Following the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia over the weekend, many Americans are wondering what they can do to push back against hatred and bigotry in 2017.
On Saturday, violence erupted at the “Unite the Right” rally, as a 20-year-old man named James Alex Fields allegedly drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters. A 32-year-old woman named Heather Heyer was killed, and at least 19 people were injured.
Though President Donald Trump’s response to the violence has been described as “disgusting,” “terrifying,” and “ignorance to the point of callousness,” everyday citizens are seeking ways to fight white supremacy on big and small scales. In particular, parents of white children are seeking guidance for raising engaged, conscientious people who stand up for what is right.
We spoke to parents, activists, educators and allies about how to teach kids to combat racism. Here are 15 takeaways for parents to keep in mind.
1. Talk about race.
“Many parents have good intentions when they decide not to talk to their children about race,“ said Dr. Eboni Hollier, who is board-certified in developmental and behavioral pediatrics as well as general pediatrics. She noted that many parents want to preserve their children’s innocence or simply avoid their own sense of discomfort with this topic.
However, Hollier added, choosing to not talk to your kids about race has far worse consequences in the long run. “We cannot hide. We cannot turn away. We cannot pretend that racism does not exist.”
“The problem with silence is that the selfsame forces that allowed the racist rhetoric to spiral out of control will eventually find their way to your children,” said author and diversity consultant Dr. Tiffany Jana. “If you have failed to equip them with the words, tools, values and resources to stand up for what is right, you have not prepared them well at all.”
2. Don’t teach kids to be “colorblind.”
There’s a tendency among white parents to try to raise children who “don’t see color.” But the reality is that colors are one of the first things kids learn, and they do see physical differences in the way people look.
“The key is helping your children understand that differences between people do exist, but that all people are important and deserve to be treated fairly and with respect,” Hollier said. Doyin Richards ― who authored an upcoming children’s book about race relations called What’s the Difference?: Being Different Is Amazing ― urged parents to stop teaching their children to be “colorblind.”
“Not only is it really dumb, it’s also really dangerous,” he told HuffPost. “Like I said in my book, the facts are that we are different. Pretending that we’re all in a ridiculous box of sameness does way more harm than good.”
3. Speak positively about differences.
“It’s perfectly appropriate to acknowledge that ‘Our friends can be all different colors, and religions, and even from different countries! It’s like a rainbow or a box of crayons ― people can be different, and they are all special and beautiful, even if we don’t always understand how they talk, or dress or think. Would you like to have a box of crayons all one color? Would it be easy to draw a picture of flowers and a tree and a rainbow with just one color?’” she explained.
Early childhood education professor and cultural anthropologist Dr. Jennifer Keys Adair told HuffPost it’s important for parents to draw positive associations with different skin colors and facial features. “When young children point out different skin colors, don’t be embarrassed,” she said. “Instead tell them, ‘Isn’t that beautiful? What wonderful brown skin.’”
4. Educate yourself first.
“Talking with your children and keeping the lines of communication open is important, but it is crucial that parents deal with their own feelings regarding race and white supremacists,” Hollier said, adding that parents should educate themselves about current events and discussions before trying to explain them to their children. There are many online resources to help white people and white parents in particular stay informed.
“White parents need to seek understanding from writers, artists and scholars of color who are trying to tell the world how racism continues to operate,” said Adair. “If white parents are only getting their news and ideas from white people, they will not be able to help their children fight against racism effectively. White parents should tell stories, share events and offer insight to their children that comes from the experiences of people of color.”
5. Acknowledge that white supremacy exists.
“I think the best way to address the continued existence of white supremacists is to speak directly and openly with children,” said Adair. “Children can handle knowing that there are groups of hateful people who want to harm people of color as long as they feel that adults are working hard to stop them and that they can participate in those efforts.”
She noted that white children in particular need to know that white supremacists exist so that they can feel empowered to be a different kind of white person. “White children need to understand that the U.S. is still unfair to people of color and that they can participate in trying to change that,” she said. “White children need to know that they can determine what kind of white person they are going to be.”
Richards also called on white parents themselves to stand up against white supremacy. “We need more of you to speak up than you are currently,” he said.
6. Teach kids to be upstanders.
“It’s important to fold discussions of race in with ideas around allyship and being an upstander,” said activist Lindsey Amer, who created a YouTube series called “Queer Kid Stuff” to educate kids about social justice and identity issues in ways that they can understand. In contrast to a passive bystander, an upstander is someone who stands up for people being marginalized or bullied in order to make things right.
“It’s about listening to people of color and other marginalized folks, respecting their perspective, and learning and moving forward from there,” she added. “In a kid’s life, that’s about speaking up when another white person/kid says a racial slur, or makes a racist joke. It can feel like a small action, but a little bit goes a long way when you are working to dismantle prejudice.”
7. Make time for difficult conversations.
“There are a whole bunch of people in this country who would prefer not to discuss issues of race and intolerance, and many of those same people say that even bringing up the issue of race makes one a ‘race baiter’ ― whatever that means ― or even a racist,” activist and media figure April Reign told HuffPost. “Saying the word ‘white’ makes you a racist somehow. I think we have to get past this. You have to have the difficult conversations.”
As a busy parent, Reign said those difficult conversations don’t always have to be a big dinnertime production. Acknowledging that not all families have the privilege of being able to sit and dine together each night, she explained, “You catch your kids when you can ― on the way to a sports practice or dance recital. Instead of listening to music, use those 15-20 minutes to have some discussions about what’s going on in the country.”
8. Set an example and call people out ― even if it’s your own parents.
Part of the hard work of addressing race and racism with your children can involve another kind of difficult conversation ― one with your own parents. “White parents need to stand up to their kids’ grandparents,” said Reign.
“When a grandparent says something off-color at the Thanksgiving dinner table, parents sometimes say something like, ’You know, Grampy is just old and we don’t really think like that.′ No no, you have to talk to Grampy and explain why that’s wrong because if you don’t, more people are going to get hurt.”
9. Pay attention to what your kids are consuming.
“Pay attention to what your kids are saying, who they associate with and what content they consume. The pressure is on our younger generation to stop the cycle of hate,” said Richards.
Reign, who has two teenage children, said she understands how hard it can be to keep up with all the media they’re exposed to. “But parents have to tune in,” she said. “You have to ask the really difficult questions and keep asking those questions.”
Ultimately, it’s important to supplement what kids are seeing online and on television with important context and conversations. “When your child is exposed to stories regarding Charlottesville and other difficult topics, talk with him about what he is seeing,” said Hollier. “When you do this, your child understands that you are open to discussion and welcome hearing about his thoughts and feelings, which helps to keep the lines of communication open. Acknowledge and empathize with your child’s feelings.”
Adair added that entertainment and media do not always help kids become more socially aware or tolerant. “By ages 4 and 5, children don’t just see racial differences, they make assumptions about what they mean,” said the professor. “If parents say nothing about race and do not flood their children with positive representations of people of color, young children will start making assumptions based on the negative representations they often see on TV and in the media.”
10. Don’t ask people of color to solve your problems.
“All too often, black people, especially black women, are asked to solve the problem,” said Reign. “If white supremacy is the problem in this case, white folks have to solve the issue.”
This is one of the ways allyship becomes important. White parents should seek extra assistance and guidance from white allies, rather than the black people in their lives.
Reign also encouraged parents to understand the fears black parents face and the heartbreaking talks they must have with their children.
11. Expose your kids to diversity in their everyday lives.
Parents should actively seek to provide diverse experiences for their children and expose them to different kinds of people at home, in school and in their larger communities.
“If such diversity is not readily available, an effort should be made to find opportunities such as extracurricular activities or perhaps volunteer opportunities. Additionally, ensuring that your children have access to racially diverse toys, books and media is helpful,” said Hollier.
“Take children to see art created and performed by people of color. Take white children to eat and see movies all over town, not just where they live,” Adair suggested. “Do the hard work of being the type of person that people of color would feel safe and comfortable with so that those relationships are possible as children grow and attend school.”
12. Use children’s books.
Nearly every parent, educator and activist who spoke to HuffPost recommended that white parents read books to their children that feature racially diverse characters.
“Read them books with main characters who are different from them. Normalize diversity at every opportunity,” said Jana. While children’s literature is dominated by white characters and authors, there are many lists and articles directing parents toward books with black heroes, and books that actively educate children about race.
13. Start early.
Studies have shown that children begin to learn and recognize differences between people as early as infancy.
“This learning begins with their parents, who are their first teachers,” said Hollier, who recommends parents start teaching kids to value diversity and show empathy toward all people during early childhood.
“The biggest thing about introducing these topics to kids is to not be scared to do it. It can be difficult, especially if you’re not used to these kinds of in-depth discussions,” Amer explained. “Kids have a huge capacity for understanding core values of fairness and equality. Kids have the language to talk about these issues in a way that makes sense, and they can be understandable in a way that is cautionary and educational that doesn’t have to be scary.”
14. Tailor your messages based on age.
The discussions parents have with their kids about race, racism and violence should be age appropriate. “There is no need to show a 5-year-old the video footage of Heather Heyer and the other protesters being mowed down by a speeding vehicle,” said Jana.
“It is appropriate to take the opportunity to convey messages of love and inclusion by using examples and metaphors they can understand and relate to,” she added. “For example, you might say: ‘Remember when your classmate got in trouble for bullying your friend? Well there’s a lot of news right now about adults being mean to each other. That is why it’s so important for us to be kind to our friends and to apologize when we say mean things. No one is supposed to treat people badly, not kids or adults. Kindness is important. How do you feel about being kind?’”
Teens and older kids, on the other hand, can handle more direct messages from their parents. “They are getting overt messages of bias all day,” Jana explained. “Teens and pre-teens need to know your values. Even if you are aware of your own biased feelings, equip your kids with the freedom to explore a broader understanding than your own.”
15. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable.
“Parenting is hard as hell,” said Reign. “You definitely are going to make mistakes. Part of it, though, I think, is also owning those mistakes.”
Amer noted that talking about these issues with kids also involves a lesson in emotional intelligence, and parents shouldn’t be afraid to express their own feelings.
“Understanding that their grown-ups might be scared right now and that what is going on is scary is OK,” she explained. “We’re kind of living in scary times. But it’s important to stay hopeful because things can change if we want them to, but you have to do something about it to make that happen.”