Amid the racial reckoning of the past few months, many parents have pledged to help build an anti-racist future for their children. While white parents have traditionally had the privilege to remain silent on these issues, there’s an abundance of resources to guide conversations about race and racism with kids and change this reality.
But the discussions can be a bit different for multiracial families, including those with a white parent who has adopted children of color or who has multiracial children. This adds another layer of complexity when it comes to navigating issues of race and racism.
How can families navigate these dynamics? HuffPost spoke to parents and experts who work with multiracial families to bridge cultural gaps and build a positive racial identity in kids. Here’s their advice for white parents for talking about race with their children of color.
Don’t be “colorblind.”
Adopting a “colorblind” approach to race doesn’t empower children of color, nor does it help fight racism.
“As a parent, I think ‘colorblindness’ does a disservice to children who are noticeably different colors than us,” said Fariba Soetan, founder and blogger at MixedRaceFamily.com. “It erases part of their identity. If you ignore the fact that they have a different racial identity, you’re invalidating their experience, and they likely won’t feel comfortable or able to talk to you about their experience.”
She noted that children very much see race from a young age, but they experience it in a simpler, matter-of-fact way. After all, identifying colors is one of the first things little kids learn. Parents shouldn’t send mixed messages by telling them it’s bad to notice differences in skin color.
“I think ‘colorblindness’ does a disservice to children who are noticeably different colors than us. ... If you ignore the fact that they have a different racial identity, you’re invalidating their experience.”
“The underlying message of pretending to be ‘colorblind’ is that Black is bad,” said Valarie A. Chavis, CEO and founder of CulturallyFluent.org. “Kids might look at me and say ‘Look at that Black lady’ and their white mom will shush them and say ‘Oh I’m so sorry!’ But I am a Black lady!”
“I think that discomfort goes back to the false idea that anything not white is bad, so white parents are afraid their child saying someone is Black means they’re saying they see you as bad,” she added. “Instead of saying ‘Yes, she is a Black lady,’ white parents teach kids to whisper ‘Black.’”
Embrace racial differences.
“Ensure that you’re embracing the fact that your children are of a different racial identity,” said Soetan, who is half Iranian and half English, and has three daughters with her Nigerian husband. “You’re reinforcing a unique part of them. Acknowledge it, talk about race, make it as much a part of your conversations as you would any aspect of yourself.”
She added that her children feel comfortable talking about racial differences and saying things like, “I have a white grandma and a brown grandma,” “Daddy’s brown,” and “Mommy’s light tan.”
Talking about differences in neutral and positive ways helps families launch into honest conversations about what race means, according to Beth Hall, co-founder of Pact, An Adoption Alliance, which serves adopted children of color and their families.
“Noticing that this person has darker skin and this other person has lighter skin can turn into a conversation about where skin color comes from,” she explained. “That leads to talk about melanin ― what melanin is and how we have more or less melanin based on our ancestors. That’s a very neutral conversation, and kids can understand those concepts even when they’re 3. They can compare skin color, hair texture.”
Be intentional with books and media.
“Children are exposed to so much literature and history at school, and pretty much every person with value in those books is white,” Chavis said. “Kids start absorbing this idea of who’s good and who’s bad from years of these implicit and explicit messages.”
She also noted that children who are a different race than one or both parents, other family members, and the majority of their peers at school may get the sense that they don’t belong, that they don’t match — so it’s important to offer counter-messaging.
“We’ve been intentional about fighting against the bias toward white-skinned, blonde princesses or white superhero,” Soetan said of her family. “We choose books and movies that reinforce a positive representation of what they see in the mirror, so when they draw pictures of themselves as mermaids or princesses or superheroes, they have brown skin.”
“It makes me proud to know they can see themselves as princesses or superheroes because we’ve done the work to battle against stereotypes and ensure that they have positive role models,” she said.
Soetan said she also reads her children many books featuring multiracial families and characters who are proud to be who they are ― including “So Much” by Trish Cooke, “Mixed Me!” by Taye Diggs, and “My Two Grannies” by Floella Benjamin.
Examine your own bias.
“Most of us who are white have not necessarily been taught how to talk about race very well,” noted Hall, who has a Black son and Latinx daughter. “We’ve often maybe even been taught that talking about race might be dangerous or racist.”
White parents need to put in the work to get comfortable talking about race, and part of this work involves grappling with the bias they may have absorbed in their lives and understanding why they feel unease around these topics.
“As white people, we benefit from white supremacy,” said Hall. “We don’t necessarily want to see ourselves in that light, but you can’t change things you’re not willing to acknowledge.”
“We know from our Black and brown friends that the world is not OK the way it is, and it won’t be for our children of color if we don’t take a hard look at what about the status quo benefits us but not necessarily others,” she added. “When I walk into the dry cleaner, I can expect to be treated a certain way, but that can’t necessarily be said for my Black or Latinx friends.”
White adults can educate themselves by reading the many personal accounts, books and guides that people of color have put together, but they should not put the onus on the people of color in their lives to be their personal teachers. Hall suggested white people start by finding community among other white people willing to talk about these issues. Chavis believes it’s also necessary to build genuine relationships with more diverse groups of people.
“In these situations, white people have this fear about pushback or being wrong,” said Chavis. “They need to get past this white fragility and develop new muscles, new skills ― like dealing with pushback and conflict. If you’ve only seen the world through a narrow prism, how do you expand that?”
Hall also advised against seeing yourself as an exception to white supremacy, or one of the “good” white people as opposed to the “bad” white people.
“That’s an easy and seductive place to go, to want to move ourselves to the good category, which puts us in competition with those people we’re more ‘woke’ than or better than,” she explained. “I think that’s quite destructive because we’re just perpetuating the same problems rather than coming together, calling each other out, and saying, ‘Hey, I thought about this.’ All of us breathe the air of America, which means we learn a white supremacist system. We all have to confront that truth, which we’ll do better in community.”
“We have to talk about systemic realities. We have to talk about racism. We have to talk about white privilege. Parents need to be the first communicators about this, rather than waiting for their children to come to them.”
Talk about systemic issues.
It’s important for parents to help their children understand the messages they get from the world around them and recognize which ones are wrong.
“We have to talk about systemic realities. We have to talk about racism. We have to talk about white privilege,” Hall said. “Parents need to be the first communicators about this, rather than waiting for their children to come to them with something they experienced. We would never wait for our child to ask us to cross the street on their own to only then have a discussion about whether it’s safe to run into the street for the first time.”
As children learn to recognize and talk about differences, parents can take the conversation further by saying something like, “Did you know that some people think that people with lighter skin are better than people with darker skin? Isn’t that so wrong and unfair?”
“Most kids are appalled at any unfairness,” said Hall, noting that kids even get upset when their cookie is smaller than their sibling’s cookie. “We want to encourage that sense of empathy and encourage them to think about what they would want to do about unfairness in the world.”
Chavis advised explaining to children of color why they may not see as many people who look like them in history books at school and making sure they know it’s not accurate.
“We have to show children that America is America not only because of white people but because of the work of all the people in this country,” she said. “White culture and history is the default, but we need to change that. We have to do more than just teaching kids about a few people during Black History Month. We have to show value in people from minority cultures all the time.”
Teach anti-racism as a family value.
One of the most important things parents do is teach values to their children. Anti-racism is a very meaningful value to pass down.
“You would never stay silent on honesty,” said Hall. “If someone is not being honest, you’d say, ‘In our family, we believe honesty is important.’ We talk about safe and unsafe touch, and that doesn’t mean we’re introducing them to abuse. It means we’re arming them with the ability to navigate it. Issues of race and racism are just as important.”
Families should discuss what it means to be anti-racist and ways to live this value. White parents should acknowledge and show awareness of their whiteness and what that means for their experience, said Hall.
Chavis believes people talk about race too often in terms of love and hate with statements like, “We love everybody, no matter what color they are. We don’t hate anybody. We treat people the same.” Instead, she thinks there should be more focus on actions that demonstrate anti-racist values and show that your family values people of color.
“We have to be honest about the core issue: Our society operates as if there’s a group of people who are good ― white people ― and people who are different, separate, bad ― non-white people,” she said.
“So if you’re a white person raising a Black child, you need to actively work against the idea that Black people are inferior and show that you value them,” Chavis explained. “Otherwise, the message you’re sending to your child might be, ‘I don’t even see you as Black. I think you’re a great person. You don’t even seem Black. I think you’re as good as me. That’s why you’re in the ‘good’ group with me, so you should be happy to be part of it.’”
Tailor the discussion to your child.
As with any topic, it’s crucial to use developmentally appropriate language and talk about race in ways that will resonate with your individual child.
“The conversation needs to be tailored to your child,” said Soetan. “With my youngest, I’ve focused on the positivity of diversity, for example. As my children get older, I’ve encouraged them to think critically and analytically about the messages they’re absorbing through their books and media. I might ask, ‘What do you think this Black dad’s job is? Why do you think that?’”
She noted that she also knows it’s a privilege for her daughters to be lighter-skinned and that they won’t have the same experiences as darker-skinned people. Because she has girls rather than boys, she’s also felt comfortable waiting a little longer to have “the talk” about police encounters.
“At this point, I know they are less likely to have the kinds of negative experiences that Black boys in particular would be having at their age,” she said. “But there’s realism that I address. As they become strong Black women in our society, there will be a perception of them and experiences they’ll have that will be different from mine. So I can prepare them to stand up to it when it happens and give them the positive self-awareness to say, ‘This is one person, not a reflection on me, and this is their problem, not mine.’ I want them to know that they can do anything.”
Expose them to different cultures.
“As white parents raising children of color, we have to make sure our children are not isolated racially,” Hall said. “If there were a state where only boys and men lived, I wouldn’t try to raise my daughter there. My kids need reflections, mirrors of themselves and others. If they’re the only people of color I know and love, then I’ve just made them an exception to their race in a way that will be challenging to overcome.”
She emphasized the importance of raising children of color in a diverse community and exposing them to real-life role models who look like them, in addition to the models from history, literature and pop culture. Soetan noted that her children have many Black and multiracial role models who can share their unique perspectives. Chavis echoed these sentiments, encouraging white parents to forge relationships with people of different races.
“A lot of the rhetoric is about centering Black voices, and that goes for your own children.”
“We still live in isolated neighborhoods and avoid going to certain areas,” Soetan said. “We have to remove those layers and that lie we’ve been told about difference, and create real connections with other cultures so that your kids can see how cool they are. Remind them, ‘You wouldn’t have this or that if it weren’t for this culture.’ When we don’t do that, you get internalized racial superiority in our white kids, and without a whole lot of work, you get internalized racial inferiority in black kids who actually believe it, too.”
She advised going to different churches, cultural festivals, restaurants, theaters and more.
“Take your child to a Black college campus and walk around,” she said. “Go to Black history museums. Do it with them and start early. Don’t just dump your 9-year-old Black child somewhere and expect them to engage well with other Black people for the first time. It’s about skill-building, learning different communication patterns and learning cultural fluency. Learn to interact with other kinds of people.”
Listen to your child.
Just as parents should regularly talk about issues of race and inequality, they should also listen to their children of color when they talk about it.
“It’s an open conversation,” said Soetan. “I want my kids to be able to come to me if they ever experience this kind of thing. We’ve had incidents, and we talk about them. I want the door to be open. I don’t want it to be uncomfortable.”
She said white moms have told her they regret not having these conversations with their multiracial children early on because they’re not sure their children believe they get it.
“A lot of the rhetoric is about centering Black voices, and that goes for your own children,” Soetan noted. “Even if they’re only 10, they still have a voice and experiences they need you to listen to and even take action in response. They need to know that you’re in their corner fighting for them.”
As children grow into teens and adults, Hall advised parents to get comfortable with their kids calling them out.
“You have to be willing to say, ‘Wow, I did do that, and I need to make some amends,’” she explained. “Your kids are also going to make some mistakes, so you want them to learn it’s not the end of the world. You pick yourself up, you apologize, you try to repair it, you learn and then you don’t do it again. That’s the trajectory we need to take our children on. That’s growth.”