How To Talk To Your Kids About Privilege

Experts share advice for parents navigating issues of racism and white privilege.

As issues of police brutality and systemic racism dominate the national conversation, many parents are trying to better instill anti-racist values in their children. But tackling issues of race with kids requires discussion of another major aspect of racism: privilege.

“It is very important that parents talk to their kids about privilege, including white privilege, because this is one of the ways that systemic racism is maintained in this country,” said Gabriela Livas Stein, an associate professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. “When people don’t understand or acknowledge that their success is not just a result of hard work but also due to unearned advantages, they then make assumptions about the reasons why others have failed ― like they did not work hard enough or did not try to get out of poverty. These beliefs then underlie policy, voting and other decisions about how we as a society support those in poverty, which disproportionately are Black and brown people.”

To become agents of change and learn to combat injustice, white children need to understand that we live in an unfair system that benefits them at the expense of others.

“Black families discuss race because it’s necessary for survival in a culture that is systemically built to make whiteness the default. White families often don’t discuss it because they have the privilege not to,” said Tara Brancato, a teacher and Anti-Racism Project facilitator. ”All around them, whiteness is often upheld as a norm: Their neighborhoods, schools, families, friend groups all might be white-dominated. And they don’t want to bring discomfort or trauma to their kids.”

Meanwhile, this reality that forces Black children to have conversations about racism also causes them to experience discomfort, anxiety and trauma.

“We set white kids up for privilege right off the bat: We allow them to be innocent at the expense of someone else’s trauma,” Brancato said. “It’s the first undeserved reward that white kids get by virtue of their skin color: They get to be kids first and white people second. Black kids have to be both simultaneously, whether their parents want them to remain innocent of race or not.”

So how can parents educate their children about privilege in a productive way? Stein, Brancato and other experts share their guidance for talking to kids about privilege, particularly white privilege. While much of their advice is geared toward white parents and the role they as historic oppressors must play in dismantling systemic racism, a lot can apply to nonwhite families navigating these issues as well.

Educate Yourself

Before you can talk to your children about privilege in a way that is informative and meaningful, you need to make sure you understand what it means yourself.

“The first step is to learn about privilege and do some legwork about how it operates in society,” Stein said. “There are a lot of great resources out there that parents can access.”

Parents of color are generally accustomed to having difficult conversations about race. White parents, on the other hand, need to put in the work to get comfortable talking about race and privilege (and not place the burden on the people of color in their lives to educate them).

Start Talking About Race And Racism Early

“The concept of white racial privilege cannot be separated from an understanding of racism,” said Beverly Daniel Tatum, a psychologist, former Spelman College president and author of “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” “It is the system of racism that confers the privilege to white people and disadvantages people of color. Consequently, if parents want children to understand privilege, they have to start by explaining racism.”

“The same way you wouldn’t say you value teaching your kids to be honest and then have your first conversation about honesty when your child approaches puberty, you don’t delay conversations about race and privilege if you want your kids to grow up anti-racist.”

- Tara Brancato, Anti-Racism Project facilitator

Conversations about race should start when children are young. Research has suggested that infants as young as 3 months old can recognize racial differences. In order to lay the foundation for discussions about racism, parents should normalize talking about race and racial differences in an open and positive way.

It’s important to instill positive attitudes by exposing children to toys, books and media that promote diversity. If parents don’t talk about racial differences and racism, kids will likely absorb biased and problematic notions from peers and society as a whole.

“If you are sincere in a desire to build anti-racism into your kid’s values, you start as early as possible,” Brancato said. “The same way you wouldn’t say you value teaching your kids to be honest and then have your first conversation about honesty when your child approaches puberty, you don’t delay conversations about race and privilege if you want your kids to grow up anti-racist.”

Stein echoed that sentiment, adding that it is crucial for white children to learn about this reality as nonwhite children face this racism early on.

“Starting in preschool, Black kids are subject to teacher bias about their learning and behavior ― a bias that white children do not face,” she said. “Since youth start benefiting from these privileges so early on, we need to start talking about it with our kids that early on as well.”

Frame Privilege And Racism In Terms Of Fairness

Young children may not know the words “privilege” or “racism” yet, but they can understand the concept of fairness and unfairness. And there are many opportunities to break it down to them in those terms from an early age.

“By age 3, children are becoming aware of societal attitudes toward skin color and other racial characteristics, and may express negative attitudes toward dark-skinned people, for example, expressing a preference for a white doll rather than a Black one,” Tatum noted. “Children of color may have experienced a race-related incident with another child, ranging from a statement like ‘Your skin is brown because you drink too much chocolate milk’ to more hurtful experiences, like someone saying, ‘Black kids can’t play with us.’”

Kids can understand issues of racism in terms of fairness and unfairness.
Klaus Vedfelt via Getty Images
Kids can understand issues of racism in terms of fairness and unfairness.

Tatum advised explaining racism to preschoolers in these moments as “unfair treatment” based on race, or what they look like. Using those terms is an age-appropriate and effective way to help them understand bias.

Use Age-Appropriate Examples

When talking about racism and privilege in terms of fairness and unfairness, parents can use concrete, kid-friendly examples to help their children grasp these more abstract concepts.

“Imagine a conversation like this: What if every afternoon I gave your brother two cookies for snack and I only gave you one? And I did that day after day after day,” Tatum explained. “Would that be fair? No, it wouldn’t. Or what if you did something wrong, and I took away your favorite toy as a punishment, but when your brother did exactly the same thing, I didn’t take away any of his toys. Would that seem fair? No, it wouldn’t.”

“But racism is like that,” she continued. “Racism means some people are given extra benefits/privileges just because they are white, and other people are given less just because they are Black or brown. It means some people are treated harshly when they make a mistake just because they are Black or brown, but when white people make the same mistake, they don’t get the same kind of punishment. Sometimes they don’t get any punishment at all. That is very unfair.”

“Usually kids say share evenly, but you can start talking about equity by saying, What if a couple of kids did not get to eat breakfast that morning?”

- Gabriela Livas Stein, associate professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Stein shared another sweets-related example to help explain racism and how to combat inequity. She suggested parents ask their children what would be a fair distribution of candy for a group of 10 kids.

“Usually kids say share evenly, but you can start talking about equity by saying, What if a couple of kids did not get to eat breakfast that morning?” she said. “Then kids might start to understand that we might want to help others that have less. What is hard for all is that means you may get less candy ― so helping kids understand why that is ultimately more fair and that that means giving up your candy. This is different than charity, which would be giving your extra candy. Young children can understand this simple example, and you can build a foundation on that concept, what it means to give up things so that others who have less can benefit.”

Rethink How You Talk About Hard Work

It’s also important for parents to be mindful of the way they talk about the value of hard work and to avoid perpetuating “the myth of meritocracy.”

“The ultimate message that is key for kids to understand is that hard work does not pay off evenly for everyone in society,” Stein explained. “As parents, we strive to help our kids to develop a good work ethic and support that. But if the explicit message is not given that for some, they can work hard, but that hard work is diminished by things outside of their control, like racism, then the attribution that we start to develop when others fail is that they did not work hard enough. So it is not that you don’t want to instill this work ethic, but it is critical that kids understand that others may not do well for a myriad of reasons.”

With young children, parents can talk about how unfair it is that some people work very, very hard but still don’t get ahead in life. As they get older, you can use more examples, like how hard it is to get out of debt when you owe a lot of money.

Discuss Your Own Privilege

“White parents should recognize their own privileges and share this with their children,” said Reena B. Patel, a licensed educational psychologist. “Help children see what others may not have. Talk about your own biases and mistakes, and discuss how you can make better choices.”

Of course, having privilege doesn’t mean that your life is always easy and problem-free, but it does mean that the struggles you do face are not the result of your skin color. Parents should teach their children about these issues in ways that are appropriate for their particular family dynamics.

Stein suggested going through privilege checklists as a family. As kids get older, parents can help them understand their own privileges, like skin color or their parents’ money, and emphasize how this benefits them when they work hard by making it easier to succeed in school or sports, for instance.

Parents of white children may also point out that most of the superheroes or other characters they see in books, movies and toys look like them, so they come to realize how much easier it is to be white in our society, which assumes whiteness as the default.

“Then, talk about what they can do to contribute to equity to make sure that everyone gets to benefit from their hard work ... to ensure that you are not continuing this pattern whether at school, work or in society ― and to question critically policies that continue this pattern,” Stein recommended.

“Current events on the news can provide opportunities for discussion with older children. Unfortunately, there have been many such opportunities!”

- Beverly Daniel Tatum, author of “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”

Use Actions, Not Just Words

Navigating the topics of privilege and racial inequality should not be limited to conversation but must also include action. Parents should model anti-racist behaviors, whether that’s developing meaningful relationships with people of other races, standing up for those who are oppressed in times of confrontation or participating in forms of activism, such as protesting, campaigning for political candidates or supporting certain policies.

Brancato advised talking to kids about what they might do in different scenarios, like “What if you hear a family member say something racist?” or “What if you’re at school and you hear a white friend say something problematic?”

“We discuss how to manage typical school conversations about Columbus Day, Thanksgiving, Martin Luther King Day and other times when something might come up and a white person might say something you know is ignorant or prejudiced,” she explained. “It’s important to let your kids sit in this kind of thought process and help them plan out what they might do in response. Don’t give them a script, but help them figure out what they think is the right response. Listen a lot.”

Discuss Books And Current Events

There are many resources to help foster conversation around issues of race and privilege, including books, movies, documentaries, YouTube videos, websites and social media accounts. Families can consume this media together and then talk about it.

“Current events on the news can provide opportunities for discussion with older children. Unfortunately, there have been many such opportunities!” Tatum said. “Reading books together or watching documentaries can be another way to start a conversation about social injustice. There are books about racism of the past (slavery, for example) and more recent history (civil rights struggle, police violence) that are written for children of all ages.”

Books, movies and current events offer a way into larger conversations about race and privilege.
Michael H via Getty Images
Books, movies and current events offer a way into larger conversations about race and privilege.

Brancato said she makes an effort to expose her children to nonwhite characters and real-life kid heroes, such as Indigenous water activist Autumn Peltier ― and does it year-round rather than just during designated times, like Black History Month.

“If we are reading, I’m going to choose a book that promotes the world I want my kids to live in: a world where white people aren’t constantly centered,” she explained. “They didn’t realize this at first, but as they get older, they make those conscious choices, too ... because they know that’s a value that their dad and I have for them.”

Parents should be sure to buy books and media from Black creators and other people of color in order to support their work and learn from their experiences.

Understand The Different Dynamics For Other Families

The way parents talk to their kids about issues of race vary.

“Since white people are the beneficiaries of racism, the discussion of privilege is more relevant to their experience, though many don’t talk about it,” Tatum noted. ”Parents of color generally don’t talk about privilege. They talk about racism and try to prepare their children to cope with it.”

She noted that white children get a lot of affirmation from our society, which privileges whiteness. For parents of color, it takes more effort to empower their kids.

“Parents of color should be intentional in their efforts to affirm the child’s physical appearance from birth ― admiring the child’s beautiful brown skin, appreciating the tiny curls in the child’s hair or other physical differences as an antidote to the negative messages the child is likely to receive from other people,” Tatum advised. “Reading books together that feature children of color doing ordinary things with family and friends reinforces a positive sense of self, which is foundational to protecting children from the negative effects of racism.”

“If you wait for perfection, you will never start.”

- Beverly Daniel Tatum

White parents can support these efforts by teaching their children to embrace difference and appreciate the diversity of the world beyond their family ― and demonstrating this appreciation themselves. Members of non-Black minority groups can talk about the ways they may benefit from proximity to white privilege at times.

“When talking about the problem of racism with Black children and other children of color, it is important to let them know that the people who behave in racist ways are wrong and are behaving unfairly,” Tatum said. “The problem is not with the child. You don’t want the child to internalize the negative messages that are at the basis of the other person’s racism. It is also important to let the child know that many people disagree with that kind of unfairness and are working to change it. That is why we protest.”

Don’t Be Afraid To Make Mistakes

Brancato noted that there is no room for excuses but plenty of space for error when it comes to these issues.

“I read a great article recently that emphasized sitting in your own yuck as a white person,” she said. “I don’t pretend to my children that I am doing everything right. I don’t make it sound like other white people are messed up and we are doing it better. I discuss my mistakes with them. I discuss my feelings, and I discuss how when I was a child, I was in an all-white environment and I didn’t think about things the way I do now, and I made mistakes. I may not cause intentional harm, but that does not excuse me from unintentional harm, and it doesn’t excuse them either.”

Tatum offered a piece of advice for white parents who are feeling lost or fear getting uncomfortable or saying something wrong.

“If you wait for perfection, you will never start,” she said. “Your silence will create a void in your child’s understanding that someone else will fill. If you want to be the one to shape your child’s understanding of racism, you have to start talking about it.”

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