Dad's Conversations About Race: 'Most White Kids Don't Get This Talk'

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  • Alvin Francis Poussaint
    Author, professor, psychiatrist
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The writer with his son. Photo courtesy of Calvin Hennick.

Race doesn’t exist for my kids yet. To my 3-year-old son, I’m “blue” or “gray” or “yellow,” depending on the color of my shirt. And my 5-month-old daughter is primarily concerned with whether or not I’m holding something shiny. 

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Soon, though, they’ll notice that Mommy has dark brown skin, that Daddy’s skin is sort of pink, and that theirs is somewhere in between. Eventually, they’ll figure out that these differences actually seem pretty important – that people who look like Mommy and Daddy tend to live in different neighborhoods from each other, tend to attend different schools, and are often portrayed differently in the media. 

And they will have questions.

I have no idea what I’m going to say to my kids about race (or sex, or bullying, or any other number of complicated topics that haven’t come up yet). So I set out to talk to parents of older black and biracial kids, as well as a couple of experts, to get some tips.

Here’s what I learned.

I’m Already Doing Some Things Right …

Susan Linn, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School and coauthor of Talking to Children about Racism, Prejudice and Diversity, says my kids are already getting positive messages about diversity through the books we read (The Snowy Day and Jazz Baby are two favorites) and the people we interact with in our diverse neighborhood, family, and social circle.

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“It’s important to have books and toys that reflect cultural differences and racial differences,” she says. “You’ve surrounded him with people who are a variety of races and ethnicities. That’s an important start.”

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…But That’s Not Enough

“There is research showing that, unless there is some kind of intervention early on, young children do pick up societal norms,” Linn says. “Doing nothing, or pretending that race or racism doesn’t exist, doesn’t shield your kids from it, and could result in them picking up the societal norms about racial inferiority – all the things you don’t want to happen.”

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The Early Conversations Are Easy

My cousin Sandy has three biracial sons, the oldest of whom is 15. She says they began to notice racial differences when they entered kindergarten and saw that most of their classmates were white. “At that age, you can just talk to kids about how everybody has their own look, and even in our own family we look different,” says Sandy. “It’s a pretty picture of diversity at that age.”

The First ‘Racism’ They Face Won’t Really Be Racism At All

White kids will ask questions, like, ‘Does that rub off?’” says Alvin Poussaint, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and coauthor of Raising Black Children. He tells the story of one boy who came home upset, asking why the other kids always wanted to touch his hair.

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 “That doesn’t mean the other kids were racist,” Poussaint says. “It means there was special pressure on this little black boy.” In that situation, Poussaint recommends explaining that the other children are merely curious, but that everyone has the right not to be touched if they don’t want to be.

When Sandy’s oldest son was called the N-word for the first time, she spoke with the kid who uttered the slur. He was a Latino boy, and it turned out that he had been called the word by his lighter-skinned cousins. “He didn’t know the history of the word. There wasn’t any malicious intent.” 

I Have a New Reason to Hate Princesses

I was already planning to steer my daughter away from the frilly, glittery world of Disney princesses, but Poussaint points out that these characters do more than instill rigid gender norms – they also make little girls think that you have to be white and blonde to be beautiful.

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“You [have to] tell your kids all the time that they’re pretty, and how nice they look, how they have beautiful skin, so you’re instilling in them the sense that they’re very attractive people, before they start seeing all this stuff about Cinderella,” he says. “They still pick up the cultural standards about beauty, so you have to help them along with that.”

The ‘Police Talk’ Is Real, and It’s Awful

Every parent of black and biracial kids I spoke with has talked to their kids about what to do if they’re stopped by police. My brother is a cop, and I don’t want to make my kids think that police officers are out to get them. But in the wake of the Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice incidents (among others), many parents view “the talk” as a necessity.

Sandy told her son to do whatever he’s told by police officers “and we’ll worry about justice later.”

“After years of saying you need to stand up for what’s right, it’s heartbreaking to tell your child, it doesn’t matter what’s right, you need to lie down,” she says.

One of Sandy’s friends Askia says she’s told her black son to raise his hands as high in the air as possible if confronted by a police officer. “He was looking at me so sad, like, you’re telling me to surrender. I said, ‘If you put your hands up or put your hands behind your back, they can never say you tried to shoot him.’”

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Adrienne, another of Sandy’s friends, tells her 10-year-old son not to act in fear when he sees a police officer, but gives these tips: “Move very, very slowly. Always be respectful. Say ‘yes sir.’” 

Now, these might sound like decent guidelines for anyone to follow. But most white kids don’t get this talk. I know I didn’t. And I’m not looking forward to having it with my son.

There’s No Way Around the Tough Stuff

One thing I worry about is making my kids paranoid, so that they’re constantly on the lookout for racism. But again, the parents I talked to said that, for them, their kids’ safety trumps everything else. 

After Trayvon Martin was killed, Askia wouldn’t let her son wear hoods for a period. “As sweet as his smile is, they’ll never see it in the rain, in the dark, with a hood on,” she says. “They’re going to see him as a six-foot-tall black man. They’re not going to see him as a baby.”

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 Sandy stopped her oldest son from playing hide-and-seek with friends in the neighborhood at night. “I had to explain to him, that even though you’re a child playing a child’s game, you’re man-sized, you’re black, and you can’t run around with your hoodie on in the dark, because people might think you’re a criminal.”

It’s Important to Emphasize the Positive

When I watch the news (or worse, read comments on the Internet), it’s easy to feel like practically everyone in the world sees black kids as a threat. But that’s not true, and it’s not what I want them to think.

“I’m always reminding my kids that good exists, and if they talk to their black father or their black grandparents, they’ll hear how much better things are than they were,” Sandy says. “I want my kids to feel that the world is good and that people are good. So I do tend to focus on progress.”

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“When my kid can see that the president is a brown guy,” says Gary, a friend of Sandy’s who is black and has a biracial son, “he should know there’s nothing anyone can say to him to make him feel less-than because of his skin color.”

All of This Might Change

Gary’s father suffered a detached retina at the hands of a white Alabama police officer, and he grew up seeing people hand out Ku Klux Klan fliers. But his son isn’t exposed to any of that. 

“Years ago, when I talked to him about the Civil Rights Movement and slavery, he asked, ‘Why would people treat other people like that?’” Gary says. “His question was, ‘What are you talking about? How is that possible?’”

Eventually, I hope my kids (or their kids) will be able to look back at the things happening today – racial gaps in wealth and education levels, largely segregated housing and schools, etc. – and ask the same questions. 

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