Children, It's Time for Us to Have a Conversation... About Race!

I have been contemplating how parents and adults talk to our young people about issues of race, and what it means for some children to be viewed as someone else's "problem."
08/12/2015 03:53 pm ET Updated Aug 11, 2016

In his turn of the century book, "The Souls of Black Folks," W.E.B. Du Bois wrote,

"Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. How does it feel to be a problem?"

Everyone has problems. It is the human condition. No amount of wealth, no racial privilege, no righteousness of purpose and action leads to a life without problems. Everyone has them. But Du Bois was pointing to something different, not just having problems, but being a problem. How does it feel to be a problem? To have your very body and the bodies of your children to be assumed to be criminal, violent, malignant?

As we pass the one-year anniversary of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, while also preparing our children to return to school after a summer filled with horrific headlines about violence against unarmed Black people, I have been contemplating how parents and adults talk to our young people about issues of race, and what it means for some children to be viewed as someone else's "problem." How do we help our children process the "problem" of race as it is currently manifested in the United States?

As a social work practitioner with more than 35 years of experience in dealing with issues involving race and inclusion, I know that race can be a tough topic - one that it can be tempting to avoid discussing altogether. This is particularly true for White families, who are three times less likely to discuss race than families of color. But according to a 2006 study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, race is an important subject for every family to address. Research also suggests that kids who talk openly about race in their families are less prejudiced, and that kids who make friends from different backgrounds have better social skills.

So here are some suggested ways that we as adults might begin to have these important conversations with our children:

Be a model. Our families are our primary source of information regarding the world around us. Many parents say things to their children such as, "all people are the same," but then do not model that in their behavior or actions. The environment and context that parents provide can be different depending on the ethnicities of the family, and this can also reflect on how racism is discussed in the household.

Don't let perfection be the enemy of good. As adults we don't have to have all the right answers for our kids to grow up with less prejudice. We just have to start the conversation. For children of color, race and racism are a subtext in their lives, and for many well-meaning White families race is often something 'out there and not about us.' Race and discussions about race in White families may be relegated to a conversation on affirmative action and not contextualized in a historical framework. Children and young people should be encouraged to have a safe space to express what they may understand or directly experience. You don't need to be an expert to listen, and share your point of view.

Of course, if you want to go a bit deeper and would like some additional tools on how to use the events in Ferguson, and in other parts of the country as a springboard for more discussion, a few academics have put together some reading lists on Twitter under the hashtag #fergusoncurriculum

Have "The Talk". For the Black community (or any community of another race or culture often discriminated against), talking about race is likely not a choice. Black families often must have "The Talk" to teach our children that not only do they have to follow the general rules of society, but they also have to abide by a special set of rules set up specifically for them because of their race. We have to walk a thin line between teaching them how NOT to be killed by the people bound by law to protect them, and at the same time, how to maintain their dignity and command the respect they deserve. (As Janice Fuller-Roberts Dame says in Salon, it's a very delicate balance.)

Learn the history. This is always a great way to take your conversations with your kids deeper. Read your children age-appropriate biographies about the giants who have fought hard for basic human rights -- for African Americans, for women, for the LGBTQ community, and so many more. You may be surprised just how much even the youngest kids can process. As much as one can expose children to cultures outside of their own through classes or travel, and be intentional about it, as much as we'd like to believe it, racial tolerance (and) acceptance don't just happen. It takes work. It takes being open to understanding and learning about each other's history, and making the commitment to teach our children as well.

Positively engage with "different." Books and films can be a great resource. However, our families and communities are often the first point of entry into how children and young people directly interact and experience much of the world. Meaningful exchanges can foster their first beliefs on racism and inclusion.

Remeber that we are all unique and different. Be careful not to paint people with too broad a brush as in "All people do this or do that" as there are always exceptions. Recognize and celebrate other people's experiences or realities, and explain that it is not always easy to pinpoint a single rationale for why people behave as they do when it comes to racism.

The Reverend Al Sharpton in the New York Daily News perhaps summed it up best when he said:

"There exists a word in the American English language that on its own incites such a reaction that it may as well be taboo. It isn't a curse word nor a derogatory term, but rather a simple four-letter concept that by and large encapsulates the crux of many of our problems as a nation. It oftentimes divides us and hinders us from engaging in actual dialogue to address social and this word is none other than "race" - and it's about time we start having a real, honest and thorough discussion surrounding it."

So true. These tough conversations must start with our children.