How to Talk to White Kids about Race & Racism

This podcast will focus on how white kids are being educated about race and racism in America. While we know from research that black families teach their children about social inequalities, race and racism from an early age, what are white families doing? Are families and communities a place where white kids learn to become racist or a space where they learn to be antiracist or race-conscious? Do white kids learn, within the family paradigm, to challenge racial inequalities? Dr. Margaret Hagerman talks about her research and her new book: White kids: Growing Up With Privilege in a Racially Divided America. It’s an important topic that many people avoid out of discomfort or confusion with regard to how to discuss it. We get right into it on How to Talk to Kids about Anything.

Many people, when asked about racism, talk about the days of slavery, segregated busses, white and colored water fountains and segregated schools. But what about today’s racism? American kids, as well as others throughout the world, are living in at a time of ongoing public debates about race, daily displays of racial injustice, and for some, an increased awareness surrounding diversity and inclusion. And while everyone should learn about racism, past and present, how are white, affluent children being educated about white privilege, unequal educational opportunities, and police violence. 

This was the overarching question, Margaret Hagerman aimed to answer in her new book, White Kids: Growing Up With Privilege in a Racially Divided America—a book that summarizes two years of research that focused on her observations of upper-middle-class white families in an unidentified midwestern city and its suburbs. In particular, she followed 36 kids between the ages of 10 and 13, interviewed them, watched them interact with others and listened in on their conversations. What she found out about modern-day racism and what is means to grow up with privilege in a racially-divided America was eye-opening.

Dr. Margaret A. Hagerman is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Mississippi State University. Her research focuses on how children learn about race and racism in the context of their families and communities. Her new book, as I mentioned before, is called White Kids: Growing Up With Privilege in a Racially Divided America (NYU Press) and is already being celebrated for it’s honest portrayal and revealing message since it’s release last month. I’m really looking forward to digging into this tough topic so please join me in welcoming Dr. Hagerman to the show today- welcome, Maggie, to how to talk to kids about anything.

The podcast provides:

  • Why study white kids when looking into race and racism? 
  • How do white kids learn about race?
  • Why is it important to educate white kids about race and racism?
  • What are the different approaches parents take with respect to talking about race with their kids?
  • What do you think is the impact of the different ways parents of white, affluent kids use to educate their kids about race?
  • What should we be saying or doing to help white kids learn about race and racism?
  • What activities can help kids open up and talk about race and racism?

Important Messages:

  • While white subjects are often included in research studies, studies that take a critical perspective look at how white families educate their kids about race and racism aren’t plentiful.
  • Kids who are affluent often grow up to be affluent and in positions of power. How is the newest generation of white affluent people interpreting the world and making sense of racism?
  • Since their parents had economic privilege, they were able to make all sorts of choices around schools, neighborhoods, travel, peers, where they play and activities for their children.
  • Some use the color blind approach: These are families who believe that if they don’t talk about race or racism, then their children won’t grow up to be racist. These kids rarely came into contact with a person of color. They weren’t talking about race and lived in a white bubble— but still had lots of questions about race that weren’t answered. This produced ideas and assumptions that were very problematic and incorrect.
  • When kids don’t understand race or racism, they can use words in the wrong way. For example, Dr. Hagerman heard kids using the word “racist” in place of “stupid” to insult another person.
  • The second group of families that Dr. Hagerman looked into was very invested in talking to their kids about race, the history of racism in America, they connected the history to the present, they did not make the topic taboo. As a result, these kids had a much more sophisticated understanding of race and racism, they could talk about race and racism with more confidence. In addition, their lives were more racially integrated- going to schools with diverse students. living in communities where they could have a while host of experiences that underscored what the parents were saying.
  • Before talking about race, listen to what the kids are thinking and what they know.
  • Parents- take the time to educate yourself about race and racism in America. What are you so nervous about? Then you can educate your kids.
  • If you are unsure how to start discussions, there are many children’s books that will highlight race and racism in America— and this can start questioning.
  • Some kids believe that there is no racism anymore.
  • Build on previous conversations- it’s hard to have the discussion about race or racism in crisis if you haven’t had any conversations about race or racism before.
  • Allow these conversations to be part of your relationship with your kids that you build over time that you can talk about these subjects that are often taboo or emotionally charged or difficult.
  • Fairness can be a great tool for discussing racism.
  • It’s okay to not know how to respond. You can always come back to these conversations and take a little time and to strategically think about a good way to come at this or do some research to find out how others answered it.
  • Kids will still consume information on the bus, talking to other kids and watching TV. There are many messages about race in media— even in children’s media.
  • There are many ways to start conversations about race- it can become a normative part of your day. Then they won’t be so awkward after a while.
  • Put your children in situations where they can become friends with and understand people of different races. Then our children can become advocates for children who might be targeted or discriminated against in school or in communities.
  • There is a conundrum of privilege- but there is a paradox- they want to give them the best education and advantages but they also want to teach their kids about fairness and equal opportunity. Navigating this bind is how we teach kids about race.
  • If your kids go to private school, talk about it. Kids who go to private school should not think they are better or more entitled than kids who go to public school or who are less financially privileged.
  • When young people protest- which kids get listened to and which kids don’t?

Notable Quotables:

  • “White families do have race even though people who are white might not identify their race as meaningful to them.”
  • “Race shapes all of our lives regardless of how we are personally identified.”
  • “Actions speak louder than words. What sort of behaviors do parents model in their every day lives around race- what decisions do they make around how they set up their children’s social environment?”
  • “Kids spend time in the world noticing patterns, looking out the window as they drive through different parts of the city and have questions. The talking part comes along side all of the observing and interacting that kids do. Too often we lose sight of our actions. We focus so much on how to talk about race that we sometimes lose sight of the fact that what we say ought to map onto what we do.”
  • “In some families, they use the ‘color-blind approach’ who believe that if they didn’t talk about race or racism, their children wouldn’t grow up to be racist. But then the kids wind up with a lot of anxieties and questions about race and they don’t feel that they can go to their parents or any adults to talk to them about race.”
  • “Before you can talk to kids about race, it’s really important to listen to what their questions are, to what they’ve been noticing and to what their ideas might already be.”
  • “When talking about racism, it’s important to link the past with the present.”
  • “Take time to read and learn about multicultural history. This can empower parents to feel confident in answering their children’s questions. It can be a family learning experience.”
  • “Silencing our children is not a good strategy because it leads to unanswered questions and anxieties. Kids will still have the questions whether you silence them or not.”
  • “Families that talked about race as a normative part of their day had children who didn’t think that race was a taboo topic.”
  • “Some children compare learning about race to learning about sex. They say that just like their teachers didn’t want them to talk about sex at school, their teachers also didn’t want to them to talk about race. And the same was true for their parents. They were drawing similarities about these two subjects that many people argue kids should be educated about— their bodies- dynamics of inequality- but we really struggle.”
  • “One girl when I interviewed her in high school said; we have sex ed, why don’t we ever have race education?”
  • “Talking about race is one thing- but how you actually navigate the world, those actions send really powerful messages to children. If we. collectively, as a society want to think about the future generations as working to reduce forms of inequality, then I think that means that we have to find ways to act, when they are young, that communicate to them that everyone actually IS equal or SHOULD be equal. Parents need to be thoughtful of how to align your words up with your behaviors— that’s actually how kids are learning about race.”
  • “If you are raising a child who is in a position of privilege, they already have a lot of power as a privileged young person. When you are raising kids who have privilege, you have a responsibility to help them navigate that privilege that will not only benefit them but also those around them.”
  • “We can have a collective understanding of the world rather than just an individual one- and that might be the better gift for their children for a more equal future.”
  • “While we need to talk to kids, we also need to listen to kids and we need to figure out what we’re going to say based on what they know.”
  • “Young people have ideas about race and in order to figure out how to talk to them about race, we need to listen to them and understand their perspective so we know how to respond.”