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The Talk That All White Parents Need To Have With Their Kids

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Mother having discussion with son
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Cameron Welch, an 18-year-old Black teen, recently went viral for his powerful TikTok video sharing the rules his mom gave him just so that he could exist in public. The list is long, and might be shocking to many white parents because it includes things like “don’t put your hands in your pockets” and “don’t touch anything you’re not buying.” The list is heartbreakingly comprehensive and covers all those daily activities many of us white folks simply take for granted. Things like browsing in a store and what clothes to wear and how to act in an interaction with the police.

I tell you what, my parents were fairly strict when I was growing up, but their rules never had to include ways to avoid getting shot by the police, that’s for sure.

A few years ago, right around the time that Philando Castile was shot during a traffic stop, I was pulled over for not using my turn signal. I was annoyed and embarrassed, but instead of hassling me, the officer gave me the benefit of the doubt and checked to make sure my tail lights were working (they were) and then ended the stop with a “have a nice day.” I didn’t worry about having my hands clearly on the wheel. I didn’t think about teaching my kids how to act when confronted by the police. I worried about whether I’d get a ticket (a small one, at that) and if it would delay us in our travels.

This is privilege, my friends. HUGE fucking privilege.

Most of us have heard about “the talk” parents of Black children have with them from a very young age. I won’t presume to know how this talk (or rather many talks) go but I suspect it looks a lot like the rules that Cameron Welch’s mom gave him. It includes constant reminders so that Black children are prepared from a young age about how to handle interactions with the police in order to protect their safety.

As a white person, this is not a talk I heard as a child, nor is it a talk I have had with my children.

Because I’ve had the privilege to not have this talk, I have an obligation to have another kind of talk.

White parents, we have an obligation to talk to our kids about how to be upstanders against racism. To tell them that whenever they see an interaction between a Black person and the police or another authority figure, they have an obligation to bear witness to that — not as an instigator or a “savior,” but to observe and possibly document and to, yes, step in if the need arises. Because the fact of the matter is, white bodies and white voices are afforded a safety that black and brown bodies are not.

I have been explicitly clear to my white sons that it is their obligation to use the power and privilege that comes along with being white in America to defend Black and brown lives. And yes, that might even include putting their bodies between the police and a person’s body, the ways these folks did when they formed a barrier to shield Black protesters from the police. It means using their voice to stand up to racism. It means risking their own comfort for other’s equality.

We white parents also have an obligation to talk to our kids about how to listen to Black people and really hear what they are saying, to see their pain, and then to commit to doing better. We need to teach our kids that Black voices might express their pain in many ways, and it is not our place to judge the ways in which someone communicates their experiences or opinions.

We have an obligation to teach our kids to understand that racism is always at play to some extent. Always. This is a concept I didn’t really understand until reading this explanation shared by Corinne Shutack in the article 75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice:

“A wise former teacher once said, ‘The question isn’t: Was the act racist or not? The question is: How much racism was in play?’ So maybe racism was 3% of the motivation or 30% or 95%. Interrogate the question ‘How much racism was in play?’ as you think about an incident. Share this idea with the people in your life when they ask, ‘Was that racist?’”

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We have an obligation to talk to our kids about how to stand up to others in the face of both blatant and subtle racism, even when it comes from someone like a teacher, neighbor, grandparent, or friend. Or maybe even inside themselves.

We have an obligation to teach our kids how to unlearn all that we have been taught. Because yes, we live in a racist, white supremacist society whether we want to acknowledge that or not. These messages are inherent and woven into the very fabric of America. We need to do the hard work of unlearning these things. We need to teach them to continually confront their own inherent biases, to question everything, to peel back the layers of society to understand the historical (and often brutal) background to things we’ve taken for granted as “the ways things are.”

We have an obligation to teach our kids how to respond when called out on their own racism and biases and missteps. Because they will misstep. Lord knows, I have made a ton of mistakes that were humbling at best, shameful at worst. We need to teach our kids to respond with humility, atonement, and a commitment to make it right, without defensiveness. Because defensive centers their emotions, diverts focus from dismantling racism, and causes further harm.

And we have an obligation to have these talks not just with our kids, but with our parents, our friends and even ourselves. It isn’t up to Black people to fix a system that was created by white folks to benefit white folks. It isn’t enough to teach our kids to be kind and inclusive and equitable; we can’t teach our kids to be nice and to “not see color.” We need show our kids how to be boldly anti-racists — not just when it’s convenient but always.

We have the privilege to not have that painful talk Black parents need to have to protect their beautiful children’s lives. And because of that, we have an obligation to have so many other ones.

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