How to Not (Accidentally) Raise a Racist


How to Not (Accidentally) Raise a Racist

Last year we did an episode with our friend and editorial board member Anthonia Akitunde about her website mater mea, which is focused on Black motherhood. In that show, we focused a lot on how these women have addressed racism with their kids. Which then prompted a listener named Wanda to wonder how white parents talk to their kids about race—and she wrote in, asking us if we could put together an episode on what it sounds like when “white families get this right.”

We were very excited by this idea, so we called in an expert: Dr. Brigitte Vittrup.

Brigitte and her family

Brigitte is an associate professor of early childhood development and education at Texas Women’s University, and she’s focused a lot of her research on children’s racial attitudes and how parents influence those attitudes. Brigitte has also had a lot of personal experience talking about race because her husband is Black and her two children are mixed race.

Tune in to this fascinating conversation for a primer on how to make your kids more openminded and egalitarian, including answers to questions that YOU asked Brigitte!

* This episode focuses on white parents talking about race with their kids, but we’ve covered talking about race from other points of view on the show in episodes #99 When Grace Lin Realized She Was Chinese, #85 Dispatches From Black Motherhood, #59 Mama Don’t Understand, among others!

Resources for Talking to Your Kids About Race
We hope our episode helps you get started in a lifelong conversation with your kids about race. Here are some resources to keep the dialogue going.

Books Brigitte Recommends
The age ranges below are merely suggestions; use your judgment as to which books are a good match for your child!

For preschoolers: Shades of People by Shelley Rotner and All the Colors We Are: The story of how we got our skin color by Katie Kissinger are both full of beautiful photos of kids from diverse ethnicities. The latter includes a scientific explanation of why people have different skin colors.

For grades K-2: Chocolate Me! by Taye Diggs and Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman are picture books featuring Black protagonists, with strong messages of self-affirmation in the face of discrimination. The Skin I’m in: A First Look at Racism is written by psychotherapist Pat Thomas, and encourages children to be comfortable with differences in skin colors among their friends.

For grades 3+: Who Belongs Here? by Margy Burns Knight and My Name is Bilal by Asma Mobin-Uddin are complex stories that promote compassion for immigrants.

We also love: The Hello Atlas by Ben Handicott. This book includes charming illustrations by Kenard Pak, demonstrating the variety of skin tones, landscapes, and languages of cultures around the world. There’s even a free app where you can hear real children speaking sentences in dialects that correspond with the book.

Excerpt from The Hello Atlas

Videos Brigitte Recommends
Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, has videos and teaching kits to help educators talk about diversity, equity,and justice. Teachers can order these kits for free. Educators of young children may want to try Starting Small: Teaching Tolerance in Preschool and the Early Grades.

White Like Me: Race, Racism, & White Privilege in America is a documentary by Tim Wise. You can watch the entire film here:

Being Muslim in America (and MIT) in 2016 is a videotaped panel discussion on how Donald Trump’s rhetoric about Muslims influences public opinion and impacts the daily lives of Muslim-Americans—and what can be done to combat this type of discrimination.

Resources on the History of Racism & White Privilege
If you’re looking for some basics about race and racism in America, start here.

Raising Race Conscious Children is great for helping you translate that stuff to kids. Same with Embrace Race and Teaching for Change.

If you want to get actively involved in the anti-racism movement, try Showing Up for Racial Justice.

If you’re the white parent of a mixed race child, read this.

If you want some thought provoking reading on privilege, white guilt, and racial politics, check out this primer on white privilege by Lori Lakin Hutcherson; this essay on white guilt and reparations by Eula Biss; and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. (This is the book that listener Clay mentions in his question!)

And if you’re looking for great children’s books with diverse characters, check out We Need Diverse Books.

How have YOU talked to your kids about race and racism?
Do you think you’ll approach their questions any differently after hearing Brigitte’s thoughts? Share below!

Our sponsors for this episode are Squarespace, Wunder Capital, Total Wireless and Third Love. Use the promo codes at checkout for a special discount.

61 thoughts on “EPISODE #116: How to Not (Accidentally) Raise a Racist

  1. Hi- this conversation hit right on the head. I have four children who are white. We recently moved to the south from Colorado.
    My oldest child asked the other day when we passed our city housing authority,” Mommy, Are those apartments only for African Americans?” I didn’t know how to answer in a meaningful way. I don’t want to create stereotypes for her, but think that there is history/policy/etc- that might be too complicated for my young children to understand. This is uncomfortable to discuss.
    I would love to hear how to address this issue?

  2. I usually listen to LST episodes as soon as they become available. Honestly though, it’s taken me a month to be ready to listen to this one. I kept passing it in my queue thinking “I’m just not in the mood to hear white people wring their hands about whiteness.” I am a wife, mother and woman of color. I have 3 siblings. Of the 4 children in my family I am the only one who has married or partnered with another black person. I have 1 white sister in law, 2 white ex brother’s in law (my sister married 2 different white men) and a brother in law who is puerto rican and polish. My nieces and nephews are all bi racial. My great niece is multi racial. She is the child of 2 biracial parents (black, white and puerto rican).

    For our family there was never a time when we had to start talking about race because there was never a time when we stopped. 19 years ago my sister and I had sons that look like twins. The only difference is that my boy has brown hair, skin and eyes. My nephew has blonde hair, white skin and blue eyes. Both boys have big afro’s and afrocentric features. (wish I could post a pic)

    As a person of color, my best advice for hesitant parents is to just keep talking about race in big and small ways. For example when describing someone use their race (ie. Joe is the tall black guy with glasses). IMO the ability to speak casually about race in a neutral way is a sure sign that you’re NOT a racist. People who are hesitant telegraph to me that they are quietly racist. just one woman’s opinion.

    1. I am a mother of a 15 month old daughter. Our entire family is white. My daughter is not yet of the age where words and vocabulary have a lot of meaning (unless you are a bird, a kitty, or a leaf), but I’ve been thinking about how the words I use in casual conversation both now and in the future will shape her views of the world. I have already decided that when I have to describe a person to her, I will use their skin color as well as other identifying features, most importantly when I am describing a white person. Because when I only use race to describe non-white people, I am subtly saying that White is “normal” and all other races need to be described.

      I hope this will be a start, and will also be a first step in moving past any discomfort.

    2. Kathy, I’m white and have 2 biracial boys (now 13 and 11). I agree with you that white people hesitant to talk about race, to me, implies bias (conscious or unconscious).
      Having said that, I think I’m biased too (which terrifies me, because if I’m biased, having biracial kids, I don’t want to even think what’s out there). To give an example of my bias, I’m irked when I see a “Black lives matter” sign. I think: “why are they reminding me that my black kids’ lives are different from white kids lives? To me, that’s biased (of me), but it’s also part of our reality. I very much appreciated your post. Thank you.

      1. Jimena, It’s hard right!? I am the mother of 4 black sons. We live in a safe place but the police killings of young black men is a constant and painful reminder that while I see them as my sweet babies not everybody sees them that way. In the eyes of some people they are born “the usual suspects.” It kills me.

  3. Some friends and I, all of us white parents, started a playgroup where we have intentional discussions about how to raise anti-racist white children (while they play!). It was awkward at first, but slowly as we get more comfortable with each other and the language we use to talk about race, telling stories about our own growing up, misconceptions we had as kids, memories of our parents’ shortcomings in this arena, mistakes we’ve made or that we’re afraid of making, it’s becoming a really productive and inspiring group. I recently finally got up the nerve to talk about skin color with my 2 1/4 year old, and after just a few times it’s already become easy. The biggest point that I take home from our discussions at the playgroup is that we white people are really afraid to talk about race because we think we’re going to say the wrong thing, but with our kids, it’s important to just talk about race, even if we say the wrong thing, just say something!
    We recently decided to purchase this online reading course:
    Thanks for this episode!

  4. I just finished this episode and I will look up some of the resources but I feel there wasn’t a lot of concrete talking points for parents to give kids when having these discussions. There was a lot of references to “these discussions ” but not how we should be talking about race appropriately. There was one comment by the guest about “some people have hair like that.” But I was hoping for more.
    Thanks for the pod I still enjoyed it.

    1. I agree! The main thing I took away from this was that it’s important to talk about race, but without many tools to do so.
      I would love to see more episodes on this topic – you could spin off a whole podcast about this and not run out of material.

  5. Thank you so much for your comments Brigitte. I agree with everything you say, although, in my experience, young kids are aware of color and differences in appearance, but not race (my kids are biracial and we live in a mostly white community). I wonder if your comment is based on your experience or your research, and whether it has to do with their parents’ biases (explicit or implicit).
    What I’d like to highlight is what you said (I’m paraphrasing here) that talking about race does not mean someone is racist. In my opinion, it’s actually the opposite: people who are less biased (or more aware of their biases, and working to overcome them) are more willing to talk about race and our differences, without implying that they’re bad.
    Thank you for a very informative podcast.

  6. We are a bi-racial family (white + Filipino) living in a mostly white community. I’ve been trying to expose my kids to different races through books, friends, community events, etc. One day a comment from my 4-year-old daughter made me realize I’m not doing nearly enough. She pointed to a flyer that came in the mail that had cartoon people with different skin colours and asked why they’re all different. I answered that different people have different skin colours and she said, “No, they don’t!”, like I was playing a silly joke.
    I realized that if she doesn’t realize that half her relatives, including her father, have darker skin, I’m really not doing a good job helping her connect with her identity. I’ve been at a bit of a loss about how to approach it, though, because I don’t want to start pointing out every person of colour we see in public, as though it’s the most important thing about them.
    I’ve found a few good resources online and will start to be more deliberate about bringing up topics of race.

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