White families should be teaching their children lessons about racism in America, and they need to move past the idea that young children are unaware of racial differences and too innocent to be confronted with the realities of inequality and structural racism.

That’s the advice from four Seattle university faculty members who train local teachers, and who want parents to think about lessons they can teach during this time of social upheaval.

“We tell ourselves that young kids don’t see difference, that it’s something we grow into,” said Teddi Beam-Conroy, the director of the elementary teacher-education program at the University of Washington. “Everybody has seen the memes of the Black child and the white child, the toddlers embracing each other. That’s part of the fairy tale we tell ourselves about race.”

It is a complicated moment in American history. Children are being schooled at home by their parents because of the coronavirus pandemic, a disease that has disproportionately taken the lives and jobs of people of color, particularly Black Americans. At the same time, as protesters take to the streets across the country, the nation is having a difficult conversation about how people of color are treated, and policed.

In a recent Zoom interview, the four educators described how they’ve talked about race with their own children, and how they train new teachers to address it in the classroom. The educators: Maggie Beneke, an assistant professor at the UW’s College of Education; Manka Varghese, a UW professor in the college of education;  Caryn Park, a member of the core faculty at Antioch University Seattle’s School of Education; and Beam-Conroy.

Books for kids and teens about race, racism and police violence

Varghese, Beneke and Park wrote an opinion piece for The Seattle Times in January, on the anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, calling for white families to work to undo racism, rather than letting that burden rest solely on people of color. They believe that many white parents are uncomfortable talking about race, yet their children are usually ready and willing to talk. The multiracial nature of the protests sweeping the country makes this an especially important time for that message, Varghese said.

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They urge white adults to educate themselves about whiteness and racism, and have ongoing discussions with other white adults — led by, and in partnership with, people of color and especially Black women — to deepen their understanding. You can find some of those resources here.

One reality that adds urgency to the issue in Washington: The state’s public-school teachers are overwhelmingly white, even as the K-12 student population is becoming more diverse. That ups the ante for white families to advocate for, and work on, these issues with other families and white teachers and administrators, Varghese said. “They need to think of what may not immediately benefit their children materially and coalesce to act” on these issues, she said.

All four agreed that white families, in particular, need to be very direct in their conversations when they talk to their children. They should talk not just about celebrating differences between people, but also about the effects of inequality and the imbalance of political power. They should also talk about joy, solidarity and resistance, Beneke said.

It’s better to take it on than to hang back for fear of making a mistake — mistakes, they said, are part of the learning process.

When she’s educating new teachers, Beam-Conroy tells them that at some point in their careers, an incident centering on race will require them to throw out the lesson plan. One of her favorite books for elementary-age students, “Something Happened In Our Town,” tells the story of how parents in two families — one white, one Black — teach their children about the tragic shooting of a Black man by a white police officer.

In the book, the shooting marks the first time the white family has ever talked about race, but for the Black family, it’s been woven into the family’s discussions many times before.

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“Race was a constant conversation in our family,” said Beam-Conroy, who is African American and has four children, all of whom are now adults. “The consequences of being treated differently while Black frequently presented themselves.”

Beneke, who is white, says these conversations need to be ongoing for white families as well, and they can be messy. Earlier this month, she talked to her 4-year-old son about George Floyd, the Minneapolis man who died under the knee of a white police officer. Looking at a portrait of Floyd, her son repeated a common stereotype about Black men: that he looked angry. “We had to unpack his interpretation of angry,” she said. Beneke offered counterexamples — showing, for example, how Floyd had a loving relationship with his daughter.

Parents need to do more than just talk, Varghese said — they must also think about how they’ve chosen their friends and their schools, and how they make decisions that show they’re upholding their values, because their children will be watching. “You can’t fix racism, but it is your responsibility to be part of fixing it,” she said.

Teaching about race can mean seizing the lessons in the moment. A week ago, Varghese brought her two children to a downtown protest. The situation was tense, Seattle police had just used tear gas, and Varghese’s 13-year-old son recoiled in fear. She told him: “I understand your fear, and at the same time, can you imagine how Black people feel every day when they just have to go out for a walk?”

Park, who also went to a protest, said the decision to do so led to a long conversation with her children. “We had to talk about how it’s not just our physical bodies that matter, it’s also our spirits and our hearts,” she said. “If I couldn’t be out there, maybe my body would be safe, but my heart and spirit would be hurt by not being able to participate.”

One of the ironies of the coronavirus-caused school shutdown is that it has brought families together in a way that allows parents to take the lead and guide their children through these discussions — to seek out books, to have talks, to participate in a protest, Beam-Conroy said.

She’s hopeful that the demonstrations sweeping the country could lead to significant change.

“To be an educator is to be an eternal optimist,” Beam-Conroy said. “We always think people can be better than where they are right at this moment.

“And then,” she added, “there’s reality.”