Out of necessity, Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC) have been discussing the challenges and harms of racism with their children for generations. The Dear White Parents film is a missive, a plea, for more White parents and families to join the effort to teach children to recognize and resist racism with the same candor, frequency, and urgency as BIPOC families have for generations.
The video is a great opening for parents and families to talk about race and racism. Whether you watch the video as a family or have your child watch it on their own and discuss it later, use these open-ended questions to deepen the conversation. Remember not to judge their responses and to listen thoughtfully, ask additional questions for understanding and share your own point of view when needed.
In order to engage your family in ongoing conversations about these issues, use these talking points that provide background information, context and language.
Bias, defined as “an inclination or preference either for or against an individual or group that interferes with impartial judgment,” is universal. This means that we all have bias and that biases are common. All people have developed biases through people in our lives, socialization, school, and exposure to different forms of media. Although the specific biases held by people may vary from person to person, bias leads to prejudicial thinking and discrimination—and it has a powerful influence on all of us. Bias is learned from the world around us, and while it cannot be entirely unlearned, it is possible to challenge prejudicial thinking and attitudes in ourselves, others and society so that we can ultimately overcome those biases. Although the learning of bias is often an unconscious process, the undoing of bias requires conscious effort. It is important that we all make a concerted effort to undo that bias because it is so pervasive and impactful.
Implicit bias can be particularly difficult to see because people are often unaware of their implicit biases, which makes those biases harder to be aware of and overcome. You can do so by observing your own biases and stereotypes and ask yourself where that bias comes from, replacing your biases with new information, exposing yourself to people and media that reflect people who are different from yourself, and taking an implicit association test to reflect more on your own implicit bias.
Sitting by and not doing or saying anything about the bias you see in yourself, others and society is not a passive act. Not doing anything does something important; it sends a message of acceptance and “normalizing” of the bias and further contributes to the cycle of injustice and oppression. Actively challenging and confronting bias is something parents can model, teach and encourage children to do so that we are not contributing to this cycle, and we are actively working to dismantle it.
When bias takes place between two people, often our first impulse is to say, “I didn’t mean it like that,” “That wasn’t my intention,” or even “You’re being overly sensitive.” Instead, it is important to be mindful that regardless of your intent, racial bias and racism is harmful to the person or group for whom it is directed. And ultimately, acts and expressions of racism and resolving them should focus on the impact they have on the target, not the intention of the person saying it. A person’s intentions are important, but they should not be the focus after a racist or racially offensive interaction takes place. For white people, biases may prevent one from recognizing racism. While it is typical to be unaware of the racism and harm caused by one’s racial biases, it’s essential to accept feedback when racism is pointed out.
An important mindset to adopt is to prioritize impact over intent. To explain this to young people, provide an example like this: you may step on someone’s foot by accident, or you may intentionally kick them. Either way, that person’s foot hurts and the harm of a painful foot on the target is the same. While one scenario is on purpose and one is not, both actions hurt and cause harm. The person who steps on someone’s foot by accident is still expected to apologize for the harm they caused. Therefore, be mindful of your language, your implicit bias and work hard not to cause harm to other people. When others tell you that you’ve said or done something hurtful, offensive or insensitive, resist the urge to be defensive or make excuses. Focus on the impact on them. Listen to what they say and apply what you learn from this interaction to future situations. Be motivated by the potential harm your words and actions might cause by choosing your words carefully and educating yourself about offensive, biased and harmful language. If you do or say something offensive and are told by the target, acknowledge the harm you have caused and explore how to work on not doing it again. Be grateful that you probably learned something from this interaction and work to internalize your new knowledge, so you won’t do it again.
In the video, the narrator says (to white parents), “You don’t want your child to feel sad, and I don’t want my child to die. They are not the same.” What the narrator means is that often, white people say they feel uncomfortable talking about racism or they don’t want to upset their child, make their child feel sad, or have their child lose their “innocence” at a young age. However, given the context of racism in our society and the impact it has, the focus should be on the safety and wellbeing of people of color, who are harmed by racism, and not on the discomfort of white people. The video conveys that despite discomfort and potentially making your child sad, racism is harming, at times fatally, Black and other people of color. Ultimately, racism harms all of society. It is essential that white parents find the courage, strength and tools to talk about racism because it impacts all of us. We don’t want to raise white children to be the aggressors or perpetrators in these racist incidents. Instead, we can educate them about racism and help them become powerful agents of change to help turn things around. To change the trajectory of bias and racism in our society, we need everyone to contribute.
Some white people are uncomfortable talking about racism because they are unaccustomed to having these conversations, and they live and work in segregated and predominately white spaces where they don’t need to talk about race and racism. Sometimes white parents feel discomfort in talking about race because they think they need to have all the answers to their children’s questions. As the narrator says, “You don’t have to have all the answers.” Instead, it’s important to know what you don’t know, and be honest with your children about your knowledge and lack of knowledge. Together you can explore your questions as a family and learn—which can be a powerful experience for all of you.
In addition, it’s important to remember that when you are uncomfortable, that often signals that you are going outside your comfort zone. That means you are probably learning!
In a society rooted in systemic oppression, some identity groups experience widespread discrimination, marginalization and oppression while other identity groups receive benefits, privileges and power. White privilege is a manifestation of systemic racism. Privilege is defined as: “unearned and often unseen or unrecognized advantages, benefits or rights conferred upon people based on their membership in a dominant group (e.g., white people, heterosexual people, men, able-bodied, etc.) beyond what is commonly experienced by members of the non-dominant group.”
The term “white privilege” is one that often evokes anxiety, discomfort and defensiveness for white people—young people and adults alike. However, if we are going to engage in conversations about race and racism, the concept of white privilege must be on the table. The goal of a discussion about white privilege is not to make anyone feel guilty for who they are or defensive about their lot in life. White privilege is a consequence of racism, so like all forms of racism, it requires examination. As Peggy McIntosh wrote decades ago, white privilege is like an invisible gift or backpack that is bestowed upon white people, providing “unearned” (i.e., you don’t earn it based on hard work, skill or talent; you just get it) access, opportunity and benefits simply because they are white. One of the first privileges white people have is to choose not to talk about race. Black and other people of color don’t have that privilege; they must talk about race and racism because they experience racism. Spending time feeling uncomfortable or guilty does not do much to address white privilege. Instead, when you see examples of privilege, call it out. Point out the opposite of white privilege—that people of color experience unearned bias, discrimination and oppression simply because of their race.
One way to open conversations about white privilege is to first talk about other aspects of privilege that your family members may be more accustomed to discussing. For example, you can talk with your children about age privilege and the lack of access and benefits they receive because they are children or teenagers. This can include not being allowed to do certain things they think they should be allowed to do; assumptions adults make about them; or discriminatory acts that target them simply based on their age. Young people can reflect on the ways that they, as young people, lack privilege in these situations. This discussion can help bridge the connection between age privilege and white privilege, hopefully without them getting defensive. These discussions about privilege can also help to foster empathy.
It is important to identify the way privilege is tied to dominant group identities (i.e., being white), because white people often have difficulty accepting white privilege when they belong to another marginalized group (i.e., being poor, LGBTQ, female, Jewish, etc.). While those identities are also their reality, they do not erase the person’s white identity and white privilege.
This video and campaign were developed in response to the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent “racial reckoning” that took place in the aftermath. In May 2020, George Floyd was killed by then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who kneeled on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes while Floyd pleaded that he could not breathe. Three other police officers stood by, watched and did not intervene; they have been charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. The killing was recorded on video by a bystander, and the entire world was able to view it. Following Floyd’s murder, one of the largest protest movements in U.S. history took place along with protest and activism around the world. There was an outcry for criminal justice reform, a re-envisioning of public safety, “defunding the police,” and even calls for abolishing the police. In April 2021, Derek Chauvin was found guilty on all three counts with which he was charged: second-degree and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Despite police reforms in some communities over the last few years, accountability remains elusive. It is very rare for police officers to get arrested, prosecuted or convicted for excessive use of force, shootings and murder.
Black Lives Matter is an activist movement that began as a hashtag (#BlackLivesMatter) after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager killed in Florida in July 2013. The movement became more widely known and familiar after two high-profile deaths in 2014 of unarmed Black men (Eric Garner in Staten Island, NY and Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO). Neither of the police officers involved in their deaths were indicted (i.e., formally charged with a crime). Since then, there continue to be killings of Black, Latinx and Native American people by the police, many recorded on video. Yet, it is still very rare for police officers to be arrested, prosecuted or convicted for shootings and excessive uses of force. A total of 985 people have been shot and killed by the police in the last year. Although half of the people shot and killed by police are white, Black Americans are shot at a disproportionate rate and are 2.8 times more likely to be killed by police than white people.
The term “Black Lives Matter” is meant to address the long history of mistreatment toward Black people in the U.S. and the ways that Black people are disproportionately impacted by police brutality and other racial violence. The need to state that “Black Lives Matter” remains essential as it affirms that Black people are human beings whose lives should be valued the same as white and other non-Black people. The term “All Lives Matter” was coined in response to “Black Lives Matter” largely by white people who were uncomfortable with the phrase Black Lives Matter, and because they made the incorrect assumption that “Black Lives Matter” means that Black lives are more important than other lives, or that they are the only lives that matter. Black people have continually stressed that the statement “Black Lives Matter” is a way to declare that “Black lives matter as much as others’ lives.” Using the “All Lives Matter” phrase undermines efforts for racial equity and speaks over Black people who are raising their voices against racism.
As described in the video, “the talk” that Black parents have with their Black children is an unfortunate and important part of Black families’ lived experiences. Amid the racism that Black people face and especially the potential danger and violence they face at the hands of police, Black parents must regularly warn their children about what could happen when they encounter the police. They also must prepare them for what to do in those situations so they can get out of the situation unharmed and alive. In police interactions, the stakes are extremely high for Black people compared to white people and Black parents fear for their children’s safety and lives. And for good reason. An APA (American Psychological Association) study revealed that Black boys as young as ten years old are more likely to be mistaken as older, be perceived as guilty and face police violence if accused of a crime compared to white boys the same age.
Black and white people have very different perspectives on and experiences with the criminal justice system. A Pew Research Center survey illustrates some of the widest differences between Black and white people on how they are treated by police officers. Eighty-four percent of Black adults said that in dealing with police, they are generally treated less fairly than white people. Black people were about five times as likely as white people to say they’d been unfairly stopped by police because of their race or ethnicity (44% vs. 9%).
It is important to be mindful that “the talk” is not a conversation that most white families have with their children because they don’t have to. In fact, many white parents teach their children that the police are there to help them in dangerous situations, and that there is little to fear. However, as the film advocates, it is critical that white families talk with their children about the dangers that Black people face by the police, as well as other forms of racism.
There’s a line in the video where a parent asks their child, “What do you think it looks like for someone to be racist? Is it someone shouting the N-word and burning a cross, or do you see it in little places?” The reality is that racism shows up in all those ways—large and small, daily and intermittent. And what is meant by “large and small” can vary quite a bit based on one’s perspective and experience. From stereotypes and non-inclusive language to exclusion and media tropes, to microaggressions and bias-based bullying, to slurs and racist “jokes,” to hate symbols and confederate flags, to hate crimes and white supremacist groups leading the January 6 insurrection, all of these are examples are racism.
As we see in the Pyramid of Hate, racism and other forms of bias and hate do not take place in isolation. All these above-mentioned attitudes, behaviors, acts and incidents are part of the system of oppression that is rooted in racism. In the video, several of these examples are mentioned or shown. There is a conversation about enslavement, where a young son is shocked to learn that slavery was once legal. It is important to provide this background and context for children so that they understand the roots of racism and white supremacy and understand how racism manifests in today’s world. We want to provide this reality for children, but also provide hope to inspire them to be part of challenging, confronting and ultimately dismantling racism and other inequities. Just as there are different forms of racism, there are also a variety of ways to respond to it and suggestions should be made according to the age level of the child and the form of racism. As Martin Luther King said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” As many have said, this bending towards justice does not happen on its own. We need to push and pull and tug as hard as we can to get it there.
There are many ways that your family can get involved in making the world better. Now is the time to build habits of compassion and kindness in your children and these practices will last a lifetime.
We can’t always predict what our children will ask us, but we can be prepared to listen and encourage them to continue to question things in the world, remain curious and practice compassion. Sometimes, the best way to support their learning is to ask more questions and then just listen.
When we have intentional conversations with our children early, we can support their limited categorizing and meaning-making skills to create more realistic stories in their minds about others. These interpreted stories unchecked become truths for them, and they begin to form opinions about others. You don’t have to have all the answers, just a commitment to open dialogue and active listening skills. Raising children that see and celebrate differences in others and who are not afraid to talk about race-based issues is a step in creating a more just world.