Talking to Your Child About Race & Racism

“Mama, why is that policeman hitting that man?” exclaimed our 6-year old boy. From the alarming tone in his voice I knew that he was disturbed as I was by the mayhem displayed before us.

It had become our daily routine to watch the 6 o’clock news. Whether it’s the local channel, BBC affiliated station or just a superfluous entertainment news, we’d sit together almost every evening in front of the TV and discover what’s happening in the world. It had become a routine ever since he was a toddler.  True to one of our parenting philosophies, we try to expose our boy to all the aspects of life, good and bad, and as overwhelming as some of the coverage and images may be, the exposure give us a chance to talk about the important issues and events that are going on in our lives and in the world.

It was few days after the riots in Ferguson broke out, and the TV stations were bombarded with its coverage and the images of the citizens of Ferguson peacefully protesting the shooting death of an unarmed young man. He was few years older than our son and was shot by a police officer without any probable cause. The unarmed young man was black and the police officer, white, a paradigm we have seen too often in this country.

Then, as I was trying to make sense of what had happened, watching the chaos of protesters being attacked and brutalized before me, I heard my little boy.  The sense of confusion and anger in his voice was reflection of what I’d felt so often.

Explaining race and racism to a 6-year old wasn’t something I was looking forward to. It was right up there with “the talk” about where babies come from and having sex. It was a conversation I’d hoped to put off until he was much older – say, in his 30’s.

However, when you are a parent, especially of a bi-racial (bi-ethnic) child, conversation about race is inevitable rite of passage. Whether we realize it or not, race (ethnicity) is an integral part of who we are, and often, it’s the first and only factor by which we are judged on. It’s a harsh reality of life, I know, but it is nevertheless a reality that we must deal with.

Although people may try to deny it and pretend that race doesn’t matter, and that we live in world where we are all “colorblind”, it’s delusional to be buried in such belief that we are all equal in the eyes of one another. Even in the U.S., a country that, in my opinion, has gone through the most dramatic demographic and cultural shifts in the world; where racial progress has been made in leaps and bounds, race remains to be the overwhelming factor in everything that we do, and affects every aspect of our lives.

Therefore, not having the conversation about race is like shying away from conversation about “stranger danger” or keeping up the myth about Santa Claus until they’re full grown adults. It’s not only unrealistic but also detrimental to our children’s upbringing and more importantly, their whole being.

Whether we, as parents want to accept it or not, there is no escape from having to cope with racial issues, and sooner we talk openly to our children about race, we can begin a dialogue and help them navigate through life and all its obstacles.

Growing up in a family of first generation immigrants, there were little to no discussions about race and racism. In our elders’ opinion, we were perennial guests in this country, and therefore, we were not to question the indignities that we faced everyday. It’s an understanding that is prevalent and perpetuated in immigrant communities, the mantra to keep our heads down and not make waves or speak up; follow the rules and work hard; and essentially living the stereotype of model minority to obtain the “American dream”.

We were taught to go to school and study hard, not get into trouble and obey authority.  We were entrenched in belief that if we do, we’ll be rewarded with successful life – and sadly, become a poster child for a conservative talk show host like Bill O’Reilly to prove to the world that racism no longer exists.

By ignoring topics like race and racism, we, as parents, are conveying to our children that the issues that impact their everyday life are not important. Worse, it negates their experiences, as one’s race isn’t something that we can escape. It’s an intrinsic part of one’s identity. No matter where we go in the world, even in an ethnically diverse cities like San Francisco or New York City, and no matter how educated or successful we become, how much wealth we may accumulate, we aren’t able to escape the detrimental paradigm of race.

Even in a city like San Francisco, a supposed bastion of liberalism and ethnic diversity, discrimination and bigotry, however covert they may be, are still prevalent.

I remember walking through the city running errands one day, how upset an elderly man had gotten when I accidentally grazed against his foot with my son’s stroller. Without hesitation, he started to spew out profanities. In turn, I sternly reminding him that as he was in the presence of a child, he should watch his language, to which he replied haphazardly, “ Why don’t you go back to where you come from!”

This wasn’t the first time I’ve heard this derogatory phrase. However, it was the first time I heard in the presence of my son, and as much as I’d hope for a better world for him to grow up in, I’m afraid it won’t be the last time he’ll be confronted by such bigotry.

Sadly, the paradigm of race intrudes into our everyday life, and especially for people of color, who we are and who we become is in direct correlation to our race, ethnicity and status of people around us, i.e. teachers, classmates, parents, colleagues and friends, etc.

Therefore, as parents, it’s important to actively help guide our children’s understanding of the world and of themselves, and through conversations, we can help our children think through their beliefs about race, and encourage them to share their experience and understanding of it. It is up to us to take the initiative!

One important gift we can give our children is to create a family in which difficult issues like racism are openly discussed. By talking openly and listening without censure, we can learn about our children’s concerns and help them find connections between larger social issues and their own life experiences.


About S. In

a cultural critic, an avid traveler and a purveyor of social justice and education equity View all posts by S. In

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