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There’s a right way to talk about racism with kids — and most white parents aren’t doing it

By David Chae ScD on August 31, 2020 in News + Updates



Although race and racism are at the top of Americans’ public discussions, it turns out that most white parents in the US don’t talk about those issues with their kids.

Research on how white parents discuss race with their children is sparse. However, past research has shown that conversations about race, much less racism, are rare, even when these issues are highly visible — for example, during the Ferguson protests in 2014.

One study found that even though 81 percent of white mothers believed it was important to have these discussions, only 62 percent reported actually doing so. Of those who said they did, fewer than one-third of those people could actually recall a specific conversation.

Teaching generations

To examine the issue more deeply, we examined surveys of more than 2,000 adults ages 18 and older, collected from May 21 to June 14, 2020, in four major US cities (Chicago, Los Angeles, New Orleans and New York City). We wanted to understand how people’s views on race were influenced by their parents.

Our initial findings indicate that among white respondents, 65 percent said their parents had “never” or “rarely” had conversations with them about racism when they were children. In general, we found that younger white people were more likely to have parents who talked with them about about racism compared to those in older generations. Surprisingly, however, those in the youngest age group — 18- to 25-year-olds — were less likely to have parents who talked with them about racism “very often” (only 7 percent), compared to 26- to 40-year-olds (16 percent) and to those 41- to 55-years-old (12 percent).

We found that those whose parents talked with them about racism were themselves more likely to talk with their own children about it. But even during this period of unrest, 27 percent of white parents of children between 6 and 11 years old told us they “never” talked with their kids about the need for racial equality. Another 15 percent said these conversations were “rare,” and 34 percent said they happened “on occasion.”

Missing the point

Research shows that the relatively small number of white parents who do discuss race with their children often use what are called “colorblind” approaches that downplay racism’s significance in American society. These conversations usually involve emphasizing the sameness between all people and minimize or deny the idea of differences between races. Typical themes include “not seeing race” or “treating everyone the same,” which ignore or even reject the existence of white privilege and racism.

These discussions can promote a myth of meritocracy that claims anyone can succeed in the US regardless of their race, a belief shared by 57 percent of the white respondents in our survey. But the problem with this colorblindness is it ignores how racism is embedded in society — for example, in where people live and what kinds of jobs and educational opportunities people have.

Sometimes conversations can also be explicitly or implicitly racist, relying on racial stereotypes premised on the idea of inherent differences between racial groups. Seldom are such discussions anti-racist. An anti-racism conversation with children involves acknowledging racial inequalities and the historical and present-day reasons why they exist. It also includes talking about ways that a child could help actively undo racism and how not to be a bystander when they see it being perpetrated.

Changing perspectives

Our data showed that white people who were taught by their parents about opposing racism and the importance of fighting for racial equality were supportive of doing more to help racial minority groups hit harder by COVID-19. By contrast, people whose parents had never or rarely talked to them about anti-racism were more likely to feel that racial minorities are themselves at fault for their higher death rates from COVID-19.

We also found that parents’ discussions with their kids helped them grow up to have more nuanced views on other aspects of racism in the US. Three-quarters of adults who had, as children, talked with their parents “very often” about racism said that racial minorities do not have the same opportunities as whites. A similar share (69 percent) said race plays a major role in the types of social services that people receive, such as health care or daycare, and 69 percent also agreed that race plays an important role in who gets sent to prison.

Of the adults whose parents “never” or “rarely” talked with them about racism, fewer than half (47 percent) said racial minorities have different opportunities than whites. Similarly, fewer than half of these people felt that race plays a role in the types of social services people receive or in incarceration (49 percent and 48 percent, respectively).

Resisting racism, challenging racist societal structures and advocating for equity have been an uphill battle shouldered predominantly by individuals, families and communities of color. Our research indicates that the more white parents talk with their children about the realities of American racism, the more aware those kids are, as adults, of inequalities in American life.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

Watch David Chae’s TEDxGrandRapids talk here:


David Chae ScD will be joining the Department of Social, Behavioral, and Population Sciences at Tulane University, School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in September 2020, where he will serve as Associate Dean for Research. He is an elected fellow of the Academy of Behavioral Medicine Research, the honorary senior scientist society for those whose research is at the interface of behavior and medicine; Associate Editor of the journal Health Education & Behavior; and on the Editorial Board of Cultural Diversity & Ethnic Minority Psychology. His research focuses on the social determinants of health inequities and the psychobiology of racial minority stress.

Leoandra Onnie Rogers PhD is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Northwestern University. Her research curiosities lie at the intersection of psychology, human development and education. She is interested in social and educational inequities and the mechanisms through which macro-level disparities are both perpetuated and disrupted at the micro-level of identities and relationships.

Tiffany Yip PhD is a Professor of Psychology at Fordham University. Her research focuses on ethnic identity, discrimination, and sleep among ethnic/racial minority adolescents and young adults. She is an Associate Editor for Developmental Psychology. She is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association and the Association for Psychological Science, and her research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

The Conversation

Tags: Communication, Parenting, Race, Racism