As parents, we have a built-in instinct to shield our children from harm. As black parents raising black children, that instinct is sharply focused at all times. When the school year begins and we send our kids off to their first day of classes, we can’t help but wonder: Will they be treated poorly because of their race? Will they have to put up with the slurs and jokes, the name-calling and bullying? Will the bias of others – either implicit or explicit – affect their success in the classroom and their mental health?
These are the fears a mother carries with her, and they are not unfounded. A study from Northwestern University showed that children who are regularly exposed to racial discrimination are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety and increased stress levels. They might have trouble sleeping, experience mood swings or have difficulty concentrating. A study conducted by the University of Melbourne demonstrated a link between exposure to racism and a child’s levels of self-worth later in life.
That’s why having “The Talk” with our children before they go back to school is so important. Think of it as a conversation that not only addresses racism and bias directly but also fosters confidence rather than fear.
Here are some things to keep in mind when you have “The Talk” with your child.
Discuss the Challenges They Might Face
Racism can be explicit – in the form of racial slurs, jokes and racially motivated bullying or violence – or in the form of micro-aggressions, which can be far subtler. Your daughter might have been told she’s “pretty for a black girl,” or other students might assume your son “must play basketball” because he’s black. Your child might not even mention these incidents without prompting – which makes having “The Talk” even more vital.
Talk with your child about why others’ racially based assumptions aren’t correct – and affirm that your child doesn’t have to fit the mold of someone else’s preconceived notion. Then assure them that racism is not their fault. Tell them that their race is not the only thing that defines them – but that it’s also something to be proud of.
Provide Practical Solutions
You have the power to set the tone for “The Talk.” While it’s important to discuss the issues your kids will run into, focusing on the negative aspects alone can make them feel fearful or hopeless. Make sure to focus on solutions as well as challenges.
Discuss scenarios your child might face. If a schoolmate wants to touch your child’s hair, how can they deal with this situation? Can they calmly explain that they get constant attention for their hair, and that it can be hurtful to call it out over and over? Which authority figures can your child trust if there’s an issue that threatens their immediate safety? There’s no one “right” solution, but talking through different approaches – and even a concrete plan – can be helpful.
Self-affirmations are also useful tools. Go over one or several of the following affirmations with your child:
Make it a Conversation, Not a Lecture
“The Talk” should be just that – a two-way dialogue in which you listen as much as, or even more than, you speak. After identifying the forms of discrimination they might come up against, ask if they’ve ever had similar experiences. Then stop talking – and just listen. It may take a bit of patience and encouragement, but your child will likely open up and talk about the racism they’ve experienced at school – from their classmates, friends and even teachers. Their answers may surprise you and can inform how the conversation proceeds from there.
Share Personal Experiences They Can Relate To
Connect your child’s experiences with those from your own time at school. Talk about times when you were bullied, called names or treated differently by a teacher. Then talk about how you handled the problem, or how you wished you had handled it. By linking your experiences to your child’s, you instill trust and make them feel less alone.
Check in Regularly
Having “The Talk” with your child might seem daunting. Above all else, honesty and persistence are key. Be open with your child about what they might encounter and why you want to discuss it with them. Stress to them that they are in control of how they feel about themselves, and that you are there to support them through all the challenges they’ll face. And finally, don’t let “The Talk” be a one-time event. Instead, think of it as an evolving conversation you have with your child on a regular basis.
We’re not saying it’ll be an easy talk to have – in fact, it can be heartbreaking. You may feel overwhelmed by the topic, or fear that you’re doing more harm than good by bringing up these issues with your child. But by acknowledging that some classmates and teachers will judge your child based on the color of their skin, and then providing the tools they need to handle it, you can empower them – and keep them safe.