Ferguson: Discussing racism with your children

In the aftermath of the events in Ferguson, Missouri, are you talking to your kids about racism?

Protesters_with_signs_in_Ferguson Protesters in Ferguson, Missouri. Photo: Wikipedia

How should I broach the subject of race with my kids? I've returned to this question multiple times over the last few weeks.

After the Mike Brown shooting and Ferguson protests, I've wondered what to say to my kids. How could I relate this American situation to their sheltered lives—knowing, of course, that their sheltered lives made this conversation even more urgent. I want my 14-year-old son to appreciate that, as one of the white kids in a racially diverse high school, his experiences differ from some of his friends. He needs to recognize that he has some of these privileges simply because of the colour of his skin.

I used to think that if I didn’t draw attention to race and acted as a role model, than that would be enough. But it’s not. It’s ignoring the reality of our world.

We'd like to think that kids are colour–blind, but science tells us this is not the case. Kids do notice racial differences at a very young age—and when they say something aloud to us, we often hush them in embarrassed tones which only sends the message that race is not a topic to be discussed. But studies have shown that, without intervention, kids will gravitate to towards those who look like them and eventually accept cultural biases. However, it doesn’t take much for kids to change their way of thinking. A study published in The Journal of Marriage and Family says white families are three times less likely to discuss race, but kids who do talk about race with their families exhibit fewer signs of prejudice.

You know what happens when we don’t address race relations? We get movies like the upcoming blockbuster Exodus, which features white actors (including Christian Bale) playing characters of Middle Eastern and African descent. The servants in this film, however, have darker skin. The movie trailer acted as the perfect fodder for our family to have an interesting discussion about race and Hollywood's history of white-washing characters. As a family, we will boycott Exodus. We eventually touched on what is going on in Ferguson, Missouri. We talked about Canada and how different—although, not always—it is compared to the tense race relations in the US.


These conversations with my kids often leave me with a sense of unease, as if I've left something important unsaid. I was relieved to read that KJ Dell'Antonia of the New York Times feels the same. In her piece "I can't explain" she quotes a psychology professor who is an expert on gender and racial attitudes. He says that feeling uncomfortable after talking to your kids about difficult subjects is a good thing:

“If you come out of that conversation and you’re not feeling any discomfort or worry or guilt there, it probably wasn’t deep enough, or honest enough, or complex enough.”

I’m thankful for the Internet on this one. There has been a lot of complex and illuminating writing on how to talk to your kids about racial tensions and why it's important to do so, especially if you're white. If you're looking for some resources, I recommend Dell'Antonia's article, "Teaching tolerance" from Slate or "Tips on how to talk to your kids about Ferguson" from Time. An exhaustive list can be found via the #fergusonsyllabus hashtag on Twitter, which has become a clearing-house of resources for teachers, parents and anyone who wants to dig deeper.


Have you discussed race with your kids? Do your kids know about Ferguson?

Emma Waverman is a writer, blogger and mom to three kids. She has many opinions, some of them are fit to print. Read more of her articles here and follow her on Twitter @emmawaverman.

This article was originally published on Dec 04, 2014

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