How To Talk To Children About Race
Expert Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum discusses how children perceive race, how parents’ own experiences with race impact how we raise our kids, and how we can guide our children to appreciate and celebrate each other
by Steve Silvestro, MD @zendocsteve
They called it too soon.
Think of how many times in the past 10-15 years that commentators and experts had declared that we’d moved into a “post-racial era.” Yet turn on the news today and you’re bound to see headlines that painfully point out that race issues are still a major cause of strife in America today. While we’ve certainly made some steps forward, there is plenty of progress left to be made.
We often like to tell ourselves that young children are “color-blind,” as if they don’t notice the color of their friends’ or others’ skin. Yet as my guest in this episode points out, it is our experiences with race as children — experiences that often don’t get talked about with the adults in our lives — that shape our understanding of and comfort with race as adults.
The key to raising a new generation of people who can adeptly discuss and navigate race-related issues is to talk about race with our children now, no matter how old they are.
Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum is here to show you how.
Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum is one of the nation’s leading experts on race, the psychology of race, and its role in the development of identity. She is the bestselling author of three books on race, including Why Are the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria: And
Other Conversations About Race, which has been rereleased as a 20th-Anniversary Edition this year. Dr. Tatum is the former president of Spelman College, a historically black college for women, and has spent decades leading national conversations about race. She is the recipient of the 2013 Carnegie Academic Leadership Award and the American Psychological Association’s 2014 Award for Outstanding Lifetime Contribution to Psychology, and is the 2017 Mimi and Peter E. Haas Distinguished Visitor at the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford University.
This was a fantastic conversation that every parent should read or hear.
Read our conversation below, or you can take a listen your favorite podcast app or the player below:
SS: I am very excited and honored to have the privilege to to sit and talk today with Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum about a very important topic. Dr. Tatum, thank you so much for coming today.
BDT: It’s my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
SS: So it has been 20 years now since you wrote the bestselling book ‘Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?’ And I know that you are probably asked a lot about how you view the situation of race in America since you first wrote this 20 years ago. I’d like to ask more for our conversation today about how you view conversations around race today. Has there been any change in these 20 years? Are they happening with more frequency or intensity? Are people more or less interested in talking about this?
BDT: Well, I think that real issue is whether there’s any improvement in our capacity to have the conversations. And I think to some degree there is in the sense that there are more children’s books, for example, that deal with diversity as a topic. They are more, uh, there’s certainly resources available to parents who want to have those conversations. But I think the real concern I have is that many people don’t take advantage of those resources in the sense that there’s still a lot of anxiety about the conversation. When I am invited to speak to groups of parents or teachers, and I ask: “How many of you have had an early race related conversation or race-related experience, um, from childhood that you can recall?” Most people will raise their hands. And if you ask about what the nature of that conversation, that experience was, what feeling is attached to it, most people will tell you that they have a memory that involves something that was confusing or made them sad or maybe felt angry or embarrassed or ashamed or something like that. A very uncomfortable feeling. And if we reflect on the way that four or five, six year olds typically communicate, they’re pretty candid. They don’t filter much. But if you ask people who will tell you they had an experience in their early childhood, if they had a conversation with an adult, a caring adult, that teacher or a parent, most people will tell you they did not. And so when you ask, “Well, why not? Why didn’t you share that experience?” They will usually, either they didn’t have the words or there was something that already had let them know they weren’t supposed to talk about it. And I think that silencing of our experience as it relates to race and racism in the United States today continues in ways that we might not think about very often, but certainly interfere with our ability to communicate as adults because we have so much unconscious awareness that we should not be talking about that feeling that it’s not supposed to be talked about.
SS: And so maybe that is why it’s so important to talk about it with kids from a young age, to get them already rolling with this idea that it’s something that we should and can and should invite talking about.
BDT: Yes. In the sense that, you know, now some people would say, well, race is just a fiction. I mean, those racial categories that we all use are not meaningfully biologically and we shouldn’t — and some people say this to me — we shouldn’t talk about them because it just underscores differences in ways that leave us feeling separated from one another. And that’s of course not the kind of conversation I’m talking about. But the kind of conversation I’m talking about is the kind of conversation that in which children ask questions, you know, “Why is Tommy’s skin brown? Why is her hair curly and mine is straight?” You know, “Why does Susie’s eyes have a different shape than mine?” You know, these are conversations that preschool children engage in and they are perfectly innocent questions and questions that can be answered without a lot of psychological baggage attached to it. But because people are so nervous about the conversations, they don’t respond to those questions, which tends to leave young children thinking that those differences must be bad in some way. And that is the start of unfortunately the kind of negative feelings we later realize turn into the kinds of prejudice we see among adults.
SS: So maybe something that I think that the listeners as parents, and I know we have some educators who listen too, maybe need to tackle themselves first, is where they stand on their own feelings about race. You know, I wanted to ask what is something that you think might be a challenge for someone to talk to their kids about race? But that might be the biggest challenge I suppose — figuring out their own feelings about it.
BDT: Well, yes, but I, you know, I think that of course, if someone has deeply held prejudices, they may talk to their children about race in ways that I would certainly not encourage like, you know, like “Don’t play with those people” or you know, “We don’t like those people” — then that’s not the kind of conversation I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is how do we help young children understand how recognize and embrace the differences that are among us relative to whether that’s physical appearance or you know, different religions. There are lots of differences that children experience, particularly in school settings that they can be helped to understand in ways that are welcoming and inclusive, not necessarily, in ways that reinforce the ideas of exclusion or separation.
SS: Yeah. And I want to get to some of that how in just a few moments, but I’d like to maybe figure out how race plays a role in kids’ development. I know that you’ve written a lot about race and identity. How does race fit into the development of one’s identity from young childhood, right on up through adulthood, because that’s going to frame some of the — certainly the feelings that someone has — but also the conversations that they might have with others.
BDT: Well, I think what we have to acknowledge is that we live in a race conscious society. And if you live in a society that is race conscious, then race will matter in terms of how you see yourself and other people. And I say it in that way because it’s not necessarily the case that how you are perceived in one society is the same as how you’d be perceived in another society. You know, I’m a light skinned black person in the United States and am perceived as black. That same light-skin person in South Africa would be perceived as colored, might be perceived differently in Brazil. Right? So social context makes a difference. It’s not the biology so much as it is the sociology of how we understand race in a particular setting. That said, if you grow up as a young white child in an environment where most of what you see in your kids’ books are young, white children, but most of what you see on television, young white children, if you live in a largely segregated community, which many people still do, you are unlikely to experience your racial group membership in a way that’s not necessarily part of your conscious reality, but just sort of as being the norm. As a student of mine said once trying to describe herself when asked to describe her, you know, her racial group membership rather than saying “I’m white,” she said “I’m just normal. I’m just the norm.” But if you are a member of a so-called minority group or are a person of color in a society that has a distinct white preference, you will certainly be aware of the fact that you don’t see yourself reflected as often in the environment, in the books, in the curriculum, in the classroom, who’s standing in front as the teacher, that kind of thing. And so as you mature, as you become an adolescent and start to ask the questions as all adolescents do, “Who am I? How do I fit in this society? What will I be in the future?” As you’re trying to think about those questions and the way that adolescents do, you will be thinking about “What role does my racial group membership play in that future? How will people perceive me? How do people perceive me? How do people, how does the police officer on the corner see me? How does the um, you know, person, the clerk in the store where I’m shopping perceive me?” All of these things are parts of the feedback that you’re getting as you are turning into a young adult and starting to think about who you are in the world.
SS: You touched a moment ago on the idea that young kids really do start to notice these things and recognize differences between us and among us. And I know that people often talk about color-blindness. You know, like every now and then you see some heartwarming video on social media that will have kids of different backgrounds playing with each other. And the end comment is always, “Kids are colored blind. Can’t we all be color blind?” But like you just said, kids do notice these things and in the book ‘Nurture Shock,’ Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman write that kids just simply haven’t been taught in a sense that society tells them they’re supposed to care about these differences. You know, we’ve talked a little bit about why we should talk about this. Can we talk about how can we introduce the concept of race to kids in a way that is helpful rather than limiting?
BDT: Well, there are two ways to think about this. One is the conversation about the physical differences that children notice and I do comment on them in my book ‘Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria and Other Conversations about Race.’ I have a whole chapter that’s devoted to conversations with young children talking about how they start to understand and recognize racial differences. And one of the stories I share in that book is one that comes from my own parenting. When my oldest son came home from preschool, he was about three years old at the time and he said, “Mom, Tommy says my skin is brown because I drink chocolate milk. Is that true?” And I of course had to laugh at the question, but I responded and said, “No, that’s not true. Your skin is brown because you have something in your skin called melanin. Everybody has some, the more you have the browner your skin is. Even Tommy has some.” And we talked about how when Tommy went to Florida and came back and showed everybody has tan and I reminded him of that and I said, “Melanin is what causes your skin to brown in the sun.” So I said, “Your skin is brown because you have melanin. Everybody has some. But at your school you are the kid with the most.” And that pleased my son, I have to say, the idea of having the most of something, but it did raise for me the question of who was talking to Tommy that, you know, the child had asked this question? Who was setting him straight? It was certainly wasn’t, um, out of meanness that Tommy was commenting. He noticed something. He had noticed that my son sometimes drank chocolate milk and it was a perfectly reasonable theory from Tommy’s point of view that it must be the milk that was causing Jonathan’s skin to be brown. But, um, the fact that this conversation was taking place probably over the cafeteria, the lunch table in a preschool center, um, maybe in the dress up area in the play area. I wondered what the teachers were saying. How were the teachers talking about difference? And when I went to the school, the teacher told me that the topic hadn’t really come up, that she was not aware of these conversations, which led me to believe that the children’s questions were going unanswered. But there are ways of course and books that have been written about how to talk about these kinds of differences with young children. One way came up very naturally with my son. The same child, a little bit later we were cooking together in our kitchen at home and I had taken out the last egg of a carton of eggs. It was a white egg. And then I needed one more egg and the next carton was a carton of brown eggs. So now I have a white egg and a brown egg on the counter. And my son notices that they’re different and comments on them. And I said yes, just like people, but watch this. And then I cracked open the white egg and then cracked open the brown egg. And of course, both yolks were the same. I said, people look different on the outside, but they’re the same on the inside, just like these eggs. And then we went on and made our pancakes. If you’re comfortable with the conversation, it’s not hard to have these conversations. But let’s imagine a scenario like this one. Let’s imagine a young white child, let’s make her a two- or three-year-old, is in the grocery store with her mom, and they see a dark skinned person in the aisle, maybe for the first time, if that white child has been living in a family where everyone’s white and in a neighborhood where most of the neighbors are white, that child might not have seen a black person in real life before. And so let’s imagine that child says in that loud, three-year-old voice: “Mommy, why is that person so dark?” Or perhaps even more embarrassing to the mother: “Mommy, why is that person so dirty?” And it is true that some preschoolers associate darkness with dirt, right? And so let’s imagine that were to happen. What would that parent likely say? The first response is likely to be “Shhh!” because it’s, you know, it’s embarrassing. I had a similar experience, different kind, but my same oldest son said: “Mommy, why is that person so fat?” And my first response was, “Shhh!” you know, and then I recovered and said, “Because people come in different sizes” in the same way someone could say, because people come in different colors just like they have different hair color or that’s not dirt honey, that’s just the color of his skin. People come with different skin shades just like they come with different hair colors. But it doesn’t have to be a traumatic moment in either the child or the parent’s life. But if you can respond in a natural way to those questions, these are just differences that people have no big deal, then it is easier for that child to see that difference as just part of life. Just like we see red and yellow flowers in the garden. Um, but when we’re talking about racism, it’s a little different, right? When we’re talking about racism, what we’re talking about is unfair treatment of people on the physical characteristics. And so let’s imagine that mother and child, the child’s a little older, maybe they’re watching news and they’re hearing about somebody being treated unfairly because of their race. How then does the parent answer those questions in that context? Certainly a parent can say: “Sometimes things are unfair and what we just saw was unfair.” And even though young children may not understand the “ism” words, you know, racism, sexism, antisemitism, these are words that are adult concepts. Every kid gets unfairness. Yes. And so when we talk about things being fair or unfair, um, and what is happening as unfair, it also helps to be able to talk about what adults are doing to make things more fair. Because we don’t live in a perfect world. Children will come to understand that unfair things happen. But I think it’s also important for them to recognize that there are adults who are concerned about that unfairness and are trying to make it better.
SS: I like how you said a few moments back about sort of making a point to point out the normal everyday occurrences as teaching moments.I think that that’s something that we often miss as parents. There are so many little moments throughout the day that you can use to teach big concepts. It doesn’t have to be a let’s sit around a dinner table and have a big formal discussion. You know, it’s these little moments that pass by. You also mentioned this idea that you may not be in a community where you have exposure to a lot of different people. Um, I remember when I was a kid, so I grew up in New Jersey in an area that was predominantly white, we had a large number of people from, from all kinds of backgrounds. My high school was probably about 50% white and then 50% of many different mixtures of backgrounds and ethnicities. And I have family in various places all over the country. And I remember my cousins from Oklahoma came to visit and we were in an ice cream shop at a dairy. And one of them said, “Wow, I’ve never seen this many black people before.” And to me it just seemed, you know, this is just normal. This is going to the ice cream place. But for people who live in an area where they don’t have exposure to too many different types of people, do you recommend that they, say, take “field trips?” Do we, do we make it a point to have exposure? Do you just rely on books? How can people who may not have that exposure expose their kids?
BDT: I think that’s a great question. And one of the statistics that I cite in my book is that, uh, based on a survey that was done in 2013 by an organization called PRRI, found that 75% of white adults had entirely white social networks — and in that sense, more socially isolated, more racially isolated than any other segment of the population. And if one of your listeners is in that category of, you know, living in an all white neighborhood, working in an all white setting, not having any way to connect with people across lines of difference, that would be difficult to create a more inclusive, multiracial, multicultural social environment for one’s children. That said, of course books can be a great way of beginning to have at least seeing pictures and recognizing that the world is more diverse in their particular community. Certainly there are more television shows today. There’s still some of them based on stereotypes that reflect the experiences of people of color. But I think that there are certainly ways to visit other communities as you said. I am a member of a church in Atlanta that is predominantly African American in its membership, but there are always visitors who come who represent other groups and they will stand up and say, you know, I’m visiting from X church, and sometimes adults there with their children. So there are ways I think to enter into other communities that expose children to, another way of seeing the world. However, I also want to say that it’s important for parents to think about the social networks that may be available to them. For example, while it is the case that somebody might have a social network that is made up primarily of white people, there may in fact be other people in their social organizations, whether that’s at work or civic organizations that they could be a part of where there might be an opportunity to meet adults of color. And if you get to know an adult of color, you will hopefully have an opportunity to expand that relationship to include their children. And so that is sometimes something that is very intentional, and can be — I’m thinking particularly of an example of something that’s happening in Atlanta where I live. There’s something called the Atlanta Friendship Initiative, which was started by two men businessmen in Atlanta, one white, one black. The initiative actually was the brainchild of the white gentleman. I write about this also in my book. His name is Bill Nordmark. And Bill was concerned that racism was still an issue in our country and in our community and wanted to see what he could do to help break down some of those racial barriers and reached out to someone he knew just casually, an African American man, and asked this man if he would be willing to spend time with him and deepen their relationship to become friends. And then they would invite other city leaders to do the same. A year later — this was actually launched last year — year later, there are now roughly 200 pairs of people who’ve been matched up who wouldn’t otherwise know each other. And the commitment that each person makes is that they will meet with their partner at least once a quarter, four times a year, and that they will have at least one family gathering with the two families represented during the course of the year. And while that sounds like a relatively small act, it’s been quite interesting to me to observe the testimonies that pairs have made about really starting to talk across lines of difference about some of these growing-up experiences that they had deepening their understanding of somebody else’s experience. And to the extent that they have children, they’re starting to create a social network for their children that might help them bridge some of those barriers when they themselves are adults. What I can say in summary is that parents who have a multiracial network are much more likely to have children who are comfortable in such a context.
SS: I love the idea of really having conversations and hearing people’s stories, you know, creating that space and the opportunity for those adults to share and really get to know each other. Now, how might conversations with children change as they age, as they’re older and can understand a little more nuance about what goes on in the world and how race is viewed. How do you recommend parents change their approach to those conversations?
BDT: Well, one of the things that I want to say is that often if children are attending a racially mixed school — and unfortunately a lot of children are still in segregated schools — segregation in some ways has increased over the last 20 years since I wrote my book.
SS: Can I ask about that for a moment? Someone might not know how or why — is that sort of self-segregation?
BDT: Well, certainly self-segregation in the form of white flight, but so why is it that, you know, 60 years after Brown vs Board of Education, more than 60 years, our schools are more segregated today than there were 20 or 30 years ago? There are a couple of answers to that question. One of the answers is that in school districts where school busing was put in place or other desegregation methods were put in place, some white families responded by moving out of those districts. So, you know, not wanting their children to be bused, they moved away. And as a consequence, there are lots of cities — Boston is an example where the response to school busing was to leave the school district. Certainly that’s true in lots of places around the country. So if you have the opportunity to move away as many white families did, they have often moved out of urban areas into suburban areas where there’s a much less diverse population leaving behind brown and black families who didn’t have the same mobility, primarily for income reasons. But there are other reasons as well. And that has to do, some of that has to do with Supreme Court decisions. So since the Brown decision in 1954, there have been other Supreme Court decisions in the eighties and nineties and more, the most recent one in 2007 where the court has limited the actions that school districts can take. For example, in some places schools created what we call magnet schools. You know, if I create a school with a special program and put it, let’s say in a black community, I might draw white students into that community because they want access to that special school, that special program, or it might, um, however the school is situated, the fact that it has something special is going to draw people from lots of different neighborhoods and create a diverse environment. However, when schools use such a program, they typically in the past would count how many white kids, how many black kids, how many Latino kids, how many Asian kids to make sure they were getting the right mix. What happened is that in a couple of instances, white parents who wanted their children to be able to go to one of those schools and were not able to get their kids enrolled sued the school for discrimination. And the Supreme Court ruled that it is no longer legal for schools to take race into consideration when making school assignments. So some school districts responded to this court ruling by essentially saying, you know, “Our magnet program can’t work if we can’t count,” right? “If we can’t, if we can’t pay attention to who’s coming and what our distribution is, it makes the program ineffective.” And so as a consequence of not wanting to get into more lawsuits or you know, other legal hassles, a lot of school districts have reverted to basically using neighborhoods as the primary determination of who goes to what school. And to the extent that neighborhoods remain segregated and if kids are going to their local neighborhood school, they are by default going to a segregated school. So in order to change that, people would have to be more intentional about choosing to live in a racially mixed neighborhood or encouraging more diversity within the homogeneous neighborhoods in which they currently reside. And we have not seen that happen.
SS: Yeah. I’m sorry, I sort of diverted us. I guess we were starting off about how the conversations might change with age —
BDT: Yes. So let me say, what about that? So yes, well, if kids are in racially mixed schools, which unfortunately a lot of times they’re not, but if they are in a racially mixed school, what you often find is that, in the elementary school ages, you know, kindergarten, first, second, third grade, children do interact very easily across racial lines and often their social friendships are quite diverse. If they’re going to school together, you know, they’re inviting each other to parties, birthday parties, they are spending time outside of school together. If that is, you know, logistically possible if they’re in a similar neighborhood and it’s not too hard to get to one another’s homes, that happens. But what you start to see as children get older as they approach puberty is what I call the “Birthday Party Effect,” which is to say you start to see more racial separation. I think some of that has to do, historically I would say, it had to do more with parental anxieties than the fact that the children are changing. But as children enter adolescence, as they’re more concerned about dating, dating partners, all of that, you start to see black kids excluded from the white children’s parties in a way that reflects parental anxieties about those adolescent teen years and how those friendships might change. That said, so that’s one change and that change is driven by parents more than by the children themselves. But the other thing that you see in schools is that as children get older and they move into middle school and high school is you start to see tracking in the school, “ability grouping.” Certainly when you’re in a self-contained classroom, you might have children reading at different levels — you know, the blue reading group, the red reading group, the green reading group. But when they get to middle school, they get tracked into different classes so they’re not actually in the same classrooms together. And because that tracking often falls along racial lines you find that you’ll have, even in a racially mixed school, you’ll find that the honors track, or in high school, the advanced placement track, is much more likely to be populated by white students than by black or Latino students. And so because kids have different class schedules, they’re likely to be eating lunch at different times. They’re certainly not getting to know each other as well because they’re in different classrooms. And you start to see that racial separation, which manifests itself in the cafeteria, as well. You’re really just starting to get funneled down almost institutionally to who you’re going to be hanging out with. And yes, and it’s important to say, I talk about this in my book, it’s important to say because some listeners might say, “Well, you know, kids of different abilities should be in different categories,” but it’s pretty clear there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that your racial group membership has a lot to do with how you are being categorized. There have been studies that show that black kids whose scores on standardized tests are higher than some of their white peers are still not placed in the same groups with those white peers. So it is not strictly an assessment of ability that is driving that separation.
SS: How can that be addressed?
BDT: Well, I think it can be addressed, but you know, you have to have administrators and others who are willing to address it. This is where the conversation about racism becomes important, right? Because you know, sometimes those decisions are being made by assumptions, by stereotypes, unconscious biases that creep in. And unless a school district is paying attention, unless a school district is being very intentional in making sure that racial stereotypes, racial biases are not playing a factor in those distributions, that’s what you get, you know, unless you’re paying attention to counteract it.
SS: Yeah. I’d like to talk about something that may apply to a smaller number of listeners, but I think would be good for everyone to hear about the experience of others and how things might go. How do you recommend families who are mixed talk about all of this with kids? I know we’ve got some listeners where parents are of different races — If I can tell a brief story of some good friends of ours — both parents are white. They have two adopted boys who are African American and they have one son of their, their own naturally, who is also white, and they had an experience one or two summers ago at our pool where the youngest son, the white oneand the older two are African American, and the middle child and the youngest were wrestling at the pool. And some parent who didn’t know who they are came over and pulled them off of each other and essentially yelled at the middle child and said, “Don’t you dare do that to him!” And they said, “We’re brothers,” and the person didn’t believe them. That’s an experience that many families don’t have to deal with or even recognize might exist, but I’m sure brought on some, some heavy conversations or big conversations in that family.
BDT: Well, you’re exactly right. I mean, unfortunately it is very important for multi-racial, whether they’re multiracial because of a multiracial, interracial marriage or mixed race children or multiracial through adoption as the family you described, um, be able and comfortable to talk about the fact that race matters and impacts them differently. You know, the child, the white child in that family is going to have a different life experience and has already had a different life experience than the two African American children who are part of that family. And sometimes adoptive parents are uncomfortable talking about race. Sometimes adoptive parents take the attitude that they don’t need to talk about it because you know, love is all we need. But in fact, as that family experienced, racism is real and they encounter it in their daily lives. And so being able to talk about not just, “isn’t this horrible that these things happen,” but “here’s how we can address it.” You know, “here’s how we can support each other.” You know, “here’s how you, white child in the family, need to speak up for your brother when you see this happening.” You know, “here’s how I, as the white parent in the family, am working against racism in the wider world to ensure that it’s a better place for all of our family.” ?These are the kinds of conversations that people can have and being part of some — some families will join organizations — you know, there are social organizations that are specifically designed for multiracial families. So there’s a sense of shared experience and support, which can be very useful. But if you talk to people who have, sometimes within the family, I mean, there’ll be conversations much like the ones we were talking about with younger children, you know, “Mom, why don’t we look the same?” You know, and explaining that even — I’ll use my family as an example. I identify as African American, but I have light skin. My husband identifies as African-American, but he has dark skin. Our children are a mix of the two of us. So, you know, if we were all standing together, each of us has a slightly different shade. Right? And when my children were quite young, they would sometimes ask me about the color of my skin and why it was different from theirs. And I would talk about the fact that African Americans come in different shades. You know, it was not, it wasn’t a heavy conversation, but it was just a matter of fact explanation in the same way. I think parents who are raising — white parents who are raising children of color often have to learn some of that language because it wasn’t part of their experience growing up. In my book there’s a chapter on multiracial families and the experiences that they have. And one of them is white parents talking to their adolescent sons of color. In particular about managing what happens if you should be stopped by a police officer. You know, black parents will often talk about having that conversation with their children, but I think it’s not a common conversation for white parents to have with white children and, and so, you know, thinking about what is my child’s experience likely to be and how is it going to be different from mine is just part of that parenting in order to be a responsible period.
SS: In these conversations, is there anything that you — besides just, you know, outright negative, racist views — is there anything that you think parents should avoid saying or stray away from? Any particular words? The reason I ask is that when I was in college, I took part in a small group that was a training to then facilitate other groups, to have conversations about diversity in general. And I remember the facilitator at the time had said, “Well, you know, the big buzzword right now is ‘tolerance’ and I hate the word ‘tolerance.'” And she explained that to tolerate somebody is many steps lower than accepting and maybe even cherishing somebody. And so she hated that the thing that she was teaching was using this word tolerance. Are there things that you think parents should make sure they say or stay away from saying, knowing that of course we’re all gonna mess up as parents here and there?
BDT: Yeah, I think that’s a great question. You know, I, it’s not like there are particular words, so I, I certainly appreciate that comment about tolerance. I mean, the goal is not to tolerate other people. I think from my point of view, the goal is to appreciate other people for who they are, to make everyone feel welcome, and to create spaces where we can all be at our best. And so that’s how I think about it. I was raised with the golden rule: “Treat people the way you’d like to be treated.” I find that works pretty well. But the fact of the matter is, though, that there are, I think if, if you’re thinking developmentally, I think it’s important to be clear with children, particularly young, who, you know, can be easily frightened. I write in my book about a conversation I had with one of my sons about slavery. He was four years old and I was not expecting to have a conversation with slavery with a four year old. That was not on my list of things to do. But it came up in our conversation because this is how the conversation unfolded: He was again talking to me, we were in the grocery store shopping. He was sitting in the cart and he asked me about the fact that one of the kids in his class said he was black. And he asked me if he was black and I said, yes, he is, but here’s — this is a common, you know, young child conversation — he said, “But my skin is brown.” And I said, “Well, yes, you’re right. Your skin is brown.” I said, “Black people, you know, the term black is sometimes used to describe people who came from Africa, African-Americans, and you are an African American and so am I.” And I said, “But you’re right, your skin isn’t really the color black, but that’s a term people use to describe African Americans.” And I said, “Just like they use the term white to describe people who came from Europe, European-Americans, but they’re not really white.” At which point he said to me, “Yes they are.” I said, “No Jonathan, they’re more like pink or beige or you know, and some even light brown.” And he was very insistent that white people were really white. And I had my grocery list written on a white piece of paper and I said, “This is white, right?” We agreed. I said, “They don’t look like this.” He said, “Yes they do.” I was, it was cracking me up actually. But then I said, “No they don’t.” And then I said, realizing that young children learn from actual experience, I said, “Let’s go find one and see.” So we went down the aisle. We were in a grocery out by ourselves, turn the corner, sure enough there was a white woman shopping. I whispered in his ear, “She doesn’t look like this.” He agreed that she did not. But then the question really was not, you know, what did these terms black and white mean? My concern was how is my son understanding the fact that someone is saying he’s black? Is he hearing that as a negative? Is he hearing that as there’s something wrong thing black? I wanted to ensure that he had a positive sense of his group membership. So I started talking about how he should feel proud about being an African American. And I started talking about good things about Africa and when I was talking about the wonders of ancient Africa, he said to me, “If Africa is so great, what are we doing here?” Yeah. And then you know, I didn’t see how I could answer that question without explaining to this four year old how slavery happened. So I gave him my four year old version and certainly readers can find that story in all its detail in my book. But the main thing I wanted to be sure about was that I didn’t want to frighten him. And so this idea that people could be captured and made into slaves, I wanted to make sure that he understood. This was a long time ago. He was never a slave. I was never a slave. His grandparents, nobody he knew had ever been a slave. It was a long time ago. And I also wanted him to understand that good people, white people as well as people of African descent, those enslaved Africans worked together to end slavery. There were white allies who thought it was wrong. There were black people who worked hard to earn or escape to take their freedom into their own hands — So that he would have a sense of, um, black people as empowered and able to take action on their own behalf, but also white people who could be allies. Both messages were important to me. And I think anytime we’re talking about social injustice of whatever kind, we should always be clear in acknowledging that social injustice has existed — sometimes still exists, does still exist — but that there are also people who are working to make it better. And to the extent that we can model how you work to make it better for our children, I think we help them see themselves as potential agents of change as well.
SS: Yes, I think that’s so important. You know, one of the things I have wanted to try and touch on is, is how do we explain these more complex ideas of white privilege and institutional injustice, and yet do so in a way that maybe makes kids of color not feel as if they are just destined to be boxed in? And maybe at the same time for white kids to have just enough guilt, you know, to feel like they’ve got to do something about it or appreciate it, but maybe not — you know, to basically make it so that everybody can feel like there’s a place to move forward. I mean maybe first, I know we’re getting low on time, but maybe if you can in a, in a moment explain what these topics are and maybe why it’s so hard for some people to recognize them.
BDT: Well, I want to use an example of — I’ve had the good fortune having worked on the issues of racism for a long time. I’ve had the great fortune of teaching students about the psychology of racism and writing about those things. I was thinking as we were speaking about a friend of mine who is a white woman who also does anti-racism/un-learning racism trainings. She and I have often done work together and she taught me a story of her own son who was maybe seven or eight at the time, just, you know, a second or third grade child, riding a school bus. And he was on the bus and got off the bus from school, clearly upset about something and she asked him what was wrong. And he began to tell her what had happened — that on the bus there were some older boys who were picking on a child with a disability. And that child, I don’t know exactly what the disability was, but a child who clearly was disabled in some way on the school bus being picked on by these older boys, being bullied. And they were tossing spitballs and calling names, doing mean things on the bus. And this was very upsetting to her eight year old to witness. And these boys were older than he was. He didn’t know what to do. And it was very upsetting to him. So when he was telling his mom about this story, she asked him, “Well, what did you do?” And he said, “I didn’t know what to do. I just got up and sat with the boy.” And I thought that was so moving. It was such a great example of how to be an ally. You know, he didn’t take on those other boys. He just, you know, sat in solidarity with that kid who was being picked on. And I’m sure it made that child feel better, less isolated, less alone. And it certainly took some courage for that eight year old to get up out of his seat and go sit with the kid who was being picked on. But I think it is a great example of how when we teach children to recognize unfairness, to understand that there is a history of people speaking up against unfairness and that there are things that even they can do as eight year olds to stand with somebody else who is being targeted, whether it’s for their race or their gender or their sexual orientation or their physical ability or their religion. There are ways that each of us can be allies for each other, and that’s an important lesson for every child.
SS: How do we talk about that when it’s a big authority figure — say a parent or a teacher, or, say the President of the United States — who may be speaking or writing about race in inflammatory ways?
BDT: Yes. So when we see that there are adults who are not providing the kind of example that we want our children to have, I think we have to be able to articulate that to say, “Here’s why I am concerned about the language that this adult is using. Here’s why I think that person is wrong. Here’s what we believe. Here’s what our values are.” I don’t know if you have seen this video of a speech that was given by the superintendent of the U.S. Air Force Academy just in the last few weeks. For your listeners who might not have seen it, there is a video in which there was a racial incident at the Air Force Academy where someone was writing racial slurs on the doors of black cadets at the Air Force Academy and the superintendent of the Academy wanted to speak to the whole Air Force Academy community about this and called everyone together and gave a very powerful speech. It’s not long. You can find it on YouTube probably. I saw it on Twitter. But it’s about five minutes long in which he talks about the fact that, you know, using racial slurs and attacking people on the basis of their racial group membership is a bad idea. And he says that the way to work against a bad idea is to bring a better idea. And the better idea he has, the better idea that the Air Force Academy stands for, is one of embracing diversity, is one of recognizing that diversity is the strength of the armed forces — to recognize that diversity and create an environment where everyone is respected and treated with dignity is part of their core value. And then he says very candidly, “If you don’t want to embrace these values, then you don’t need to be here. You don’t belong here if you can’t embrace those values.” And while parents might not say to a child, you know, “you don’t belong here” — I’m not suggesting that — but what I am suggesting is that there’s real value in being clear about what you believe. And if you believe that people should be treated with respect and dignity, you should be crystal clear about that. And when you see someone behaving in a way that is counter to that, then you have to say, “I don’t agree with that. We in this family don’t believe that’s how people should be treated. We in this family don’t agree with that point of view.” And to model that behavior, not just with words, but with actions. Because of course if you say, you know, “we should treat everyone with respect” and then you don’t, it counteracts what you’re saying. But if what you say and what you do are aligned, there’s no better example for young people than to see the adults they care about modeling that behavior and showing them how it’s done in the world.
SS: Absolutely. So where do we go from here? What do you hope for future generations when it comes to race? How do you think we can get there?
BDT: Well, one of the reasons I wrote my book, the 20th edition, the 20th anniversary edition, was because I really wanted to update it. Of course, you know, new information — all of that is included in the book — but it seems to me that progress, you know, is often two steps forward, one step back. I think we have in my lifetime seen progress, but over the last decade or two we’ve also seen a lot of backward motion. I think right at this moment in the year 2017, we are seeing backward movement, you know, backward movement in our society. And so if we are to move forward again, I think we all have to take responsibility for engaging these conversations with ourselves, our peers, our adults, but also with our children. And to help them feel the confidence they need to think critically about what they see happening around them and to be able to speak up about it. I think the silence we have a fostered in our society about race and racism in particular has been to our detriment because you can’t solve a problem if you can’t talk about it. Yeah. So engaging in those conversations at the community level, um, on college and university campuses, I’m a big advocate of intergroup dialogue because those conversations, those intergroup conversations really help people deepen their understanding of each other and ultimately what they can do together to improve our society. There’s research-based evidence to suggest that intergroup dialogue has very positive effects on those who participate. You yourself made reference to learning how to facilitate some groups when you were in college, and we know that both kinds of experiences, those cross-racial, cross-group experiences where there’s structured opportunity for dialogue, make a positive difference for all of those who participate. So we need to create more of those opportunities and we don’t just have to do it in colleges and universities. We can do it in our own home communities meeting in libraries, meeting in civic groups. There’s a wonderful example in my book of an organization called the Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, which is housed at the University of Mississippi. And one of the things that the Winter Institute does is provide facilitators for local communities who want to have cross group dialogue in their towns. And they’ve had very positive impacts in the places where they’ve done that work. You don’t have to live in Mississippi or be in a college or university to begin to have some of those conversations. I find that book clubs can be a great way to start a conversation for people who are wondering, “Well, how could I do that?” You know, you could invite a small group of people to your home and say, “We’re all gonna read this book together and talk about it,” and that can be a great way to get started.
SS: Do you have any particular resources that you can recommend to parents for a little more guidance on how to get started?
BDT: For sure. In my, in my book, ‘Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? and Other Conversations About Race,’ there’s a very extensive bibliography of course, but in the chapter on talking to young children about race, I make particular reference to a book that is available from the National Association for the Education of Young Children. It’s called The Anti-Bias Curriculum, and it has lots of great ideas about how to have conversations with young children.
SS: Thank you so much, Dr. Tatum. This has been fantastic. I really, really appreciate this.
BDT: Well, thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate the work that you’re doing in providing such a resource for parents and families.
Important Resources for You to Check Out:
- Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria: And Other Conversations About Race – Beverly Daniel Tatum
- Can We Talk About Race? And Other Conversations In An Era Of School Resegregation – Beverly Daniel Tatum
- Assimilation Blues: Black Families In White Communities, Who Succeeds And Why – Beverly Daniel Tatum
- NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children – Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman