Child psychologist Dr. Melissa Sporn and a group of parents share their advice for talking to kids about racism and current events.
As the Black Lives Matter movement has intensified after the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis, white people have been roused to come alongside their neighbors of color as allies to address inequality.
For the many 93% of Vermonters who claim to be white/non-Hispanic, confronting personal biases and being models of change for the next generation are ways to help.
However, talking about race issues can be very uncomfortable for white parents, University of Vermont Associate Professor Jamie Abaied said. Many avoid the conversation altogether or inadvertently perpetuate systems of racism while talking with their kids, according to her research.
Abaied, a Psychological Science professor, became interested in how white families discuss race after the Charleston Church massacre in 2015 and other killings in the news rocked the Black community and the world.
Together with colleague Sylvia Perry, who was then at UVM and now is at Northwestern University, the two organized a research study asking 165 white U.S. parents of children ages 8 to 12 to anonymously write responses to the questions:
- “What would you say if your child asked you about race?”
- “What would you say to your child if you witnessed together an incident in which someone experienced prejudice due to their race?”
- “Describe how you have discussed recent current events related to race, such as events related to Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, or the Charleston shooting, with your child. If you have not discussed them, describe why you chose not to do so.”
A paper entitled Socialization of Racial Ideology by White Parents detailing their findings is currently in the peer review process.
Many don’t talk about it
The findings from the 2015 study found 63% of parents did not discuss current events related to race, while 37% said they did.
In analyzing the responses, the number one reason parents did not talk about race was a form of “shielding” — parents said the children were too young, the events were too violent to discuss or it was an adult matter. The second most common response was a “passive approach” in which respondents said the issue wasn’t relevant to them or the child hadn’t brought it up.
Black in Vermont: What it’s like when someone doesn’t believe you’re from here
Because the dominant response in the 2015 study was kids were too young to talk about race, she recruited parents of kids ages 14 to 17 for a summer 2019 study which included the discussion topics of police brutality against Black youth and child separation at the U.S./Mexico border. Preliminary review of the results suggest the rate of discussion was similarly low. In this one, the “passive approach” was the chief reason.
Colorblind vs. Color Conscious
The responses gathered from the 2015 study reveal a lack of understanding and a mixing of messages which could contribute to the perpetuation of systemic racism.
The dominant ideology professed by respondents was “colorblindness.” This tenet suggests everyone is human and what matters is who someone is on the inside. Or, it believes talking about race is divisive.
While not seeing color differences can seem well-meaning, it downplays the reality of race. It implies race doesn’t exist, doesn’t matter or isn’t important, Abaied said.
“If you think race isn’t real, you can quickly think racism isn’t real. If you don’t think racial distinctions are important, it may be very easy for you to deny the fact that people of color experience discrimination due to their race.” Abaied said.
Sometimes parents confuse colorblindness with egalitarianism, which a positive form of color consciousness. Egalitarianism suggests people of different races should receive equal treatment and equal protections under the law. About half of people in the study endorsed some form of egalitarianism.
Abaied said it is important not to confuse colorblindness with egalitarianism because egalitarianism hasn’t been achieved yet as there is still racial inequality.
Colorblindness is viewed by some as a modern expression of racism, according to Abaied.
Parents also delivered mixed messages, adding to confusion. Almost one-third of the sample communicated a mixture of colorblindness and color consciousness. They would communicate race doesn’t matter and then, for instance, acknowledge police brutality.
“Parents are socializing their kids to downplay race which will make it harder for kids to understand the reality of racism. It’s reinforcing the current status quo which is to ignore racial inequality,” Abaied said of approaching race discussions by not talking about it, espousing “colorblindness” or mixing messages.
Strategies for talking about racial inequality
Some parents in the two studies were able to have deep, meaningful conversations about race with their children through the lens of color consciousness, Abaied said.
She said often white adults lack understanding because they haven’t thought deeply about these issues. She said being uncomfortable talking about race is an aspect of white privilege; for people of color, it’s not an option.
First, she suggests educating oneself. Books on race have become popular reading recently. Secondly, she said to recognize one may find patterns that are problematic, like colorblindness, or a need to understand one’s own biases.
In fact, study data indicated parents with higher bias awareness were more likely to have discussions about race. Abaied co-authored a paper about this topic which was published in Journal of Social Issues.
She recommended PBSKids resources for talking with children about race. The site says children are never too young to learn about diversity.
Keeping the conversation going
Abaied has centered much of her research around current events because she believes adults talking about them would elicit conversations.
At the beginning of July, Abaied started a new study asking equal numbers of Black and white parents how they discuss recent events such as Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the George Floyd killing and COVID-19, contrasting those related to race and not. She is interested how events have different meanings when the consequences for each group are different.
In the time between the 2015 study and now, she is encouraged by the community-wide actions that have been taking place all across the U.S. addressing racial inequality. “It’s possible this is changing,” she said about public outcry from white people in support of Black and brown neighbors.
“I just hope white parents keep an open mind about their ability to discuss race with their children,” she said. “I acknowledge it’s going to be really difficult, but it’s important and worthwhile.”
Contact April Barton at email@example.com or 802-660-1854. Follow her on Twitter @aprildbarton.
This coverage is only possible with support from our readers. Sign up today for a subscription to the Burlington Free Press.
Read or Share this story: https://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/story/news/2020/07/07/tips-how-white-parents-can-talk-their-kids-racism-inequality/5363468002/