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. LOVED this episode! I would definitely like to hear more episodes on this topic as there is so much to unpack here. Thank you so much for making this episode.

  2. What I got from this discussion is that white adults have learned to navigate race by just avoiding the topic. It makes them uncomfortable and many white people aren’t forced to think about it because they are insulated from race in their own communities. They become uncomfortable around people of color because they are afraid to say something insensitive and be reprimanded or judged. But the reason they might say something insensitive is because they haven’t taken the time to figure out what black people might be sensitive about and why.

    When white children ask their parents direct and thoughtful questions about race, the parents transfer their own discomfort by shutting down the conversation. Just by exhibiting nervousness while talking about race confers to their children that there is something wrong with discussing it. There is nothing wrong with talking about a person’s skin color or hair texture as long as you discuss it thoughtfully and admit when you don’t know the answer. For instance, you probably know the answer of why someone’s hair is curly or kinky but you may not know the answer to how a person gets their hair styled in a certain way.

    If you don’t have any friends of color and have only superficial knowledge of black history and culture, take it upon yourself to learn about it. There are so many books and documentaries about the black experience, but you have to seek it out. Often when white people dismiss books, tv shows, and other media about black culture and history as not pertaining to them.

    Also, white parents should expose their young children to stories about people of other races. That would open up the discussion at home in a comfortable setting. There are children’s books about brown people, but you have to seek them out. Black children read stories about white children all the time. As a black parent I had to make sure my son had as many books about black children as I could find so he would see himself represented, but we also read stories with characters of other races.

    To sum up, I think white people have some homework to do. Consider it as contributing to your own personal growth whether you have children or not. If you don’t know enough about race, you don’t have to ask a brown person. Seek out the answers, they are there waiting for you.

    1. I am a parent (Anne) who had a question answered on this show. First off, thank you, Hillary and team, for doing this show and allowing me to participate. In response to the above, and Charlita below — I very much appreciate where you are coming from, but speaking for myself, there was more to my discussion with the producer than just this question. For example, how to raise white children who accept the responsibility of fighting for social equity.

      My daughter’s discovery of race was precipitated by a children’s book about Rosa Parks that we bought her last year, as well as some library books about black and white children during segregation. She had been raised among people with different skin colors — and had books and toys featuring all skin colors — but had never heard of “black” and “white” as categories until we read about Parks.

      Just like any new piece of knowledge (which still of course doesn’t make complete sense to her), this has become a topic of much discussion. We never shut it down. What I was attempting to express was my own knee-jerk discomfort at having my daughter ask a stranger if they are black, etc., while realizing that response is not helpful. I won’t attempt to defend my level of education on the topic — there is always more to be learned. (And part of my question was definitely meant to address the issue of burdening brown people with teaching my daughter about race.) But I will say that race and social justice are prominent issues in our household, and I think I have a decent grasp on why a black person in the U.S. might be sensitive — not that all black people share the same feelings.

      This honestly isn’t meant as a defense — I thought the show’s structure was extremely valuable and sent a much-needed message. But I wanted to give some context. There are people who DO care what is happening in this country. It’s not just about being embarrassed in public or the fear of being called racist. I can handle the embarrassment, being misunderstood, or giving my own biases a long, hard look. I just want to raise the best human beings I can, who understand that racism isn’t someone else’s problem.

      1. Anne, I really appreciated your question and I thought the issue you bring up here (how to not burden POC with being “race training wheels” for our kids) needed to be addressed. I’m still not sure what take away from the answer that was offered on the show. Don’t be skittish about answering questions when they come up in public, ok, but- how to be sensitive to those around us? The answer only really addressed what would be the most beneficial for the child in the situation. There’s another piece of this that needs discussion.

      2. Anne – your initial reaction is not uncommon, because many white people have been raised in an environment where race is not talked about, and it creates discomfort when all of a sudden a child asks a very direct question. But as long as you allow your children to ask these questions and keep the conversation going, they will learn that this is an important topic that should not be ignored, and ultimately that can lead to more sensitivity to other people’s experiences and the value of social justice.
        As for your child asking strangers these types of questions, I don’t think you have to worry too much about offending them if it is just these types of fact seeking questions. Children usually ask because they are curious, and most Black people will not get offended if a child asks “Are you Black?” I think they will appreciate the open conversations about it.

  3. Loved this episode.

    How about a similar one for disabilities? Many adults have trouble treating the disabled as adults. Some discussion of that would be great.

    1. I totally agree! Also, some of the questions asked reminded me also of how children ask questions that feel awkward about larger people, or gender non-conforming people, etc. I think an episode that deals with not just how to answer a child but also how to examine our own biases as adults would be great.

  4. Basically every single question was so frustrating to hear. The idea that these parents are so fearful of simply describing what other people look like for fear being racist is mind boggling to me. If people worried half as much about what actually happens to people of color as they do about describing them, I believe we would so a big shift in this country. I’m sure these people meant well but this was pretty disappointing to hear.

    1. I completely agree. Though everyone seemed well-meaning, the amount of avoidance was baffling. I couldn’t help but compare it to my experience growing up and not having any other choice but to talk about race…

      1. Again, I’m sorry if my particular question came across as avoidance–it was meant in the opposite spirit. We started introducing the topic of race proactively in our household, in large part because we realized that other families do not have the luxury of pretending it doesn’t exist. My concern was how to proceed with my daughter in public in a sensitive way, when she is still so young, is extremely curious and chatty with strangers, and confuses some of the facts.

  5. This is great. My son is of mixed race and so am I, but my skin is a lot darker than his. I am visibly black. I know he is going to get questions from friends about me. I also do about my sex because I am his mother and female, but because I am tall, have short hair and don’t wear jewelry, I am often mistaken for his father. (and I gave birth to him!) But that is another story. Anyways, it was a great show and had great ideas on those uncomfortable questions we will all face about the differences in other people.

    I also wanted to say that a good opportunity for Clay from Boulder is on campus. The University of Colorado-Boulder has a Black Student Association that I was a part of (in 1995). I think this might be a good start. They also had a wonderful African American Dance group my boyfriend at the time, belonged to. Being in medical school is hard because I am sure he doesn’t have a lot of time, but some of the school clubs might help him meet people of different races. Just my thought.

  6. Great episode on a critical topic! I wanted to add one resource that people may appreciate – it’s a FREE iPhone, iPad app called Who Am I? Race Awareness Game. And it actually provides a fun, guessing game that provides a context for adults to talk with children about race.

  7. I listened to the episode and also came away with a feeling of frustration and disappointment. It isn’t good enough to just be learn to talk in basic terms about race and culture with our kids aka describe physical arributes. We need to help kids to ask questions respectfully, is they are curious about race, perhaps, “would you mind tell me where your ansestors were from?” Or to say we don’t know if it isn’t appropriate to ask that person in that space and use that to talk about race and assumptions. We need to help kids to be empathetic enough to be good friends. What does that look like? Speaking about racism when you see it. Pulling over to be another set of eyes while some is stopped for driving while black, commenting to the employee in a store if you notice someone being treated unfairly, helping kids navigate the different cultural norms their friends may have so they can bridge them, helping your kids to recognize their privilege in a given situation. I think you have a lot more material do delve into perhaps a panel of white parents who have worked hard at this would be helpful.

  8. One thing my mother did which I felt was a pretty good approach was that I always had dolls of different races growing up. I may have been blonde and blue eyed but the only dolls I remember having when a child were one black doll and a set of twins who were Indian, complete with Indian styles clothes. I thought they were much cooler than everyone else’s to be honest.

  9. Loved this episode! I’m the Asian-American mother of a half-white child, and I’m wondering if there are any resources or advice about the reverse situation: how do I talk to my child about her whiteness and about whiteness in general? There’s a certain way that my sisters and or my POC friends and I talk about white people (when we’re not in the company of any) that I wouldn’t feel comfortable having my daughter hear. Or how do I explain to her that some people might treat mommy differently than they would treat her? Would be interested to hear what Dr Vittrup thinks!

    1. Vivian – You bring up a good point, because often the discomfort about the topic of raise is mainly about discussing people of color. There is less sensitivity surrounding the discussion of white people and whiteness in general. Nonetheless, for those who are multiracial, the navigation of the politics of race can be confusing and uncomfortable. Many multiracial individuals perceive the need to be “bi-cultural” and “code switching” when in different environments. These children tend to be aware of this at a fairly young age, and your daughter may have already noticed some of the things you mention, so I think it is important to discuss that with her. For younger children this can start with a conversation of people and skin colors (I highly recommend “Shades of People” or “All the Colors That We Are” – listed on this webpage), and for older children it can involve a gradual introduction to biases and discrimination. When children reach adolescence and start forming and questioning their identity, racial identity also moves to the forefront for minorities and multiracial children, and multiracial children sometimes navigate multiple racial identities (what they know they are, what they feel they are, what others perceive them to be, etc.). I highly recommend a book by Kerry Ann Rockquemore called “Raising Biracial Children.” It is very comprehensive and offers a lot of information and practical strategies.

    2. Hi! I am in the same situation, but I am white and my husband is Asian. I am not close to my side of the family, so he will grow up more in tune with his Asian family. He is 7 months old so I am not sure how to explain to him about being bi racial.

  10. Hi! So, I have a 7 month old baby. I am white and my husband is Vietnamese. I have been thinking about how I will explain his own racial makeup to him when he is older. Any thoughts on talking to bi racial children about their race? Thanks!

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