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Talking about racism with your child


“Feelings such as fear, confusion, shame and anger may arise. It is important to make sure to communicate to them that they did nothing wrong, their feelings are valid and that they do not deserve such treatment,”

Don’t shy away from the topic of race because children will encounter it, sometimes even at school.

“Continued education and engagement in conversations around race and white privilege are necessary in households of all races,” said Chrishane Cunningham, a postgraduate fellow at the Family Institute at Northwestern University.

Children are not too young to learn about this “slippery and elusive” topic, she said.

Many people tend to think of racism in the context of mistreatment based on skin color and the belief in the superiority of one race over another, but racism is much more complex.

“At its core, racism is about power and prejudice,” Cunningham said. It “allows for one group (white Americans)to have disproportionate access to resources as well as power and influence in shaping cultural norms, values and institutional policies.”

Because racism is pervasive and systemic, it is oftentimes perpetuated inadvertently and unknowingly, for example in a lack of representation in school curriculums, Cunningham said.

Children of all ages can experience racism, and it can be confusing and hurtful.

“It can teach them that their value is determined by the color of their skin and not by all the wonderful things they will come to offer the world,” she said.

As a parent it can be a daunting task to talk with a child who has witnessed racism, Cunningham said.  But racism is rooted in injustice, and this is a concept that most  are familiar with.

In discussions, using age appropriate language helps your child gain a better understanding of what they witnessed.

“It may be helpful to frame the conversation around an ‘unfairness’ or ‘wrong’ they experienced,” Cunningham said. Ask questions like “Has there ever been a time where you felt people treated you unfairly?,” “Did anyone help or stand up for you?,” “If not, what did that feel like?” and “How would you have helped a friend in a similar situation?”

These questions can help a child gain empathy and a better idea of how to navigate future encounters, Cunningham said.

It is also a great time to share with your child your personal experiences and struggles with racist encounters. Hearing your struggles and steps towards allyship — including your mistakes — can be illuminating for their personal journeys, she said.

If your child has been the target of racism, it can be very difficult to cope.

“If they are very young, it can feel like a loss of innocence, and if they are older it can feel like a cruel reminder of things to come,” Cunningham said.

Parents should try to foster honest and open communication with their child about their experience and the world around them, Cunningham said. Let children share their experiences, feelings and full range of emotions.

“Feelings such as fear, confusion, shame and anger may arise. It is important to make sure to communicate to them that they did nothing wrong, their feelings are valid and that they do not deserve such treatment,” Cunningham said. “It is also an opportunity to lead/teach by example. The best thing you can do for your child is be an advocate for them and teach them how to advocate for themselves.”

Help them through the process of reporting the offense and looking into restorative justice opportunities or helping them find a trusted and trained professional, such as a school social worker or therapist to process their experience.

“Ultimately, it is important to help your child learn to talk about their experience and how it makes them feel while ensuring that they know they do not have to handle such encounters alone,” Cunningham said.

For more resources including book, movie and podcast lists, check out pb-resources.com, which was created by New York University student Alexis Williams.

“I encourage people to look up organizations within their community that are working to spark positive changes, as they are often loaded with information and resources that directly impact your community,” Cunningham said.

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