How To Talk To White Children About Race & Being A Better Ally 

Clinical Psychologist By Bobbi Wegner, Psy.D.
Clinical Psychologist
Bobbi Wegner, Psy.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist at Boston Behavioral Medicine and adjunct lecturer teaching human development and psychology at Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has over a decade of experience treating adults, children, and families.
Mother and Daughter Talking in home

"Do you know who George Floyd is?" I asked my three, white, upper-class kids (11, 9, 6 years old). My older boys stumbled to find the right words—they didn't seem to want to say "murder" and scanned their minds to find a replacement but couldn't. My 6-year-old said, "He is the black guy who was killed by the cop." My boys agreed. I wondered out loud why that happened. My littlest one wondered back, "Maybe he didn't realize he was hurting George?" 

My 9-year-old chimed in: "The cop was racist. Not all cops are racist, but some are. And three other guys are in trouble too." Yes, watching and not saying anything makes you guilty too. My son made a "yikes" face—he got the link I was making. 

The weight of this conversation set against the normal backdrop of a ball bouncing and the chime of the cat game my daughter played on my iPhone. But these have to be everyday conversations. Moments that need to come and go, regularly, for white kids. When we do not have these conversations often and directly, the message we send is loud and clear—we don't care enough to talk about it.

And we have to say and do something different. 

Why we need to talk about white privilege.

I look at my children and know how lucky they are to be born into the life we have. But with a little consideration, I realize my guys are also culturally primed to be the ignorant, white jerks who enforce structural racism—not because they hate people of color—but because they just don't get it. Nobody told them anything different. The only thing they heard was the world is theirs, and theirs alone. Not directly, but it is just how the world works. They haven't done anything wrong—they just won the privilege lottery by being white in America.

Many white parents fundamentally know that we are on an unjust—dangerous—playing field. Moments like these, when a black person is killed by police, raise emotion and move white people to post, make a donation, and talk with their friends about "how horrible everything is" in some whitewashed way that mildly addresses the cultural issue but really doesn't promote any real change. 

But have you really done anything to make it better? Have you talked to your kids (over and over again)? Have you explored your own implicit (and explicit) bias and figured out how it is communicated to your kids? Have you accepted that you are, in fact, racist although you don't see yourself that way? Do you have friends of color—not one but many? Have you looked around your neighborhood to see who your community is? Are you actively looking to advocate for inclusion—with race, sex, class, ability? Are you the one who speaks up? At home? With friends? At work? These are a few questions to ask yourself. Where is the line between comfort and discomfort for you? Push it.  

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Before you start: Realize the facts at hand.

Black people are at a monumental disadvantage and have been at one forever. And us white people don't know what to do. Or say. We care, but the issue seems too big and insurmountable—denial and ignorance kicks in—simply because we can afford them as psychological defenses. Most of the world doesn't have this privilege. 

Research tells us over and over again that just being black makes you more likely to have poorer health—for example, black kids are 500% more likely to die from asthma. This is undeniable. Whether you think color doesn't matter, racism isn't a thing, or if you see the issues as clear as day—the research is overwhelmingly convincing. And this is only health—never mind employment, housing, general discrimination, trauma, and other social issues. 

A personal revelation of the disadvantage at hand: I remember finding out my son was severely dyslexic. It felt like a wound I just discovered that I knew would cause pain for him for life. (It still kinda hurts, me more than him.) I connected with a colleague at Harvard—a professor who helped write the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)—and he spent two hours helping me realize it was bad but workable with proper intervention. Aside from helping manage my anxiety, the thing I remember most, he said, "Our prisons are filled with untreated black dyslexics." Essentially, kids who had my son's level of dyslexia, therefore, had behavior problems and ended up following the preschool-to-prison pipeline. I want to cry writing it now. Mothers like me who didn't know what to do and in a system that saw her little boy as a fundamentally different person than who he was. He was a kid who needed help and didn't have the words (literally) to ask. Not a bad kid. Babies aren't born bad.  

Then, I move on. To dinner. Or my wine. Or the book I am reading. Because that is what privilege is. I have the privilege to look away from my pain because my son is white and he is OK. Other mothers are not granted that same privilege. 

Parenting is the most important agent of social change.

Period. We white parents don't have the language to talk about race because we don't even understand our own race. Ask yourself, "What race am I?" If you mention your great grandparents being hardworking immigrants, that doesn't count. You are white. And that is OK. Own it. And know that the way we are wired, based on cognitive schemas, we make judgments and put people into buckets (unconsciously) because that is what culture teaches. Boy-girl, black-white, safe-unsafe—it is protective. And fundamentally racist. Learn more about this. 

Privilege doesn't mean life is easy or that you haven't suffered. White privilege just means that being white isn't the thing that creates pain, difficulty, and disruption in your life. It is what it is. Don't be ashamed. Own it and empathize with people who don't have that privilege. This goes for racism, sexism, classism, and all the -isms in between. And, you can still be a good person. Complex, eh?

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Action items to start and continue the discussion about race:

  • Racism isn't up for debate. Read any disparity research, and you will be embarrassed to even wonder if it is an antiquated concept. 
  • Implicit bias is a real thing and screws people of color. Learn your bias. You have to do more than just know you are biased, that is a step forward, but know your bias. This takes work. 
  • Read other narratives. Learn other stories. Much of what we know and read is very Eurocentric. And watch this TED Talk from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie—it's a good place to start.
  • Learn about the messaging you bring implicitly from your family of origin and culture. Work with someone who can help you see it, understand how it is playing out with your kids, and find language to say something more aligned with your beliefs. 
  • Parenting is the most important agent of social change. Say something. Listen to the news, and ask your kids what they know. They know way more than you think. Take the pressure off to teach. Just be curious and say, "I wonder why...?" It raises their awareness and teaches critical thinking, if nothing else. 
  • Socialize your kids (and yourself) with people who are different as early as possible. If your community is homogenous, pick at least one activity to do in another community. 
  • We are wired to care for the people closest to us. Expand the circle of concern. Teach your kids to be curious about people outside of their immediate circle and learn to empathize. Making Caring Common has great resources.
  • Don't be colorblind. Notice, name, be curious about, and celebrate difference. 
  • Know you are going to make missteps. This is shameful, and we tend to hide things we feel ashamed about. Move toward it and acknowledge it. This is where true growth happens. 
  • Be honest and authentic and have real conversations even if you want to jump out of your skin. Where there is pain, there is growth. 
  • Incorporate diverse reading, from an early age. This thread has many children's books.
  • Listen, listen, listen. Us white people are used to being listened to. This isn't our story now. Listen to others and follow their lead. This is where true learning happens. 
  • Learn how to be an ally. Of everyone. It promotes equality, a better community, and just feels good. 

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