Helping Parents Talk About Race With Their Kids

By David McDowell


Yellowbrick reached out to me soon after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, asking if I’d be willing to write down my thoughts and help parents figure out the best way to talk about race with their kids.

I think talking to kids about the realities of life are always difficult. It’s hard enough talking about where babies come from or even the Tooth Fairy, right? But kids are smart! They are specifically designed to soak everything in! They are going to learn about racism.

So you have two options: You can talk to them about it, explain reason, and address it straightforward, or you can leave it up to secondhand knowledge. That may be okay for Santa Claus, but it isn’t enough when it comes to teaching about hate. If you don’t teach about hate, someone may very well be teaching your child hate. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” We don’t need to wait for things like Charlottesville to occur in order to have conversations about race.

When I was a child, former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke ran for Congress where I grew up. I was 10 years old. I loved Duke basketball and this man had my first name! That was plenty enough for a child like myself. I can say with certainty that if my parents hadn’t sat me down to explain who David Duke was, an angry man who wanted many of my friends segregated from my school, and even worse, killed, I’d have come across enough people in my life who knew, liked, and shared some of his views. 

I know that because David Duke came within only a few thousand votes of defeating David Vitter, a candidate who went on to become a U.S. Senator. Children will soak up hate in the same way they soak up everything else. And once it sticks, it’s harder to address.

Many people suggest that if we don’t talk about racism, it will go away. I think we’ve seen what happens when we pretend it’s gone.

If I’m lucky enough to have children, I certainly plan to talk to them about the white privilege I receive every day. I will want them to understand what a routine traffic stop feels like to someone who doesn’t have blonde hair and blue eyes. Families of color are forced to have that conversation, so why shouldn’t I? I will want them to know inequities in their lives and how fortunate they are. Most parents want to teach their children humility, but we need to make sure they do that by teaching what justice looks like as a means to that end. 

I don’t want to speak too much toward my own parents’ experiences, but I know that as an adult, I still have the opportunity to learn every single day. I think it’s helpful in every walk of life to learn that nobody is perfect and everyone has an opportunity to grow. 

One of the very best things my parents ever did was take me to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival every year. It often fell on my birthday and I loved participating in the pageantry of it all. But it didn’t fully hit me about how important it was toward my growth toward inclusion until last week, when I spoke on a panel with State Representative Graig Meyer from North Carolina. Graig reminded us that taking care of our own lives is important toward teaching others, and consuming art is a valuable and enjoyable means of respite while still opening our minds. The New Orleans area is an easy place to do that. For my 6th birthday I got a Jazz Fest poster of Louis Armstrong, and his portrait hung in my room for over a decade. How could I come to hate someone who I looked up to so much, someone whose talents surpassed every person who came before him?

I also love books. Stories like The Star-Bellied Sneetches are easy tools to explain social constructs that pit us against one another. 

Lastly, we should seek out people who aren’t like us as often as possible. Humans can’t understand one another without first learning trust. That means playdates need diversity just as much as classrooms and television and elections. Parents will likely gain as much as children from this experience.

I hope most of this makes sense and you find it helpful. It’s so important to talk to children about loving one another. It translates to so many aspects of our lives, and it’s the beginning of a system that leads to better healthcare, better schools, better jobs, and better lives for everyone. A rising tide truly does lift all boats.

Author Biography:

David McDowell is a native Louisianan but considers himself a “Born-Again Mississippian.” Since 2008, he has worked in Mississippi as a political operative and policy advocate for the “forgotten corners” of the state. He lives in Jackson, but you can always find him on Twitter at @dgmcdowell.

David McDowell