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How to Talk to Your Kids about Racism in a Post-Trayvon World

The shooting and killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African American teenager, by George Zimmerman, a bicultural (White and Latino) male has sparked large discussions and protests. Mr. Zimmerman’s acquittal has spurred even more controversy and debates about the realities of racism and racial profiling, including the experiences and perspective shared by President Barack Obama at a White House press conference.

In the wake of this tragedy, a spotlight is now shining on the ongoing concern/dilemma of many parents, particularly African American parents, about how to prepare their children for the experience of being devalued and potentially harmed as a result of racism. The research and clinical work of psychologists has much to offer this conversation. This blog post explores strategies for parents of all races and ethnicities to talk to their children about racism and discrimination.

Psychologists have supported efforts of parents of ethnic minority kids to provide positive racial and ethnic socialization to their children. This includes providing modeling and messages that instill knowledge and pride in their cultural heritage and prepare children for the realities of racial discrimination. Pairing socialization messages that alert children to the presence of racism and discrimination with cultural pride messages can protect against the negative effects youth may experience when they hear about racism in isolation.

Instead of waiting for negative events to occur, parents are encouraged to raise children of color with consistent messages about the strengths and accomplishments of their cultural community. For example, providing positive cultural messaging to African American youth is associated with better academic performance, higher self-esteem, resilience, and improved psychological well-being (as outlined in APA’s report on Resilience and Strength in African American Children and Adolescents).

Cultural pride messages can be provided to youth of all ages. However, it is important to be mindful of emotional and cognitive developmental differences when having conversations to prepare children for incidents of racism. Messages about racial discrimination and racism for all kids should be:

  1. Developmentally appropriate. Young children should be made aware that there are people who treat others unfairly simply because of what they look like or based on their culture. At the same time, young children should not be exposed to graphic pictures depicting traumatic racist events such as lynching or murdered children.

  2. Reflective of multicultural coalitions. Children should be informed that throughout history people of various racial backgrounds have worked together to stop racial injustice. We have made progress but there is still work to do that we can do together across communities. This will help to counter feelings of powerlessness or isolation.

  3. Emotionally intelligent. Talk to your children about the range of possible emotional consequences to experience racism and the impact of these experiences. Their response can range from feeling sad, angry, afraid, embarrassed, or even numb. These feelings are normal and the child should be encouraged to share them with the supportive adults in their life. Make sure your child feels supported and knows that if they feel they have experienced discrimination you are there to support them and help them come up with solutions.

  4. Empowering. Finally, tell your child about specific resistance strategies that they can use as part of the work for social justice. Depending on their age and interest, they could:

  5. attend a march or cultural festival;

  6. raise and donate money to organizations that address justice; start or sign a petition;

  7. raise awareness among their friends;

  8. pray or attend spiritual services that are focused on building community;

  9. educate themselves more at the library or online; and

  10. utilize the arts (such as poetry, photography, or music) to express themselves.

In addition, here are some important factors to keep in mind:

  1. They can make a difference. Let your children know that being aware that others have been treated unfairly should not make them feel stuck or powerless but rather it can be motivation to work to make things better.

  2. They can be allies to those in need. Discuss with your child the importance of being an ally in cases of bullying and bias. In other words, it is important that they recognize and speak up for what’s right even when they are not the child who is being targeted. Tell them being silent or denying discrimination provides support for racism to continue.

  3. Tell them why diversity is important. Tell your child that historically and in contemporary times, people from diverse backgrounds have worked for justice and that as a family this is a value that you all share.

  4. Give them tools. Share strategies your child can use to both learn more about racial injustice and combat it.

As parents we, unfortunately, cannot guarantee our children’s physical or psychological safety. We can however strive to give them a positive sense of themselves, culturally and as individuals, to buffer the difficult experiences that are likely to occur.

We want to hear from you. Tell us in the comments:

  1. What are some strategies you have used to discuss racism and discrimination with young people?

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