I’ve been a communication professor for 9 years, and one of my favorite courses to teach is Intercultural Communication. During the first week of class, I open a conversation about culture and race by asking my students to discuss their racial identity. As we make our way around the room, what tends to happen is my white students get noticeably uncomfortable when I ask, “What is your race, and what does it mean to you?” It is tough for them to say, “I am white,” and even daunting to discuss what their whiteness means to them.
For many of them, the college classroom is the first place they have meaningful discussions about race. This is precisely the problem. Sitting in a college classroom should not be the first time a person has a purposeful conversation about race, regardless of their race. For children of color, conversations about race start as early as 3-years-old. This should be no different for white children. My experiences in the classroom, conversations with my white students and colleagues, and years of research have taught me that white parents are having limited to no conversations with their children about race.
Advice for White Parents on Having Important Race Conversations with Their Children and Families
Here are some ways white parents can change the trajectory of our nation by engaging in conversations about racial injustices:
1. Be Vocal; Don’t Be Silent
Far too often, whites are quiet about issues related to racial injustice. When white children see their parents remain silent on these issues, they learn that silence, even silent disapproval, is the best way to respond to racism. It is not. White silence is so loud and so powerful that it dances with hatred, prejudice, fear, and ignorance inside the nucleus that is racism.
White parents must be vocal about racism. Be vocal at the grocery store when you hear the white couple standing behind you in line making disparaging remarks about the woman in a hijab. Be vocal at the family dinner table when your uncle tells a racist joke. Be vocal at the shopping center, when your mother clutches her purse as you walk past a black man. Be vocal at the local coffee shop when you notice the barista speak in a curt tone with the Asian customers, but in a welcoming tone to you. Be vocal at your child’s school when you see that your child has never had a person of color as a teacher. And be vocal anytime you see a police officer using excessive force on unarmed black and brown people.
When your children see this, they will follow your lead. Encourage your children to ask questions about racism and answer them as honestly as you can. It is important for your children to know that all people are not always treated equally in this country. Your open and honest discussions about race will teach your children that race talks should never be taboo.
2. Acknowledge and Discuss Your White Privilege
When my students and I engage in conversations about white privilege, there are usually 2 or 3 white students who are brave enough to publicly state they don’t believe they have any more privilege than anyone else. Oftentimes, their misperception of white privilege is connected to wealth. Whites benefit from white privilege and have advanced socially, politically, and economically because of it. White privilege extends far beyond wealth. Even in instances when whites and blacks are equal economically, whites are still more likely to have access to better education, housing, and healthcare.
When white parents have conversations about white privilege with their children, they are helping to mold their children into racially aware citizens who can contribute real change to our world. Ask your children why they think America has had only one African American president in our 243-year history. Then, explain to them how white privilege has worked to oppress and suppress black and brown people. Teach your children about the differences between your ancestors’ struggles and the struggles that black and brown people’s ancestors faced. Teach your children about the remarkable contributions that black and brown people have made to the world. Expose your children to books, movies, television shows, and toys that place people of color at the center. Engaging in diverse media can open doors for meaningful conversations about race.
White supremacy is so pervasive, and to an untrained eye, sometimes even invisible. So, it is imperative, when noticed, that whites call it out for what it is. When whites acknowledge their privilege and use it to confront racism and dismantle white supremacy, we will begin to see real change.
3. Embrace Cultural Differences
Embracing other cultures can be difficult for some whites, especially those who live in spaces where whites are the overwhelming majority. If all your friends look like you, find a non-white person to befriend. When your children see that your circle is diverse, they will seek diversity as they build bonds with other children. Teach your children about African American, Asian, Latino, Native American, and other ethnic cultures. Talk to your children about differences in skin color, hair texture, ancestral histories, values, traditions, and cultural celebrations. Don’t teach your children to be “colorblind” because this undermines the very existence of people of color and the struggles they endure. Rather, teach your children to acknowledge differences in others, while emphasizing that no race is better than another.
White parents must have uncomfortable conversations about race with their children if we want to see real racial progress. We inch closer to racial equality each time whites have discussions about racism at the dinner table, at church, at the country club, at the coffee shop, and at work. When self-proclaimed, non-racist whites have tough conversations with their children and embrace their pivotal role in the fight for racial equality, America will change.
Dr. Jobia Keys is a wife, mother of two young children, author and Professor of Communication. Her research centers on media literacy, media representations and entertainment education. She is regularly invited to speak on topics such as gender, race and class representations in media, strategic communication planning, and diversity and inclusion initiatives. Her first children’s book, Grand Angel, was published in 2015, and her research has been published in The Journal of Children and Media. When she is not spending time with her family, writing, or reading, she is traveling, listening to great music, cooking, and volunteering in her community. You can find her on Instagram.