Young children are actively noticing racial differences from the moment they are born. As early as age 3, children express racial preferences and exhibit discriminatory behaviors. They internalize messages about their own racial identities and how people are treated differently based on race. Young children continually witness racial hierarchies in their neighborhoods, schools, books and mass media.
Despite this, we often hear white parents say that their children are “too young to learn about racism.” Families of color are not afforded this kind of innocence. Black and brown families discuss racism with their young children out of necessity, and the onus of naming and resisting racism should not be placed solely on them.
Even in “liberal Seattle,” white families rarely broach these conversations with children. Last year, a national survey of parents by Sesame Workshop and NORC at the University of Chicago found that only one-quarter of white families discuss race. And when white families remain silent about racial hierarchies, such as the ways whiteness is often equated with smartness via ability grouping in schools, children learn that racial patterns are earned or justified.
As researchers and parents, we know families play a crucial role in helping children process and challenge racial messages. To dismantle racism, white families have a responsibility to talk to their children about how the value placed on whiteness works to promote the status quo.
How can white parents begin engaging young children in conversations about whiteness, racism and fairness? There is no one “right way” to talk to children about race. Mistakes are bound to be made, and children’s racial thinking does not begin or end with a single conversation: This is lifelong work. Waiting for “the right way” allows white families to avoid what is challenging but necessary. Through engaged partnership and in solidarity with communities of color, we suggest that white families:
Do the work. White adults often feel uncomfortable talking about whiteness and racism because they are not used to doing so. Discussing whiteness and racism with a 3-year-old is only effective if you understand these concepts yourself. White parents can educate themselves (to start, the internet has plenty of resources) to build vocabulary for discussing whiteness and racism with young children. Though white families have a lot to learn from communities of color, they can deepen understandings about whiteness and racism through ongoing dialogue with other white adults, rather than relying on people of color to teach them.
Find entry points. Try to understand what children are already thinking about whiteness and racism. Young children’s learning about race occurs in their daily contexts and is not always linear, so conversations should connect to what children observe and experience in their lives. Sometimes, children ask questions as they grapple with racial patterns. If not, white parents can identify patterns (“Have you noticed how mostly white children play on this playground? Why do you think that is?”), read and discuss picture books with racial themes, such as Not My Idea, and ask questions (“What makes you say that?”).
Name unfairness. In conversations about whiteness and racism with young children, asking questions and discussing patterns is just a start. It is critical that white families point out how racial patterns, which frequently intersect with other systems (class, gender, ability, language), are often unfair, unevenly distributing benefits to your own family (“It isn’t fair that when we go to the library, most picture books have characters who look and speak the way we do.” “Many people who used to live in our neighborhood were Black and brown — you should know why that’s changed.”)
Model anti-racism. Children also make meaning about race based on what white families do or don’t do. Engage in authentic, non-hierarchical relationships (beyond tokenistic exchanges) with people of color. Take anti-racist actions informed by and in coordination with people of color and support your child to do the same.
Encourage your child to notice and name racism in their classroom (“No one plays with the Black baby doll. What should we do?”). When your child observes racial patterns in different neighborhoods, suggest writing a letter to city officials protesting gentrification. Remind your child that racial activism has a long history, and community activists continue this work, locally and nationally, today.
As we celebrate Martin Luther King Day, we remain accountable to Dr. King’s central message of undoing racism by speaking up about things that matter in our own communities. In this spirit, white families must take responsibility for challenging racial injustice and raise their children to do the same.