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Experts: White Parents Must Face Discomfort on Race

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June 11, 2020 -- Like many other white parents, Alicia and Jim Field are grappling with the stark images of George Floyd’s killing and how to explain it, and the ensuing racial unrest, to their children.

The couple and their 3 children -- Jeremiah, 16, Samantha, 14, and Joseph, 9 -- live in Burke, VA.

“I think that what this is encouraging people to do is have conversations that maybe you don’t normally have, because you just assume people feel that way or you don’t want to know because it’s an uncomfortable conversation to have,” says Alicia Field.

She says she was watching TV news coverage of Floyd’s death with Joseph when he asked what was happening.

“I said, ‘That police officer did a very bad thing. He made a bad choice, and that man died as a result of that choice,’ and he said, ‘But why did he do that?’ And I said I don’t know.”

Jim Field thinks the recent events have led to more discussions in his house and that his kids are receptive.

“I think that that has allowed for this opportunity to have these deeper, meaningful conversations with our kids and with our community,” he says.

‘It’s Not Right, It’s Unfair’

Fourteen-year-old Samantha says she couldn’t watch the video of Floyd being killed because it made her sick to her stomach. But she and one of her best friends, who is black, have had a conversation about race.

“That it’s not right, it’s unfair towards the black community that they’re being treated different just because of the color of their skin,” she says.

But many of those conversations are not happening in white families, says Riana Anderson, PhD, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health. She’s a clinical psychologist and expert in racial discrimination and socialization.

Anderson, whose mother is black and father is white, says in most cases, white parents are normally silent or use a colorblind approach.

“Something that might check a box for white families in the discussion-about-race category would be we’re all the same, we’re all equal, we can achieve despite race. And that would count as a racial socialization moment for white families because they actually used with word ‘race,’” she says.

“You have to talk about race in the reality of race, because right now, we are not seeing that in white families,” Anderson says. “What we have to do as parents is really be comfortable in feeling uncomfortable in saying, ‘I might not have all the answers, I may not have been socialized properly as a child, so maybe I don’t even know as an adult how to talk or feel about race.’ ”

She says parents have to be comfortable talking about disparities -- not just differences -- and these conversations need to happen early and often. For example, you can’t celebrate cultural holidays and Black History Month without discussing the concept of racism. She said these conversations should be the same for other races, too.

Same Topics, Different Conversations

Anderson says when white parents talk to their kids about race, the content is a whole lot different.

“Black parents are talking about cultural pride, they’re talking about preparing for bias, they’re talking about not trusting other people,” she says “Those are major topics for black people, but, again, the top thing white families are instructing on is not seeing race, or equality by race, so white parents are not having this conversation.”

Kenya Hameed, PsyD, a clinical neuropsychologist at the Child Mind Institute, says white parents should be doing several things, including discussing racism.

“White parents can make a conscious effort to promote diversity early on (beginning in toddlerhood) with toys and books that have predominantly black faces and characters. Toys help shape how a child views the world and gives them a sense of what is normal,” she says. “White children’s exposure to race should not be solely in the context of slavery or racism.”

But they should also be exposed, she says, to diversity with their peers through play groups, friends at school, summer camps, and other activities that provide more opportunities to be around black children.

“As children get older, they will begin to rely less on information from their parents and seek out content for themselves via social media, articles, podcasts, etc.”

Hameed says it’s important to have regular discussions about race while emphasizing that although we may all look different, we’re all the same.

She says children need to understand that what they see and hear on the news isn’t happening out of thin air; that it stems from the history of race relations in this country.

What she would say to Joseph’s question about why the police officer did what he did is, “Black people for hundreds of years have been unfairly targeted and treated as less than by whites -- all because of the color of their skin. This is what happened to George Floyd. The policemen didn’t value his life the same way he would have if he were white and killed him for no reason. This has been and always will be wrong. What we saw on the news was very scary, but sadly, it happens too often. I would never want you to treat or allow others to treat black people this way. What questions do you have?”

‘We Are All in Agreement’

Sixteen-year-old Jeremiah is also having conversations with his friends about race.

“It’s finally coming into light more and has resurfaced again,” he says. “We’re just seeing it in full force now, and so we definitely agree that it’s not right and there should be change, and black lives matter. We are all in agreement.”

The family took part in a protest march in Burke in June.

Samantha Field had this advice for kids looking for ways to support friends of different races:

“Treat everyone equally, because at the end of the day, we’re all human. We’re different, but we’re not different. We should all be treated equally.”

WebMD Health News Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on June 11, 2020


Alicia Field, Burke, VA.

Jim Field, Burke, VA.

Samantha Field, Burke, VA.

Jeremiah Field, Burke, VA.

Riana Elyse Anderson, PhD, clinical psychologist; assistant professor, Department of Health Behavior and Health Education, University of Michigan School of Public Health.

Kenya Hameed, PsyD, clinical neuropsychologist, Learning and Development Center, Child Mind Institute.

Child Mind Institute.

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