younger kids, are inquisitive. When they’re really young, they’re likely to ask about why people have different skin colors. Which is a great opportunity to begin a dialogue about how to celebrate and value differences.
As they get older, they might need some encouragement to ask questions. Which can start with you asking questions that make them think. But the more they can learn to ask questions. To be curious and develop empathy. The more they’ll develop a lifelong interest in learning – about all subjects, including this.
I bet you don’t think you’re racist. I certainly don’t think I am. However, I do think that even the most well-intentioned among us have some unconscious bias. That doesn’t make us racist – unless we won’t acknowledge that it exists.
It’s real uncomfortable to think about. And even more awkward to talk about. But doing so will help you address any biases you may have, even if you aren’t aware of them. And continued conversations about bias with your kids will help them tackle theirs, too.
Be An Advocate.
In this post-9/11 age, we often see signs that say, “if you see something, say something.” Well, that shouldn’t just be related to seeing something unsettling at airport security. If you see or hear something racist, something unfair, you need to speak up.
I haven’t always. The easy path is to just let things go, to assume it’s not our business. To assume it’s not our place.
But it is.
If you have a family member who spits out a slur, you need to correct them. If they do it in front of your kids, you should let them know how inappropriate it is and that you don’t want your kids influenced by hatred or ignorance.
Your kids should feel empowered to speak up if one of their friends uses a slur, or worse. If they aren’t sure what to do in the moment, they should be able to recognize it’s wrong and know that they can come to you for guidance.
Whether at work or at home, think about how you can lead a more diverse life. Let your kids see you lean in personally and professionally.
Do all of your friends look the same? If so, think about why that might be. And how you might change that.
Are you in a position to hire? To market and run a business? Then lean into diversity and ensure inclusiveness at every level.
As I’ve thought about what I can and should be doing to better myself and to try to make a positive difference, I pledge to actively seek ways for my online business to be more inclusive.
Whether it is featuring more diverse guest posts or engaging in active outreach to a more diverse readership, I will make sure my business is actively engaged in change that advances racial justice.
Kids are smart. They have sharp eyes – sharper than we give them credit for. If they see you living into diversity, it will make it that much easier for them to, as well.
And as you live it. . .
Support Black And Minority-Owned Businesses.
I’ve seen a number of articles in the past week pointing to great Black-owned businesses that we can all support. I plan to support as many as I can and I hope you will, too.
New York Magazine, Marie Clare, and CNN, are just a few sites that have published some helpful resources on how to locate black-owned businesses, as well as suggestions for those you might support. Bon Appetit has published a pretty thorough compilation of lists of Black-owned businesses.
A quick search on Google should give you even more.
There are literal health benefits to volunteering and helping others in general. I’ve written about how to volunteer with your kids and can’t emphasize enough how much they’ll benefit from doing something for someone else.
There are any number of organizations in every community that you can volunteer with that will help make progress on racial injustice and advance social change. Not all of your volunteer opportunities will be in appropriate venues for kids, but if there are ways to do some things together, take advantage.
I am a longtime member and past president of the Junior League of Washington, whose mission is to provide trained volunteers to improve local communities. Our chapter was one of the first organizations providing emergency relief for local communities after the 1968 riots here in DC. And I serve on the board of an organization that serves pre-kindergarten homeless children in the city.
You can search here to see what organizations might be in your state, and a quick Google search should locate many more.
Resources and Reading
I know there are many, many resources out there that I don’t know about. But here are a few that I have found helpful as I’ve continued my education about these issues:
- The National Museum of African American History and Culture recently released a wonderful online guide called, Talking About Race.
- This pediatric practice has compiled some resources on how to talk to your kids about racism and has a great chart that details how kids view race at different ages.
- Parent Toolkit also has some helpful tips and tools.
- Here’s a great video that explains systemic racism in an easy to understand way. It’s a good bit to watch with your children.
- Raising Race Conscious Children – This website has an endless amount of tools that you can use in talking about race with your kids.
- Here’s a great list of relevant podcasts you might consider listening to.
- The Episcopal Church has put together some great resources on responding to racial violence. They’re not necessarily aimed at kids, but they’re worth looking at.
- Healing Justice On-Demand Class is a pay-what-you-can online course that focuses on the personal, interpersonal, and structural conditions necessary to promote healing in organizations and social movement spaces.
- Embrace Race has a really thorough list of 31 books that will help you have conversations with your kids about race. Parents Choice Foundation has another list that skews a bit older for kids in the tween/teen range.
- The summer before her ninth-grade year, my stepdaughter and I read Just Mercy, which I mentioned above. It was made into a movie and you should watch that, also. You can now stream it on Amazon Prime at no cost.
- The New Jim Crowe: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness spawned a generation of criminal justice reform activists and organizations motivated by the argument that “we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”
- Between the World and Me won the prestigious National Book Award and offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s history and current crisis.
- March, a four book graphic novel series co-authored by Congressman John Lewis. This was required summer reading for my stepdaughter as she entered high school and it’s an amazing narrative of the life and experiences of John Lewis, an American icon who was one of the key figures of the civil rights movement.
- The Hate U Give was also assigned reading at school for my stepdaughter. It’s a powerful story of a young girl who witnesses her childhood best friend being fatally shot by the police.
- Especially useful for white parents, Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America teaches children how to address racism when they encounter it and tackles tough questions about how to help white kids be mindful of racial relations while understanding their own identity.
- An Episcopal school in my area compiled this list of books for all age groups.
I hope you’ll take the journey with me as I strive to do better. To be better. And I hope you’ll comment below with any additional suggestions you might have!