No matter how much you are inclined to shield your children from painful encounters, there's a good chance — if it hasn't come up already — that your child will hear someone making a racist remark or they'll see someone committing a racist act. And there's an even better chance that it will be coming from someone your child knows.
"If your children watch you address microaggressions, they learn that antiracism work is a normal part of life."
On instinct, you might quickly change the subject, distract their attention, or usher them out of the room. It's certainly an understandable response: engaging in an uncomfortable conversation, particularly one that's spontaneous and emotionally charged or one with an uncle or cousin you'd otherwise try to ignore (and likely have already unfollowed on Facebook!), isn't something you're likely seeking out these days.
However, if your goal is to raise antiracist kids, that is one of the most harmful reactions you could have. By avoiding the racist encounter, you are sending a clear message to your child that you don't stand up to racism.
On the contrary, if you encounter a racist situation alongside your child and respond to it, you are modeling a behavior that your child, with practice, will begin to replicate – in the same way they do any other developmental behavior, like empathy after a friend falls down or gratitude after they've been given a gift.
"Modeling is a hugely important aspect of parenting and that includes in a parent's efforts to raise children who are antiracist," Shawnese Givens, a family therapist, told POPSUGAR. "If your children watch you address microaggressions, they learn that antiracism work is a normal part of life."
Still, not knowing what to say and how to say it is the obstacle still keeping many parents from addressing these situations head-on.
When Should Parents Address Racism Witnessed By Their Child?
The simple answer: as soon as it happens.
"Parents should absolutely point out racism and microaggressions immediately when they witness them," Kristen Denzer, the founder of Spanish immersion school Tierra Encantada, told POPSUGAR. "For example, if you see someone asking a person, 'Do you speak English?' because of their skin tone, the parent should share with their child about how that person is making an assumption based on how that person looks and that is not OK."
Kiarra Story, a former teacher who works with Denzer at Tierra Encantada, agreed.
"Ask them how they felt, and most of all, ask them how they think the person receiving that hate felt. Feeling someone else's pain is the easiest way to never inflict it."
"Talk about it right then and there, point it out, and teach them what was wrong with what just happened, and ask them how they would have handled the situation," she told POPSUGAR. "Ask them how they felt, and most of all, ask them how they think the person receiving that hate felt. Feeling someone else's pain is the easiest way to never inflict it."
If a parent missed the opportunity to speak up right away, they can still provide a positive learning experience for their kid.
"In the moment is always best, but you can also talk about something that happened previously and why it was difficult for you to intervene in the moment," Givens said. "Again, modeling is crucial to children developing an antiracist framework. You don't have to be perfect. You just have to try. Share your feelings. Ask the child what they are thinking and feeling. Identify how you would like to react in the future."
This verbal accounting of the experience will, Givens said, help normalize antiracist conversations for parents and children alike, which will make them easier and easier to have.
What Should Parents Say In Response to Racism Witnessed By Their Child?
Considering that children are paying close attention, from a young age, to how their parents address racist remarks, it's important to do so in a way that is both clear and constructive.
"Racist comments made by family members should be addressed, but it does not have to be a standoff," Kabria Baumgartner, an assistant professor of American studies who wrote In Pursuit of Knowledge: Black Women and Educational Activism in Antebellum America, told POPSUGAR. "You can use a method of questioning. Ask: 'How did you reach that conclusion? Where did you learn that?' You can then name what is an opinion versus a fact, clearly articulate your disagreement, and supply evidence or an alternative perspective. If your child is present, explain to your child why you believe that your family member is wrong. You may not transform a family member's views after one conversation, but you've used your voice and knowledge, and you've modeled for your children how to push back against racist beliefs and how to engage in productive dialogue."
Givens also noted how important it is to call these moments out.
"I really appreciate the language of 'calling in,' which can make this work feel less intimidating," she said. "It is the responsibility of every white person to 'call in' their fellows."
Although she doesn't believe it makes sense for parents to have a pre-planned script for these conversations because it "depends on the relationship you have with the person" and the degree to which topics are being discussed, but she recommends beginning the conversation with approachable language. To open up, she suggests starting with one of the following phrases, ranging from more passive to more direct:
- "I want to understand more about what you just said. To me, it sounds like…"
- "I want to talk to you about the comment you made."
- "Your comment implied that . . ."
- "Comments like this might seem innocuous but contribute to the systematic oppression of people of color by . . ."
- "Comments like that are examples of the ways that we have been taught that whiteness is superior and that's not OK."
Essentially, Givens said, the goal should be to approach the person in a way that invites conversation, not an argument.
"You are starting a dialogue, providing education and resources – not trying to start a fight," she said. "If the person is defensive, you can explain that you think it's important to look at how we all contribute to racism in this country and that these conversations are an important starting point to creating change."
And, she noted, this explanation is equally important for children to hear, with a key addition: "It's also important to provide some context for the microaggression – how to talk about it will depend on where you are in your conversations with your child and what's developmentally accessible to them."
If parents only do two things on behalf of their children, Story says it should be to, first, recognize the problem and, then, to verbalize how wrong it is.
To illustrate, Story, who is Black, shared an example of a time when she, her daughter, and her white mother-in-law were at an amusement park and a Black family walked by. "Without missing a beat, my mother-in-law says, 'Hey, Kia, it's your family from Oklahoma,'" she recalled. "Her connection was that they're Black and I'm Black so we must be related, jokingly." Offended, Story addressed the statement, which led to an immediate apology. "She added how weird the comment was because she would never think to say that to a white friend when white people are walking by, but what was most important was that my daughter saw it and heard the apology and the reason for the apology. My daughter of course chimed in and said, 'All black people aren't related, you know.'"
And although Story found her daughter's response funny, she also saw it as affirmation that the experience empowered her to speak up and address a wrongdoing. It was the age-appropriate result of the modeling Story had done.
Why Conflict Avoidance Sends the Wrong Message to Children
For those parents still uncomfortable with the idea of having difficult conversations concerning race, it's certainly worth noting that countless Black activists have let white people off the hook, to some extent, in engaging in futile debates with those whose minds will never change. They've recognized that the time of their white allies is better spent doing antiracist work that leads to actual results and not in trying to explain why "All Lives Matter" is missing the point to an 87-year-old neighbor. However, the one glaring exception to this, experts maintain, is when a child or a person of color is present. There's never an excuse to not model antiracist behavior for a child or to defend a person of color against hate.
"I do wish that more antiracist white people would stick up for those experiencing racism in that very moment. Don't come up and console me after the person walks away."
"The quote I always think of when experiencing small or large acts of racism is 'When they go low, we go high,'" Story said. "I refuse to feed into racism, it doesn't help me in any way and they don't get the joy they seek by breaking down another person. But I do wish that more antiracist white people would stick up for those experiencing racism in that very moment. Don't come up and console me after the person walks away without having anyone say anything to them. Stand up for me because it's right. Be antiracist in that very moment. Address it in that very moment."
Denzer added that silence isn't just complicity, it is tacit approval.
"One of the many important conversations I had with my 8- and 10-year-olds about George Floyd's murder was about speaking up and doing the right thing," she said. "I explained to them that the three other police officers present when Floyd was murdered all wanted to 'avoid conflict' and did not insist Chauvin get off his neck. Had they done that, Floyd would likely be alive today. It doesn't matter if it is your work colleague, mother, or best friend. Wrong is wrong, and if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem."