An Expert Weighs in on a Parent’s Role in Raising Anti-Racist Humans

It’s more important than ever to broach those difficult conversations with your children about racism and discrimination. One challenge is that many of us do not know where to begin. In light of 2021’s Black History Month theme, Black Family: Representation, Identity and Diversity, we interviewed Dr. Vanessa Santiago Schwarz—teacher, parent educator, and mother of two young children on her approach to anti-racist parenting. 

Here’s what she had to say. 

Q: How did you enter your line of work?

I come from a multicultural, multilingual family and grew up in a predominantly white suburb of New York. My mother is from Puerto Rico and my father is the son of two Holocaust survivors, and these identifiers—as well as their intersection—often led me to feel “othered” by my community members and peers. At the same time, I benefit from many forms of privilege, including linguistic, skin, educational and financial privilege, and have committed to using these privileges to dismantle systems of oppression. 

My work focuses on supporting educators in culturally relevant, antiracist, and inclusive teaching practices. Since becoming a parent in 2015, I have continuously drawn upon my experiences as a teacher in an effort to raise race-conscious children who are committed to social justice. I share what I’ve learned as a teacher, professor, researcher, and mother with other parents who are looking for tools through anti-racist / anti-bias parenting workshops. 

Q: Why is it important to talk to your children about race and racism?

The harsh reality is that our children start receiving explicit and implicit messages about race from infancy and they can exhibit racial biases by age three. Being silent about racism sends a message to our children that the injustices they will inevitably see and/or experience are acceptable. Therefore, engaging our children in explicit conversations about race creates opportunities to provide them with an understanding that all races are equal, and should be treated fairly. This way, when they witness or experience stereotypes, discrimination or prejudice, they can draw on tools and knowledge to stand up for justice (Tatum, 2017). 

Teaching a child about racism

Q: Is there a certain age you should start talking to your kids about race and racism?

The earlier the better! Children as young as two have been shown to use race to reason about people’s behaviors (Hirschfield, 2008). There are certain things we do and say with our children from infancy to set habits for ourselves. Openly discussing race, social justice and advocacy from infancy will set a strong foundation for you and your family. For babies, this might start with reading books like A is for Activist and Antiracist Baby, and describing the different skin colors there are in your family, community and the world. Our kids are never too young to learn about race, and conversations about racism will start and look differently depending on a variety of factors in your family - but can be part of your everyday conversations from the start.  

Q: What should parents remember when approaching the conversation?

Remember that this is a journey and that conversations about race and (anti-)racism will need to be ongoing. When discussing race, start by just pointing out and celebrating diversity. If you live in an area that doesn’t have a lot of diversity, be intentional about the media you bring into your house. Show a range of experiences from people who have different—and similar—cultures, languages, family make-ups, races, etc. as you and your family. 

Q: Are there any must-have tools or resources when approaching this topic with your family?

There are so many great tools and resources out there for parents these days! Some of my favorite books for engaging in the important inner work that we need to do as parents in order to be prepared for conversations about race and (anti-)racism are:

 For a focus on parenting, I highly recommend these two resources: 

 For practice in engaging in these conversations, I invite parents to sign up for one of my workshops here. Talking through scenarios helps prepare us for the teachable moments. 

Q: What can parents do in the everyday to raise aware and compassionate children beyond the initial conversation?

There are so many opportunities to see and value diversity, and to point out injustices. One very tangible example is to notice (lack of) representation. For example, if you’re reading a book with your child and there are only white characters—point this out and discuss it. You might say, “I’m noticing that all the people in this book are white, which seems unfair because there are many more races that aren’t being shown here.” Or, to encourage empathy and advocacy, if you’re at a toy store and notice that all the dolls for sale are white, you might say, “I’m noticing that all these dolls are white. I wonder what it might feel like to look for a doll that has the same color skin as you, and not be able to find one. I’m going to talk to a manager about having more diverse dolls. Would you like to join me?” It’s important to make this optional and invite your child into the conversation, and not shame them if they do not want to participate. The most important thing we can do is model what it means to be aware of injustices and advocate for what’s right. 

Q: What do you wish people knew about anti-racist parenting? 

I wish people would know that mistakes are inevitable, and we should not let our fear of saying or doing something “wrong” stop of us from a commitment to anti-racist parenting. So much of my life is devoted to working towards social justice, and I make mistakes all the time!  But I also believe acknowledging these mistakes, learning from them, and working towards repair. Modeling this for my children offers important lessons in humanity. 

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share with parents hoping to talk to their children about social justice, racism and discrimination? 

Here are my general tips that I like to give parents for talking to their children about social justice, racism and discrimination: 

  1. Be explicit. Name your race and talk about race openly.
  2. See and celebrate differences. 
  3. Be careful about perpetuating stereotypes. 
  4. Use child-friendly language, but talk about realities openly and honestly.
  5. Recognize that this is a journey and there is no endpoint.

Take Action

Ready to get started? Even if you don’t have all the answers, you have the opportunity to challenge racism and celebrate diversity with your children, and that’s a pretty cool perk of being a parent! 

Visit www.VanessaSantiagoSchwarz.com to learn more about Vanessa’s work, receive her newsletter, or sign up for an upcoming workshop.  

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