Paul Kivel’s Suggestions for White Racial Justice Parenting

paul kivelby guest blogger Paul Kivel

Do you talk about racism where you live?

Talking about racism is not easy for most of us to do. Few of us grew up in homes where racism or other difficult and emotional issues were mentioned at all. We come from backgrounds of silence, ignorance, or a false belief that to talk about racism is to further it.

It is challenging to raise White children in the highly racist society we live in. When babies are born they are unaware of racial difference and attach no intrinsic value to skin color. We know that they begin to notice racial differences and their effects between the ages of two and four (Van Ausdale and Feagin. The First R: How Children Learn about Race and Racism. 2001.)

Throughout their childhoods, young people are bombarded with stereotypes, misinformation, and lies about race. Without our intervention, they may or may not become members of extremist groups or commit hate crimes, but they may well become White people who accept the injustice, racial discrimination, and violence in our society and perpetuate racism through their collusion.

That is why we must begin teaching them at an early age to embrace differences and to become anti-racist activists. We can start this process by assessing our home and family environment for evidence of racism.

Do the calendars, pictures, and posters on your walls reflect the diverse society we live in? Are there books by and about women and men, people who are transgender, and people who are lesbian, cisgender, gay and genderqueer from many different cultures? Are there magazines from communities of color?

As responsible parents we also need to think about the toys, games, computer games, dolls, books, and pictures that our young ones are exposed to. It is not just children of color who need Latino/a, Asian American, Native American, and African American dolls. It is not just children of color who are hurt by computer games that portray people of color as evil, dangerous, and expendable.

I am not recommending that you purge your house of favorite games and toys or become fanatical about the racism you find in your child’s life. Children don’t need to be protected from racism. They see it all the time. They need to be given critical thinking tools for recognizing, analyzing, and responding to the different forms that racism takes.

Our children need opportunities to listen to the experiences of people of color. If our neighborhood or school is segregated, we can still introduce our children to a multicultural world experience that breaks down stereotypes. Hearing and seeing examples of other people’s diverse experiences is extremely valuable for our children.

If we understand that we live in a multicultural society, we will begin to question any situation where people of color are not present. For example, if our children are in a Scout troop, sports team, Math Olympics team or a religious school class that is all White, we will ask ourselves (and our children),

“Why is this group all White? Are there any barriers that keep children of color out?”

Then we might question the curriculum or program:

“Is it multicultural? Does it reflect the diversity of the larger community? What values are being taught? Are issues of racism being addressed? Are other groups excluded, such as girls or queer youth?”

Children notice differences in people and how they are treated. Many of us want to teach children not to judge people in biased and unkind ways, and therefore we may downplay the significance of differences. But this can sometimes lead children to conclude that avoiding discrimination means avoiding differences. On the contrary, we want children to notice differences and similarities in people and to notice when differences lead to people being treated unfairly because of them.

As early childhood teachers Ann Pelo and Fran Davidson have discovered, “Children who notice differences and who are comfortable with them can identify discrimination more clearly and can explore the unfairness that arises from biased understandings of difference. This is the beginning of activism.” (Pelo and Davidson. “That’s Not Fair! A Teacher’s Guide to Activism with Young Children. 2000.)

When we notice and remark on the ways that people are separated and treated differently, we validate our children’s own perceptions and encourage them to build a sharper awareness of how racism works. When my son was caught shoplifting, the store manager called me and released him to my care without calling the police and having him arrested. Of course, my son was scared when he was caught and was relieved that he was not taken to jail. He was fined and banned from the store, but did not get an arrest on his record.

Afterwards, when we talked about this incident I asked him…

“…how Charles (an African American friend of his) might have been treated if he had been the one caught shoplifting?”

I didn’t tell him he would have been treated differently. I asked him what difference he thought it might make.

We had a thoughtful discussion of what might have happened if the store had called the police, how his friend might have been treated, what it would have meant if he had an arrest record. I brought this up not to make him feel guilty or lucky, but to give him practice in noticing that race makes a constant difference in how people are treated.

It is hard to know at what age we should begin talking about institutionalized racism and the history of racial injustice, because we don’t want to overwhelm our children. I think that certainly by age six to eight, young people are capable of understanding patterns of discrimination such as slavery, the Jewish holocaust, or the genocide of Native Americans when the information is presented to them in age-appropriate ways. They can begin to see the differences between individual White responses to people of color and government or corporate policies.

I think it is crucial that we be honest with our children about racial inequality in the larger society. When we are answering their questions about poverty, homelessness, or AIDS, we can discuss the ways that racism makes people of color more vulnerable to these problems and less able to access resources and support. We can point out how people of color are blamed for having these problems while the large number of White people in the same situation are not blamed as much – or perhaps not at all. For instance, there are substantial numbers of White people on welfare in the United States, but the media most often present images of welfare mothers who are Black, not White.

Biased representations of people of color reinforce the unstated belief that White people are superior. In almost every interpersonal and institutional setting the assumption is that White is better because White people are in charge. White history is taught in our schools and White people receive more respect. This instills in White children a sense that they are entitled to respect, power and inclusion, and can even justify disrespect for, violence towards and exclusion of people of color. Our children need to hear from us that White is not superior, that all White people are not smarter, nor do they work harder than all people of color. Young people will understand this once they have a grasp of how racism works as a system, a set of interlocking institutions that deny equal opportunity in education, housing and jobs to people of color.

When we talk about poverty, for example, we can discuss job discrimination and unequal funding for education. This will help our children understand the social roots of individual problems. Whether the issue is race, gender, economics or disability, nothing is more important than to give our children insight into the systemic nature of power, violence, and blame at a level at which they can absorb it. We do this not to excuse abusive or destructive behavior, but to put it into context and to help our children move beyond blaming individuals for social problems.

Young White children need to see that they can choose to support racist policies or they can choose to become anti-racist activists. When they understand how racism is institutionalized, they will know that they are not responsible for it, but they are responsible for how they respond to it.

Will they stand for racial justice and equal opportunity? Will they stand with people of color?

You might want to initiate family discussions about racism by talking about how you don’t want your home to support racism. You can solicit their help in doing an assessment of your home and thinking about how different games, books, videos or posters might be racist.

Let your children help decide what to do to make your home different. It is one thing to create an anti-racist, multicultural environment by yourself. It is an entirely different level of education, empowerment, and activism to include your children as valued participants in the process.


Paul Kivel is an educator, activist, parent, grandparent, and author of I Can Make My World a Safer Place, Boys Will be Men, and Uprooting

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