EPISODE #116

How to Not (Accidentally) Raise a Racist

EPISODE #116

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.

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

  1. MORE PLEASE!

    Thank you for addressing this issue and beginning the conversation among parents/teachers/adults. I am a white woman married to a white man with a white 17 month old son. I was previously married for 7 years to a man of mixed race, black and white. We lived in a small, predominantly white town where he grew up with his white mother and grandmother and mixed race siblings ( black and white mix as well as Mexican and white). He was not exposed to much of the culture among his black family. I learned about his difficulty growing up in this community and experiencing discrimination from both races – not being white “enough” or black “enough” to “fit in” completely with either group.

    His mixed race siblings and especially one of his sisters (white and Mexican) openly talked about race and describing people by skin color as a bad thing. From my time in that family, I feel that I learned (from people of mixed race) to take a colorblind approach. She would say how awful it was when others would describe someone as “the black girl”. For example, let’s say you are trying to point out a person because you want to tell your friend to look at the poster on the wall by that person. My former sister-in-law would say that you should try to describe that person in every other way than describing the color of her skin or her race – “See that tall woman over there wearing the pink shirt, with the hoop earrings on, she has a kid standing with her, etc.” (This is not the best example I could think of). Her point was, that in a predominantly white town a person of color would stand out or easily be described by the color of skin. That a white person would commonly say, “I like that poster on the wall by that black woman”.

    So from this episode, I feel like I’m hearing that it is ok to describe someone by the color of their skin. Or is this only ok for children? Is it only ok after you’ve exhausted describing them in other ways first? How do people of color feel about being described by the color of their skin or their race. My sister-in-law was proud of her Mexican heritage, but seemed offended to be described as “Mexican” if it were just to identify her as different than the person standing next to her. Is this because she was raised by her white grandmother and those values were passed on to her.

    My degree is also in Early Childhood education and we were always taught how important it was to have an educational environment that represented all races, and other physical attributes (physical disabilities), etc. I thought I had a decent grasp on how to approach race with my own child. However, this episode was eye-opening and confusing all at the same time. Now I’m not really sure how to address race (or any other difference in appearance) in public with my child when/if he asks.

    Some listeners were in shock at how uncomfortable many white people were about describing someone by the color of their skin. I think every person is an individual and may feel differently about how they are described in public (as in the context of a parent answering a kid’s question). As an early childhood educator, I felt comfortable talking about differences with my students within in the classroom, but it was only their ears listening and we weren’t discussing a bystander. The episode kept reinforcing the idea that it was important to not avoid it, but WHAT DO YOU ACTUALLY SAY to your child???? What if you don’t know enough about the differences of some races – like the child that called the people in the Thai restaurant Chinese – other than the origin of their race is from a different country. Is that all you say at that point and then say we can look up more information at home to learn about this culture?

    As I stated before – part of my hesitation comes from my ex-husband’s family. In addition to his sister’s comments, I was also exposed to “rules” from my husband about what I was allowed to say or understand since I was white. For example, he would openly use racial slurs pertaining to black people while around other black people or describing himself to me. Of course there is controversy about how slurs shouldn’t be used by anyone, white people or POC, I wasn’t wanting to use them, but it was understood that it was ok for him. So if a song was on with a racial slur and we were both singing along, I would stop singing at those parts and he would keep singing. Or, other than racial slurs, his behavior/demeanor was different when he was with other people of color, like there was this culture between all of these people that I could never be a part of or fully understand. SOOOOOOO, my point being that we can study other cultures, expose ourselves, be friends with other races, etc. and still not REALLY understand or fully grasp what it is like to be that other race. When answering a child’s question or trying to avoid the colorblind approach – it is still through the eyes of white privilege, and not having to worry about our whiteness. AND SOOOOOO, it is scary as a white person to talk about other races in front of other races while not wanting to offend anyone.

    Sorry this was so long and kind of rambling, but I’m desperate for more info on how to help my son be racially aware in a way that is sensitive to all people.

    1. These are all great examples and questions – and not uncommon at all!
      Without knowing your ex-husband’s family members and dynamics, it’s hard to say exactly what may have been behind their standpoints, but being raised mainly by white people probably had a strong influence, because whites are much more likely to take a colorblind approach. Research on transracial adoptees indicates that white parents often are reluctant to discuss race, even though their adopted child is of a different race, and they are often unaware of the complex interactions and experiences their child may have based on his/her race. This sometimes leads to racial identity issues for the child who is trying to negotiate his or her perceived racial identity vs. what he/she feels or knows herself to be vs. what is forced upon him/her from society. Research on biracial/ multiracial individuals shows similar issues when trying to negotiate what they feel themselves to be vs. what others see them as (the issue of being “not white enough” or “not black enough”).

      Most of the Black people I know, including my husband, are not offended by being identified by their race – as long as it is just a matter of identification or description with no race related judgment or stereotype attached to it. However, anecdotally I have heard of people of Mexican heritage who do not want to simply be labeled as “Mexican.” I live in the South, and due to the bias against immigrants that probably does play a role (because in this part of the country some people equate “Mexican” to “illegal immigrant”). I don’t know if that plays a factor in your family’s situation or if your sister-in law simply wanted to have all parts of her heritage (not just the Mexican side) acknowledged. She may also have experienced being labeled as Mexican in a derogatory manner as a child and therefore has come to dislike the label.

      As for the “rules” about who can engage in race related jokes and slurs, that is a long-running debate, and it’s often confusing to people on the “outside” of the group. But a lot of this also comes from the often unspoken rule that I can make fun of myself, but you can’t (or I can call myself fat, but you can’t). As a personal example I can tell you that my husband is not necessarily offended when other Black people use the N-word in a “joking” or “brotherly” (if you can call it that) manner, but he doesn’t like the word and doesn’t want our kids or anyone else visiting our house to use it. About a year ago my son had a group of friends over for a sleep-over, and all the kids were either mixed (Black/white) or Black. One of the Black kids (age 9) was using the N-word on multiple occasions, and my husband told him (nicely, not scolding) that this was not an acceptable word in our house and he might offend others around him if he was using that word in public. This child had grown up with family members who used it, so he had sort of learned the “rule” you talked about. It is very individual, but you will still find many who do not agree with members of their own group using slurs or derogatory jokes because they see it as perpetuating a stereotype about their group.

      The discomfort you mentioned in regards to talking about race in front of people of other races is very common among whites because many of us have been taught that colorblindness is the way to go, and also because we don’t want to appear racist. I actually used to be the same way. However, having had a lot of friends and acquaintances of other races who openly discussed race and race related topics, I became more comfortable with it, and what I often find now is that people of color openly embrace white people who are willing to discuss the topic, hear their stories, and engage in conversations about social justice. The more you talk about it, the more comfortable you will get.

      In terms of starting conversations, there are some resources listed here on the page linked to the podcast. Books, videos, news, events, etc. are great springboards for conversation starters. My advice is to not wait until children ask questions, because from a very young age children begin to pick up on the silence surrounding race and may perceive it to be a taboo topic (so if you wait for questions, the conversations may never happen). You can start conversations by stating a fact and then asking questions. For example “Some people have biases against…” / “Some people don’t like…” / “Some people think that [minority group] are…” — and then follow up with “What do you think about that?” or “What would you say if you saw/heard…”

      Children may ask questions that you don’t have a ready answer to, and it’s okay to say “You know, I’m actually not sure about that. Let me find out” (or “Let’s see if we can find some information on that”). If you engage the child in the discovery process (e.g., looking for a book or website that has the information), your child will also learn to engage in fact seeking and the importance of researching information rather than assuming.

      Thank you for your comments and input. I hope some of that info helps :-)

  2. I love LST and really appreciated this episode! I’m not a parent (yet), but since listening to this podcast I’ve started thinking about how I would talk about race with a child (and how I talk about race in general). (So far I’m coming up with more questions than answers!)

    One thing that gave me pause was the anecdote about the child who asks others “Are you Black?” I’m torn on the advice given.

    As a (non-Black) person of color, I get A LOT of questions about my race, which makes me aware of my skin color even when I don’t want to be, reminds me of all the assumptions attached to my skin color (for example, I’m frequently asked “Where are you from?”), and sometimes makes me feel like I’m reduced to my race (as if the only interesting thing about me is the fact that I’m not White).

    I don’t think I’d feel the same way if a child asked Adult Me these questions (they are children, after all), but at the same time, I don’t think I’d want my own children to grow up thinking that asking a stranger about their skin color is appropriate or considerate of that person.

    And thinking back to my childhood (I was one of a handful of non-White students in my school), instances of other children pointing out what made me “other” were formative and still stick in my mind, even if those instances came from genuine curiosity or were well-intentioned.

    I understand the importance of opening a dialogue and not making race a taboo topic, but I think the parent’s concern here (not making it “on the backs of others”) was important and I somewhat disagree with Dr. Vittrup’s advice.

  3. As an ethnic minority raising mixed race kids, I was so grateful to you for approaching this topic so bravely and openly and, especially, for finding such an incredible guest. I was truly astounded by the discomfort the white callers when even mentioning race–an absolute revelation.

    Perhaps other commenters have touched on this already, but I did feel compelled to say that, while I am open to people’s curiosity and interest, people who are racially different don’t exist to be teaching moments for white people. I wouldn’t feel offended by a child who asks questions about race, but I think it’s also important to teach kids not to be intrusive. Sometimes white people ask things like “What are you?” or “Where are your parents from?” — these questions, I know, are almost always well-meaning, but they are one of the ways that ethnic minorities are constantly reminded of our “different” appearance. So, yes, it’s good to be open, to be curious, to have a dialogue, but it’s also important to respect boundaries and not treat individuals as curious, exotic specimens. I just go around feeling normal until an encounter like that happens (again) and I’m reminded that I don’t seem normal to the person I’m talking to.

    And perhaps that’s some advice that I could use. It’s annoying when people ask questions like that, “compliment” my “exotic” looks, or tell me my children are beautiful, because all mixed race kids are. What’s the best response? When I address my discomfort, I usually find people dismissive, as if I’m just being touchy (and maybe I am after a lifetime of comments like that!). Ideas?

  4. I am a newer listener, a mom of a three year old and one on the way. I really appreciate this podcast, both as a parent and as a professional. I work with early childhood educators in improving their interactions with children, including being culturally responsive. But as one listener wrote above, I am finding that conversations in the classroom are easier than some of the loud questions that my daughter blurt-outs. Thank you to Brigitte for reminding me that the language and conversations are actually the same, it is more my fear that makes me uncomfortable than the questions.

    All of this, plus the normal three year old questions about everything she sees, are making me realize that I need better language for other kinds of difference. For instance, we have recently had discussions about people in wheel chairs. I have answered that some people need help getting around. Sometimes they use canes, sometimes crutches, sometimes wheelchairs. What I feel less comfortable with is how to answer the question “why?”. I am unsure how detailed to get, and I don’t want to bother the person with questions. However, I want her to know that there is nothing wrong with having different abilities. I have also thought about this question in relation to gender/sex. As she asks questions about her body and why it is different from her dads, I don’t want to get stuck in the binary, Kindergarten Cop-esque answer, “boys have a penis and girls have a vagina”. How do I describe that people get to decide and identify themselves?

  5. Thank you very much for producing this episode. It was very well done and I have shared it with several friends who were new to the podcast. I and my wife are both white, and we have two elementary school-aged kids. We live in a somewhat integrated part of Los Angeles and have friends and coworkers of many different races, and we’ve been talking about race with our kids since they were in preschool. They both went to a fairly diverse daycare/preschool and now go to much more diverse public elementary school, and at both schools, MLK Day has been a major occasion to grapple with the subject of race starting as early as the 4-year-old curriculum.

    Overall I really agree with your episode’s message that white parents need to do a lot more to teach their kids about what race means in our society, and that they need to put in the effort to inform themselves and set a good example. I was a little disappointed though that the discussion was almost exclusively limited to the sort of biological or visual differences we associate with race and not about the power dynamics. The one exception was in the brief mention of “reverse racism” and whether such a thing could exist. There was an emphasis on easing our kids into understanding how we classify people as “white” or “black” without explaining to them where those categories came from and why they persist.

    In the show notes, you linked to Eula Biss’s essay “White Debt,” which is an excellent exploration of what I’m talking about, and includes examples of how she started handling those conversations about power and race with her son at a very young age. Also, the social scientists Barbara and Karen Fields have explored race in a way that has deeply affected my understanding of it. They are best known for their book “Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life,” which uses the central metaphor of comparing how race is a false but inescapable worldview in our society in a similar way to how witchcraft has been a false but inescapable worldview in other times and places.

    I was introduced to the Fields sisters and their ideas through Ta-Nehisi Coates, who expressed a similar take on race in “Between the World and Me.” This quote in particular really resonates with me: “But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming “the people” has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible—this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.”

    One of the reasons this is so important to me is that I grew up in a very segregated part of Wisconsin and the ignorance and prejudice that infected my community left its mark on me. I know from personal experience that it takes effort for people who benefit from white privilege to inform themselves about history and current events, and to actively combat the biases racism inculcates in us. I was disturbed by how my kids’ schools, and to some extent your podcast episode, present race as simply physical differences between people, leading to the implicit or explicit conclusion that racism is people not liking others for being different. As hard as it is to talk to kids about subjects like slavery or the Native American genocide and to figure out age-appropriate ways to do so, I believe that it’s important to ground kids in the understanding that racism is rooted in historical events and conscious decisions to exploit other people rather than in seemingly “natural” divisions between people based on how they look. I worry that if we teach kids about discrimination as if it just came out of nowhere, or that “racial differences” led to racism instead of the reverse, we will leave our kids bewildered, unequipped to fight racism, and susceptible to demagogues who will prey on their naivete.

    Thank you for producing one of my favorite podcasts. Keep up the great work.

  6. Thank you so much for this episode – it is a very important topic to discuss. I understand why you chose Brigette as you guest, she is well aligned to speak on this issue but I also feel that when speaking about race it is essential to include diverse voices. I was disappointed that this episode featured two white women addressing race issues and failed to include any people of colour. I understand that the theme was “how do white parents talk to their kids about race” but it would be great to get a non-white person’s opinion on how this should be approached.

  7. I just recently started listening to your podcast. For the most part I have loved every episode, but I must say I came away from this particular episode very disappointed. I am white woman, married to a white man, with a white 5 year old daughter. We have numerous friends that are a different race from us, from African American to Hispanic to Asian. I guess in the end, I still fail to see how teaching our children to be “color blind” is wrong. We have taught our daughter that the color of skin doesn’t matter- that people come from all different places with different ancestors and various cultures, but that we are all human with the same hopes, fears, and aspirations. I will continue to teach her to treat everyone the same- but that doesn’t mean our family is “color blind”, completely naive or oblivious to the fact that there racial bias does exist in our society. It simply means that in our family, we refuse to see anyone else as “less than” because of their skin color. Honestly, what would be the outcome if we made our children aware of racial bias, but DID NOT teach them the correct way to treat others of all races or approach the issue of race? Maybe I misunderstood and this is the ideal approach you are suggesting. Please correct me if I am wrong, but it sounds as if your advice is to solely teach our kids that racial bias does exist in our society-end of discussion. I am genuinely curious to hear your thoughts on this.

    I also strongly disagree that white people in America today have the privilege of not having to think about our race. On the contrary, due to racial issues increasingly highlighted in our media (the presidential election, police brutality, etc), white people are constantly being reminded that we are just that-white and “privileged”. That we are not allowed to have an opinion on racial issues, or our thoughts are biased, because we have never been on the opposite/negative side of racism. Admittedly, I hesitated to post this comment for fear of how it would be received, because I am considered a part of the “majority”. My thoughts before posting were exactly this: “Am I wasting my time? Is someone going to be offended by what I am saying? Will readers discount what I am saying while rolling their eyes because I am white and my opinion is different?” So, to me, this perfectly explains why white parents are often silent and choose to ignore the issue of racial discussions altogether.

  8. Hello,
    I am a white mother of a half black 5 year old boy. I just listened to your eposide How to not (accidentally) raise a racist. My boy was conceived in Brooklyn but I moved when I was pregnant to a small coastal town in Northern California. His father is not in the picture. We have a couple of friends who are black but his family is all white and we are surrounded by predominately white people. I have so far been bringing him up with the color-blind approach but after listening to your episode I decided to approach the topic of differing skin colors. I asked my son what he thought about the fact that our skin varied in shade. And he told me he hated his skin color. He said it was horrible and that he wished he had my same color. I tried to find out why he hated it but could only conclude that it was because he wanted the same color as mine. I feel heartbroken that he is so distressed with his skin color and I’m not exactly certain how to get him to a place to accept and love our differences and to accept and love himself. I talked to him about gardens and that in order to have a beautiful and vibrant garden you need flowers of all different colors. I talked to him about important, strong and beautiful people who had his shade of skin but he still talked about how he hated his skin color.
    Thank you for your episode. I feel like it’s important to open that discussion because I didn’t realize how my son felt about it but now I am at a loss at how to proceed.

  9. Thanks for this very interesting episode. I felt how uncomfortable some of the parents were talking about their personal take on race which helped me come to the realization that I myself don’t have a full understanding of my own take on it.

    Also, thank you for clarifying that just because someone looks Chinese doesn’t mean they’re from China! As an American of Asian descent, I get this way too often and it’s still to this day difficult to deal with.

  10. Great topic. My only suggestion would be to have a person of colour proving advice as well (similar to previous shows with a panel of experts). It’s always helpful to get their input on such topics. I have learned a lot in those discussions no matter how enlightened I think I am. Also I felt the guest speaker was coming from a European standpoint too much. It’s not a problem, it’s just too singular a viewpoint for this kind of topic.

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