I was on a call with my mother recently and we were sharing our excitement about the entrance of my newest niece to the world. She told me about how she and my stepfather were narrating a picture my brother posted on social media in which it appeared he was engaged in a serious dialogue with my 2-day old niece. Playing the role of my brother, she asserted, “Now when the police pull you over, you need to…”
She laughed at that moment and conveyed to me how “The Talk” shifted so much from her childhood. Such a talk used to refer to the often fumbling and painstakingly embarrassing conversation between parent and child with respect to the birds and the bees.
In certain communities, and especially in the last decade, “The Talk” has now taken on the dubious honor of what parents of color often do to prepare their children for the racial world around them. Black parents in particular have been found to have this conversation more often than not, with some studies indicating that up to 75 percent of families engage in explicit race-related conversations and behaviors (Hughes, 2008; Thornton et al., 1990).
As a child psychologist who studies these phenomena amongst Black families, I am often asked one very critical question: what should I be telling my children about the racial world around them? I would like to offer perhaps another perspective, that is, how should we be talking as a family about the racial world around us?
The truth is, if any of us studying and applying concepts related to this issue knew the answer to what we should be telling children to keep them safe, we would—in theory—be able to end racism, racial discrimination, and unjustifiable practices writ large. However, our children are part of a racial system which they had no part in creating yet have to endure on a daily basis through disparities in education, health, wealth, residential and employment opportunities, and lived experiences. This same system has been maintained over our country’s history and is experiencing a resurgence in various forms in modern-day media, dialogue, and practices. As such, it is quite challenging to predict what others will do to our children, but we can help prepare our kids for how we want them to navigate the emotional toll of racial encounters in the real world.
My colleagues and I have written a number of blogs and articles (Anderson & Stevenson, 2019), created video content, and even developed an entire clinical practice (Anderson et al., 2018) aimed at addressing the how because I believe it is the only way we can move “The Talk” to “The Walk”. When families begin to process the murky undercurrent of racism AND appreciate the important and beautiful aspects of being Black in America, their children will have the opportunity to practice thinking about, speaking about, and acting on negative race-related encounters. If you don’t think children are experiencing such encounters, chew on this: studies show 90 percent of Black children as young as eight report at least one annual encounter (Panther et al., 2010) and, increasingly, some children report 5 incidents of discrimination each day (English et al., 2020).
Here are some tips for how to get us moving towards thinking, speaking, and acting about race with our kids:
When we look at our children, we often think their personalities are most important. But tragically, in a shoot first assassinate character later society, there’s a critical importance to recognizing and valuing racial identity. You might be wondering then how it’s possible for you not to bring your own baggage to these talks? Or whether you have the skills to actually do it? When you do talk with your children, does it stress you out? What kind of barriers are in your path to engage in dialogue? To have “The Talk” well, we have to engage in some inner dialogue and practice stress reduction techniques to be competent during these conversations. Just spending some time thinking about and potentially processing these questions with yourself or a trusted partner may be enough to get you ready for the discussion.
In the majority of work on “The Talk”, we recognize cultural pride and preparation for bias as strategies that Black parents use with their children. We would certainly encourage a both-and approach. In the very common occurrence of forbidden hairstyles that seems to make its way into the news each year, an example of the both-and approach might be “yes, it is possible for you or someone in your school to be suspended because of braids (preparation for bias) - it’s really because some people don’t appreciate our beautiful hair like we do in our family (cultural pride)”. Promote pride and prepare for bias BEFORE racial incidents so that children have a context for why these things are happening to them (rather than internalizing and feeling personally responsible for the shame afterward).
And remember, having challenging conversations is what we do as parents. We were built for this. So beyond the speaking strategies, my colleagues and I would also encourage consistent and back-and-forth practices, which makes space for your child to bring these concepts to you during family meetings or meals where they can ask emotion-based processing questions (“how did you feel when you saw what happened on the news last night?”). You can then respond in a vulnerable manner if they ask you about your emotions (“wow, I know I was really upset”) and elaborate on how that makes you think about them (“it really makes me nervous for you sometimes, but I know we practice talking about our emotions together so that makes me feel better”). Even if your child is young, you can find age appropriate ways of addressing race with your youngster, so don’t let that stop you from these conversations either.
You know, I hope that my niece can grow up in a society where the behaviors and customs regarding race will preclude my brother from ever having to give her “The Talk” imagined by my mother on our call. But if she does have to walk out what my brother tells her, I know that she will be emotionally prepared because she would have had opportunities to practice expressing herself with all of the caregivers raising her to be a beautiful and proud Black girl.