Amy Coney Barrett Shows White Parents How Not to Talk About Race

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Culture & Conversation Race

Amy Coney Barrett Shows White Parents How Not to Talk About Race

Kelli Pate

Racial justice organizers offer six tips for talking to kids about racism and Black Lives Matter.

For more anti-racism resources, check out our guide, Racial Justice Is Reproductive Justice.

While much has been made of Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s record on abortion rights and her potential impact on Roe v. Wade, after confirmation she’ll get to weigh in on Supreme Court cases immediately, deciding the future of immigration, voting rights, the Affordable Care Act, religious freedoms, and anti-discrimination laws.

And given the country’s heightened attention to racial injustice—and Barrett as a mother to two Black children—her hearings have touched on racial injustice more than once. Under questioning by Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats, Barrett acknowledged the persistence of racism in the United States and of implicit bias in our criminal justice system—but insisted those were lawmakers’ problems to solve, not the judiciary’s. When asked how the video of police killing George Floyd impacted her, Barrett said:

Senator, as you might imagine, given that I have two Black children, that was very, very personal for my family. [My husband] was with the boys on a camping trip out in South Dakota, so I was there, and my 17-year-old daughter, Vivian, who’s adopted from Haiti, all of this was erupting. It was very difficult for her. We wept together in my room, and then it was also difficult for my daughter Juliet, who’s 10. I had to try to explain some of this to them. … And for Vivian, you know, to understand there would be a risk to her brother or the son she might have one day of that kind of brutality has been an ongoing conversation. It’s a difficult one for us like it is for all Americans all over the country.

Although Barrett didn’t specify how she tried to explain it to her kids, most white parents struggle to have meaningful conversations about police violence and systemic racism. According to sociologist Megan Underhill, assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, white parents “often refrain from speaking with their children about race, racism and racial inequality.” When those discussions do occur, she found, they are “characterized by a colorblind rhetoric.”

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“White parents adopt these practices because they believe it will help them raise a non-racist child,” Underhill wrote for the Washington Post in 2018. “From a sociological perspective though, white parents’ racial messages may do more harm than good.”

We don’t live in a colorblind society, and as Underhill noted, research shows that talking to kids using the colorblind approach isn’t merely ineffective—it can perpetuate real harms and delay the work required to undo the systems of white supremacy and get closer to a more equitable world.

But if teaching white kids to be colorblind isn’t the way, then what is?

I took that question to Amy Hansen-Malek and Amanda Campbell, two organizers with the Kansas City, Missouri, chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice. In their own words, here’s what they want other white parents to know when talking to their white kids about racism and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Acknowledge your shortcomings

Amy Hansen-Malek: As white parents, we do not have to be perfect at talking to our kids in order to start the conversations. What’s most important is that we are starting the conversations.

I’d also remind white parents that it’s necessary work if we are serious about raising up a generation of anti-racist white children. We can unpack our own implicit biases and consider the ways we’ve been affected by our white supremacy culture, and we can share this knowledge with our kids. We can teach them that white privilege isn’t something we asked for but something we inherited, and we can empower them by showing how they play a role in dismantling racism.

Most of us, including myself, were not brought up having conversations about race, racism, or white privilege. It can feel intimidating and uncomfortable, especially if we were taught that it is racist to even talk about race (which it’s not). However, there are a ton of resources to help us on this journey. EmbraceRace is a wonderful website with free webinars. Jennifer Harvey, in her 2018 book, Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America, walks readers through why it’s harmful to not talk to our kids about race and racism, and then she provides examples of what parents can be doing. And I can’t speak enough about how helpful I have found Beverly Daniel Tatum’s 2017 book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?

I encourage white parents to find other parents who are serious about trying to raise race-conscious, anti-racist children. In 2016, I helped start Showing Up for Racial Justice Families Core, which is a part of the SURJ KC network. We exist to organize, educate, and support white caregivers who are trying to raise anti-racist kids, and we do this in accountability with BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color). This is a space where I learn from others, find accountability, and welcome others who are committed to this work to join us.

There’s no such thing as “too young”

Amanda Campbell: Studies show that children as young as 6 months recognize differences in skin color and hair. Between ages 2 and 3, many kids become more vocal about noticing those differences. This is really the time for us to both proactively use our world to celebrate differences and to respond positively when they do ask or comment. If our response is to shush or quiet them, they will learn that it is something not to be talked about.

By ages 4 to 6, kids will start to associate positive and negative traits with different skin colors; by ages 7 and 8, kids can better understand nuances, and we can have deeper conversations about those differences and similarities between people. This is also a good time to talk more about racial injustice, including police brutality, current events, and stereotypes about different groups of people. Books and media are great resources to show our kids great contributions to society made by BIPOC. Real-life examples help them understand, and having many positive examples will help them formulate positive associations.

For our middle school and high school kids, we can be more proactive about social media, what they’re reading, and where they get their sources of information. We should also engage with them about how they are showing up for and standing up for their peers at school.

Center Black voices

AHM: We must teach our white children to center the voices of BIPOC: Listen to their voices and respect the language they prefer; follow their leadership.

This can be teaching white children our history from BIPOC perspectives, teaching them to believe and support their Black friends when they tell them they’ve experienced racism, reading the current events from BIPOC perspectives, and showing them how to follow Black leadership at a protest. Those who have experienced and continue to experience racism are most knowledgeable about it.

With my 6-year-old, we watched some video clips of protests that were happening in Kansas City. We talked about the courage of Black folks to stand up and speak out against the ways they continue to be harmed by policing. As we watched the video clips, I pointed out how people of all races were at the protests, and we discussed how we want to stand with them and about the ways we could [participate], like sending bail support. We read children’s books together, written by Black authors around activism, and later we went to a protest together.

Our white kids need to know how to stand up and speak out when they see their peers experiencing racism. We need to help them see we can all have a role in dismantling racism, and that racism negatively affects all of us. In SURJ KC, we talk about doing anti-racism work for our collective liberation.

Lean into the hard stuff

AC: Police brutality can be a scary subject for kids. Children have an innate sense of fairness, and we should try to approach it by talking about how unfair it is for police to treat people differently based on what they look like, where they live, how much money they have, or anything else.

We are often used to teaching kids to respect authority, and learning about questioning authority is often a challenge. Being able to teach nuance and nonbinary thinking will help our kids in life, as will letting them know they can be helpers. Our white kids are empowered knowing they can stand by or with their Black and brown friends, and even strangers, during interactions with law enforcement. Letting our children imagine other ways to solve community issues that don’t include punitive measures can help them stretch their thinking and practice empathy.

[Bringing your kids to a protest] is a personal decision, and I believe it depends on the type of protest. I do believe it teaches them so much, and it’s an experience they will never forget. Our kids participated in an online children’s protest event this summer. This was a very positive and uplifting way to be safe at home with young ones during COVID-19 and unrest all over.

There are plenty of other ways to introduce kids to activism, too. They can learn by writing letters to city officials, lobbying lawmakers, making signs, posting and sharing to social media in support, learning about national and local organizations and donating or raising money for them, and donating and delivering supplies. My children have friends who did a lemonade stand to raise money for BLM [in Kansas City].

Dive in—then keep going

AHM: When I talk to my white child about the Black Lives Matter movement, I talk about it as an uprising led by Black people in response to the unfair, ongoing problem and pattern of police violence that continues to harm our Black community members across our nation. It’s important to communicate that racism is systemic, meaning it encompasses more than an individual being unkind to someone because of the color of their skin. We see racial disparities not only in our criminal justice system but also in our school systems, health-care systems, housing, employment, etc.

We’re not going to get it right every time. Unfortunately, this is not a one-and-done conversation. We need to have ongoing conversations, and we’ll get better at it the more we do it.

Make diversity the norm

AC: It’s so much easier these days to use Google and find lists for just about anything. There are book lists by age, television shows, movies, music, and much more. That is something you really have to sit down and intentionally do—it can fall off our priority list, so I often tell people to join diverse groups and be intentional in their own lives. Follow BIPOC on all of your social media and other media platforms. If we are living these values, we will naturally exude them.

When we celebrate Black culture and any culture other than our own, we are showing the way. Our family is currently into Beyoncé’s Black Is King, and we’re planning to watch Netflix’s Bookmarks and revisit Remember the Titans for our preteen and teen boys. Also, join groups like our SURJ KC Families Core. There are lots of local ways to connect with others who are doing the same and continually sharing resources like local story times, Black Santas around the holidays, music performances and events, and multicultural celebrations near you.