Tips on Raising Anti-Racist Kids for Parents (2020 Edition)
By Dr. Amanda Zelechoski and Dr. Lindsay Malloy, Co-Founders of Pandemic Parenting
Parenting is especially challenging right now on many levels. Not only are we still in the midst of a global pandemic, we’re also trying to raise socially-conscious kids during a time of significant racial and political turbulence. Some have called this the “dual pandemic” of COVID-19 and racial violence, and it is disproportionally impacting communities of color.
Anti-Racist Parenting: Why We Shouldn’t Want to Return to “Normal” in 2021
It was, perhaps, easier to pay consistent attention, find ways to get involved, and stay in the conversation during the 2020 “summer of racial unrest.” But then things got busy, our kids resumed school in some format or another, we were still trying to parent during a pandemic (and all that entails), and manage jobs and other responsibilities.
But the work is far from done. We need to find ways to stay engaged in raising anti-racist children, in spite of our pandemic fatigue.
In one of our most important Pandemic Parenting Exchanges, we were fortunate to learn from the wisdom, expertise, and lived experiences of three renowned experts, Dr. Y. Joy-Harris Smith (co-author of The ABCs of Diversity: Helping Kids (and Ourselves!) Embrace Our Differences), Dr. Travis Heath (Associate Professor of Psychology at Metropolitan State University of Denver), and Ms. Leslie Priscilla Arreola-Hillenbrand (founder of Latinx Parenting), who shared tips for how we can all be more intentional about raising anti-racist children right now. This blog largely focuses on actions and conversations that white parents can take, as parents of color typically do not have a choice or need reminders to engage in such activities.
1. Understand that being “not racist” is not the same thing as being “anti-racist.”
In his best-selling book, How To Be An Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi explains that becoming anti-racist requires that we are hands-on and intentionally choose to take action. This requires advocating for equality and changing oppressive policies and systems. Simply affirming that you are “not racist” is not enough. So, how can we be proactive and model anti-racist action for our children?
Dr. Travis Heath reminded us that racism is not an individual attitude, but rather part of the infrastructure, built up and woven into the fabric of our society over hundreds of years. He indicated that anti-racism is shared practice – that people in relative positions of power have to start asking uncomfortable questions and giving up some of that power. He encouraged us to get involved with our children’s school board and be an advocate to dismantle inaccurate or incomplete educational content and policies that disproportionately impact students of color. Dr. Heath noted that reading books at home and having individual conversations with our kids are a good start, but they’re not enough. As parents, he encouraged us to think more systemically and understand that it’s probably going to bring some discomfort, but that’s how you know the work is happening.
2. Don’t teach your kids to be “colorblind.”
Many well-meaning parents – particularly white parents – say that they teach their children “not to see color” or that there is “only one race – the human race.” Dr. Y. Joy Harris-Smith explained that it’s an erasure to say that you don’t see race or color. She encouraged parents to honor and respect both the similarities and differences between groups of people and indicated that it’s more harmful than helpful to teach your kids to be colorblind. Dr. Harris-Smith said, “You honor my humanity when you see me, and not just the parts you want to see.”
Teaching our kids to be conscious of race is part of teaching them about the disparities and struggles that exist for some groups and not others. It’s an opportunity to have an open dialogue about how some people get treated unfairly because of the color of their skin, their religion, their gender, etc.
3. Start talking to your kids about race from the beginning.
It is well-established in the research that children are aware of racial differences as early as infancy. The famed Clark Doll Experiments conducted in the 1940s revealed that, by the age of three, not only do children recognize differences between skin colors, children of all races have internalized the idea that it is better or “good” to have white skin, demonstrating a preference for the white doll. It is also well-established that white parents tend to talk with their children about race less, which means white children are often less sensitive to racial issues and more likely to avoid conversations about race in adulthood.
Ms. Leslie Priscilla Arreola-Hillenbrand shared some ways to incorporate race-consciousness into your child’s life from the very beginning, including buying your children racially-diverse dolls and figurines and decolonizing your child’s bookshelf. She noted that being anti-racist is not about the grand gestures; rather, it’s about the small day-to-day conscious moments of ensuring diversity and representation in what our children are exposed to. For example, when consuming media with your children, Ms. Arreola-Hillenbrand encourages us to ask ourselves (and our children when it’s developmentally appropriate) to consider whose stories are being shown. Are there diverse voices in this TV show? Whose stories are being left out? Who was this movie written for? Who benefits from this narrative?
4. Let your kids ask “those” questions in public.
One of the most common fears parents have when it comes to talking with their children about race is the dreaded question about a stranger in line at the store. What do I do when my kids say something that is embarrassing or potentially offensive in public? Often, our tendency is to shut it down or “shush” our child as quickly as possible, so as not to potentially offend the person in question.
However, Dr. Harris-Smith reminded us to take a big, deep breath and to remember that the moment is not about us or a reflection on our parenting. It’s usually about a child trying to understand or make a connection in their world. Or, the child may be exhibiting a behavior that they have observed or learned from someone else. She encouraged us to take a breath and then figure out whether it’s best to respond right now or to address your child’s question later. It’s okay to say that you don’t know or you’re not sure. It’s also okay to affirm your child by saying, “That’s a great question. Can I think about it for a few minutes and answer when we get in the car?”
Dr. Harris-Smith noted that, in many instances, it can be a positive teachable moment and an opportunity to engage the person your child has asked about and see whether they would mind helping you answer your child’s question. Regardless of whether you opt to answer your child’s question in the moment or later, it’s important to try and figure out what it is your child is trying to make sense of and understand, rather than simply dismissing the question out of potential embarrassment.
5. They can’t be it if they can’t see it.
Perhaps the most critical advice we received from all three of our distinguished experts was the importance of identifying the privileges that we (and our children) have and using our power and privilege for anti-racist actions. When you see something that is wrong, what do you do? Do you stand by and watch it happen, or do you step in? Your children are watching and learning from your action or inaction. You can start with simple or small actions but start somewhere.
It’s also important to have ongoing and age-appropriate conversations with your children about ways that you each benefit from your various levels of privilege. These are often uncomfortable and complex conversations — have them anyway. We can’t teach our children to be race conscious and anti-racist if we aren’t doing the work ourselves and modeling these behaviors for them.
As we ease into 2021 and, hopefully, move beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, let us resolve to embrace the discomfort, intentionally engage in anti-racist parenting actions, and strive to be the change we hope for our children.
For additional resources and to view the full webinar, visit our Anti-Racist Pandemic Parenting resource page.