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. Great show! Silence = implicit acceptance of the way things are. I wonder how I could’ve handled myself better today when I took my seven-year-old to the playground?… I look up to see my daughter and a few other white kids surrounding a brown boy. They’ve “captured” him, though he seems to be okay and they’re not hurting him though I can’t hear what they’re saying from my distance. He soon runs away and they resume playing “capture” him all over again. His mother and I are both watching all this go down. I call my daughter over and say (within earshot of his mother) that I think they should take turns chasing each other and she says that he doesn’t mind being chased. I let it go, but felt terrible later on because it seemed like they were picking on him. The problem is I don’t think I would’ve cared if they played “capture” if it was a white boy. Should I encourage her to to be more ‘sensitive’ when the other children she plays with are of a different race?

    1. It’s possible that he was just the new kid on the playground and that’s why they did it. Or it’s possible that he stood out to them as being different and that’s why they did it. Was he the only boy? If so, it could be a gender thing. I think we have to be careful not to assume that it was because of his skin color but also be aware that it could be. The best thing to do is to just ask. That can spark a conversation not just about race, but also about “playground etiquette” (being nice to each other, taking turns, welcoming new friends, etc.). At my house we also teach our kids to help (or get help) when others are being picked on. Teaching them to recognize when there is a power imbalance (multiple kids against one) and someone is not being treated fairly will also help them recognize (over time when they get older) when there is potential racial discrimination.

  2. Hello! I read stories every day to my 3-6 year old class and have a 6 year old boy.

    I want to comment on the fact that “Chocolate Me” is a book about teasing, where the child is teased about his dirty brown skin. A lot of Kindergarteners are very blessed to live in a diverse atmosphere and not have experienced that sort of race-related teasing, and its not a great idea to introduce it to them. Many books accidentally introduce negative behavior in an attempt to show in the end that its wrong, but what it ends up doing is planting a seed of teasing and the child may try it at school. The same author, Taye Diggs, has a book called “Mixed Me” which is great for mixed children who feel they have a different situation. I think parents should research books for their own child and make sure to read reviews before purchasing.

    One book not recommended here is called “Race Cars: A children’s book about white privilege” It’s about a white and black car who race to different rules. I really like this book because it isn’t a personal story about a human but introduces the actual concept of white privilege.

    The book “The Name Jar” helps children understand not to make fun of foreign names.

    There are a few books where the main character is simply black or asian and goes about their adventure, such as “the Snowy Day” and “Peters Chair” and “Goggles” and many of the books by Ezra Keats. There are more modern authors who explicitly try to raise self confidence like in the book “Big Hair, Don’t care!” but that wouldn’t be appropriate for my white son or my classroom, but only for certain children who need affirmation that their own hair is beautiful, even though their peers have different hair. I Wouldn’t read that to my class though, because I don’t want the kids to start noticing who has big hair and who doesn’t!

    Children ought to understand the whole, wider concept before honing in on specifics, so I like the idea of “Hello, World” because it teaches the child about the world before coming to the united states where there’s a person with ancestry from every continent represented.

    Good luck, everyone!

    1. You are correct about the content of the book “Chocolate Me.” The book was written in order to teach Black kids to be proud of their skin and who they are, as well as to teach non-Black kids what it’s like to experience teasing because of your skin color. I have heard from several white teachers who are uncomfortable with the book, and often it is because they have not personally experienced or witnessed this type of teasing and therefore do not want to introduce this negative concept to young children. However, kids are exposed to teasing and exclusion (either personal experience or witnessing it happen to peers) for a variety of reasons, and this book can be used in the context of that — teaching kids not to exclude others (“don’t say you can’t play”), make fun of others, or say mean things. You can add books about disabilities, other physical differences, language barriers, etc., and this book (Chocolate Me) introduces them to the fact that discriminating because of race is not okay, and it opens up conversations about race (which white children are often not exposed to).

      I don’t think you have to worry that reading this book will give the kids ideas to suddenly go and try out this type of teasing. When there is interactive discussion about this topic, the kids will understand that teasing someone because of their race is not okay, and it is more likely that they will tell others NOT to do it (e.g., if they overhear someone say something negative about a person of another race), and therefore it can serve as a positive way of pre-arming them to not engage in race based discrimination.

      White people have the privilege to not see race and not introduce negative concepts surrounding race, but unfortunately Blacks and other minorities do not because they are often faced with it from a young age. Therefore, I think it is important for us to be mindful of other people’s experiences and try to teach our children to be mindful as well.

    2. Loved this episode!! I have to agree that sometimes that books (or shows/movies) that intend to show how “bad” certain behaviors are can unintentionally plant the seed to children to try these behaviors, instead of having the intended effect. There are studies about this, actually. One book that is great for explaining skin color on a base scientific level (which can be a good place to begin with young children) is called On The Day You Were Born and it’s by Debra Frasier. The regular edition (not board book) has a lovely explanation of all the natural phenomena she describes in the book, and the explanation about skin color is really wonderful and judgment-free. Also, it’s a book that is so sweet it may make you cry!

  3. I loved this episode and look forward to using these techniques to encourage more thoughtful and respectful conversation with my child.

    As someone else mentioned, I would love to hear a similar discussion in regards to individuals with disability, and how we discuss that with our children. Perhaps a podcast with a parent who has a disability, or parent of a child with a disability (particularly cognitive), could provide insight into how to better guide our children to be respectfully curious and inclusive.

  4. Thank you for addressing this incredibly complex topic. I am a PhD anthropologist, and a (white) mom, and still struggle as to how to adequately approach race with my children. While it is not my area of specialty, I teach race and human variation in intro and medical anthropology courses at the college level, so I am relatively comfortable discussing white privilege, race, racisms, and human biological variation. However, teaching an academic course is very different from raising racially aware/non-racist children. My children are young (10 months, 2.5 years), so I’m starting with just exposing them to diverse books and toys. I don’t know what my next step will be, but just like everything with parenting, I guess I’ll figure it out as I go!

    I also agree with many commentors that there are very few resources for addressing differences in physical and cognitive ability with children. Any suggestions would be much appreciated!

  5. I liked the episode, but I came away disappointed. There’s so much more to learn about *how* to have these conversations, not just the importance of having them/not avoiding them. Additionally, I would have loved to hear the input of both white parents and psychologists/sociologists and how they have worked hard on this issue and parents and experts of color to talk about what things they have seen that has worked and what they wish white parents would do more of.
    Another topic for further conversation could be about white parents raising adopted children of color.

    1. Thank you! I haven’t exactly had a ton of practice talking to my 2 yr old about race, I’ve never had to teach anyone about it before, so some actual scripting and guides to language to use could have come in handy- I was disappointed that this just sort of brushed the surface of “talk to your kids”… which was the part I knew before I listened to this episode. And as far as your kids talking about what people’s race is in front of them.. can’t that just fall under the umbrella of “don’t talk about people’s appearance in public”? i mean at some point we get across the message that you shouldn’t mention someone being overly tall or fat or has a limp or whatever loudly at the grocery store, I feel like if you’re talking about race at home or just more quietly then it’s okay to say it’s not always appropriate to make someone feel weird about how they look.

  6. I’ve found myself stumbling around some of the same mental blocks as some of the parents in the podcast when answering my 3.5-year old’s questions about how other people look. Being uncomfortable to simply describe how people look, including their hair, eye, skin color, weight, etc., is something I’m struggling with because I’m aware of all of the cultural and historical bias that goes along with personal appearance. Dr. Vittrup reminded me that my daughter is still pretty ignorant of this baggage and one way of teaching about overcoming the legacy of the past is to speak plainly about reality. Thanks for a great episode and for the resources, too.

  7. I agree with Delia and Athena. This episode was just the tiny tip of the iceberg and, alone, it is utterly insufficient at delivering on its premise (how to not accidentally raise a racist). What’s needed is an extended series on this topic, featuring people like Delia and Athena suggested. Even an episode that started out by discussing the content of this (impressively nuanced!) comment thread would itself be a useful start. I was frustrated listening to the episode because I felt like white parents might still walk away from it not realizing the vast depth of the privilege they have that they get to even ask the questions they are asking, in the first place. Dr. Vittrup’s comment below — “White people have the privilege to not see race and not introduce negative concepts surrounding race, but unfortunately Blacks and other minorities do not because they are often faced with it from a young age.” — is exactly the message that I felt wasn’t coming through clearly enough in the episode.

    Maybe a white parent listening to the episode will come to learn that it’s not only okay but absolutely necessary to describe people in their social world in terms of race — and that’s great. But will a white parent listening to the episode come to learn to talk to their 6-year-old about how when the black boys in class get in trouble with the teacher it might be because of something called racism?* Probably not. Meanwhile, a Black mother has no choice but to work with her son about his shame for getting in trouble, his anger at the injustice of being singled out, and the fact that he’s going to have to learn how to love himself more than the world loves him, just like his father and his father’s father. The next day, those two children are going to experience being at school in completely different ways. Not only does the white child not need to be as vigilant as the Black child, but the white child doesn’t even know that the Black child is even having to be vigilant. So, giving white children the message that it’s okay to be friends with black and brown children is just the very, very beginning. Indeed, “But my best friend is Black” has become the well-known cliché motto of The Accidental Racist.

    There is just so much more work to do be done. I hope LST will rise to the occasion.

    (*My hypothetical example is based on swathes of research, like this: http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2014/03/21/292456211/black-preschoolers-far-more-likely-to-be-suspended)

  8. Thanks for starting the conversation. As a white woman, raising a white boy, I was super excited to see this come up since it seems the conversation is usually directed the other way. I’m also looking forward to more of this going deeper. I live in NYC and my kid has been a minority in his school for the past two years with all shades of black, brown and yellow so I feel comfortable talking about where people come from and why they look the way the do and why we look like we look. And because our school focused on multiculturalism, we had the luxury of having open conversations even about slavery in 1st grade and how that has effected how white and black people still behave today. Thus I long for deeper conversations about staying open, especially now that we have moved to a predominantly white suburb. [a very hard decision made only on the basis of commute times]. Conversations about using white privilege to help connect with others without coming off as, well, privileged and how to stay a citizen of the world when you live in a monoculture during your formative years – which I appreciate you did include some resources at the end of the segment. Maybe advice on approaching school administration and helping more of these conversations happen in school too. Thanks!

  9. I just listened to this podcast yesterday, and TODAY my 5 year old asks me a question about why people’s eye shape is different!!!! Talk about timely! So, instead of my usual “everyone is really the same” colourblind answer, I gave her a mini lecture on genetics and family trees and immigration. It wasn’t awkward at all, and she seemed to understand and absorb what I was telling her! It was actually great. Thank you!!!

Say Something

Commenting Guidelines Curiosity and spirited discussion are welcome; personal attacks are not. We reserve the right to reject comments for any reason.