ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Talking With White Children About George Floyd

Summer 2020

By Ali Michael

Following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May, many white people have been asking me, “What is the right thing to say to my white children about George Floyd?”
There is no one right thing to say, of course. But, for those who ask, I share my approach to talking with my own white children about race and racism. If we do this thoughtfully and steadily—which is to say daily or weekly—our children won’t end up grasping at troubling stereotypes every time a conflict arises. Instead, they will have a much clearer picture of the systemic causes of racism—and understand that George Floyd’s murder took place in the context of such systems of division, injustice, and discrimination.

Laying the Foundation

I frequently talk with parents about how to talk to white children about race, often using “What White Children Need to Know about Race,” an Independent School magazine article I wrote with Eleonora Bartoli, as a starting point. Many white adults were raised, as I was, to be colorblind; thinking that it’s rude to talk about race, that it’s impolite to notice racial difference, that there is no reason for white people to talk about racism. Others were raised with overt racism from their parents and, not wanting to replicate their own socialization, have no idea what to say to their children. Both of these experiences of racial socialization render us without instinct for how to talk about race in a way that helps our children learn how to be anti-racist. Often we are just quiet or we wait for them to bring it up. But what we don’t realize—until they get older—is that our silence leaves space for others to teach our children what to believe about race.
Racial socialization scholars Wade Boykin and Forrest Toms say that what you do “consistently, persistently, and in an enduring manner” is your manner of socialization. If you avoid conversations about race and racism most of the time and address it only during times of conflict or once a year when you go see Hidden Figures, then silence about race and racism is your mode of racial socialization. Talking about race on a regular basis—in an anti-racist way—even if it is imperfect, is how to racially socialize your children to be racially literate and anti-racist. Racial socialization is about engaging, engaging, and continuing to engage––even when it seems like they’re not listening, even when you’re not sure what to say.
The children we are raising today are members of a multiracial 21st century society in which racial competency is required. Our children cannot navigate and dismantle racism in themselves, their relationships, and their communities if they cannot talk about race.

How to Start

I don’t think it’s ever too early to start naming skin color and recognizing critical media analysis in the books we read and the movies we watch. At young ages—from birth—we can bring up skin color and racial identity as a normal part of conversation and of life. Young kids need words to describe the people around them, and skin color can be part of that. My colleague Deidre Ashton compares it to sex ed. Before age 5, we really just give them the correct names for body parts and a few basic rules (i.e. “They are called privates because they are for you—not for anybody else.”) As they get older, they are ready to hear more nuance around sex, and it goes more smoothly if they’re already comfortable with using the names for body parts and understanding some of the basic rules.
It’s also important as kids get older to help them differentiate between racist talk and racial talk, a concept that comes from anthropologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant. Some kids will accuse people of racist talk, simply for mentioning the colors brown and white, even outside the context of skin. I still remember being a camp counselor at 18 years old and asking kids if they want “brown bread” or “white bread.” One white 12 year old camper said, “You’re racist! You’re making us choose between brown and white!” The bread incident was not racist or racial. We were talking about bread. But kids—especially middle schoolers—know how to raise the temperature of the room by throwing around the “r-word.” And it doesn’t help them get clear about what kind of talk is racist or how to confront it when they encounter it. Racist talk is talk that perpetuates racism and racial stereotypes. Racial talk is talk that enables us to talk about the ways that race is a part of ourselves, our identities, our communities, and ultimately to talk about racism in a way that helps us to work against it.
I have tried with my 9-year old daughter and with my 7-year-old son to lay the foundation, the vocabulary, and the comfort of talking about race. We’ve talked often about race, racial categories, and the fact that everyone has a race. We’ve talked about the fact that we’re white. I’ve shared information from books that I read. I’ve tried to insert history into what my daughter learns at school so that she won’t see the racism of today as disconnected from the founding of our country. I find that the more my daughter is capable of understanding abstract thought, the more likely she is to question what I say. This is good; if kids were to just absorb our “teachings” unquestioningly, we would not be raising critical thinkers. As they age, we need to co-construct the conversation even more alongside them, welcoming their thoughts and sharing our own ideas, knowing that sometimes our ideas will be rejected.
This fall my daughter and I had a fight when two police officers came into her classroom to read books to the fourth graders. I was quiet when she told me this on our walk home from school. She expected a response, and she knew what I was thinking: “Why don’t you respond? You think it’s a bad thing, don’t you! You don’t know these police officers. They were kind! What if we needed them to come to our house in an emergency? You can’t judge them just because they’re police.” She had her whole argument planned out before I even opened my mouth.
I agreed with her and affirmed her righteous indignation. But I also added that it’s not individual police officers I distrust; it’s how much power they have within our system.  And I said, “I really believe the police officers would keep us safe if we needed them.  And I always felt safe with police when I was growing up. But I also believe that if they went to the home of one of our black friends, that safety would not be guaranteed. And so I question whether it’s smart to set up school programs in which your black friends are taught to trust police without any other discussion.” She was furious. She didn’t want to hear it. After more back and forth, my son—who hates conflict—threw himself on the flames of our conversation: “Blame me, OK? Just blame me!” he shouted. She and I laughed at his reaction, and we let it go. 

The Current Context

I didn’t initially intend to tell my kids about George Floyd. We have talked about police brutality a lot in their short lives, and I haven’t always felt right about it. I remember when my daughter was 3 telling our rabbi during the prayers for healing that she wanted to pray for all of the black men killed by police. That day stands out because one of the families in the service was multiracial—and it occurred to me in that moment, that the parents might not want their 3-year-old black son to hear about police brutality against black men from a white family at a Shabbat service. I realized that what for me felt like critical anti-racism education could, in fact, feel like an unexpected assault to their child. All of our kids need to learn about police brutality eventually—in no small part so that they can keep themselves and their friends safe—but we also don’t want them to be terrified at a young age by facts that they cannot process. At 3 or even 6, a child cannot keep threat (particularly threat targeted on their own group) in its proper proportion. So while my daughter and I would continue to discuss race and racism at home, I started being more careful about how and when I shared details of police brutality and murder during those early years. I didn’t want her to continue to amplify that message in our multiracial community before she and her peers could fully understand it. I also didn’t want it to seem like a natural part of life. When she learned about it, I wanted her to be outraged.
Two days after George Floyd’s murder, my daughter asked me, “Who was George Floyd?” She had seen his name come up on a news site as she opened her schoolwork. When she asked, I stopped what I was doing, looked her in the eyes, and told her who George Floyd was and what had been done to him. I used plain language, and I answered her follow-up questions. After acquiring all the details she was prepared to ask about, she stared back at the computer and started to cry. “That’s so sad,” she repeated over and over.
She continued to ask questions and express her sadness the rest of the afternoon. She needed to continue to process it. She wanted me to say that George Floyd’s family would be vindicated, that they would get money from the government, that the police officer would go to jail, that at least Floyd’s children would have the opportunity to slap the police officer. I agreed that all of that is what should happen, but I was honest about the fact that I don’t know if it is what will happen. That made her cry harder. I tried to sit with her in her grief and talk it through, just as I would if a family member had died.
She went back to our conversation about police coming to her school, and she asked, “Is this why you said we shouldn’t trust police who come to our school?” I found myself waffling, suddenly trying to reassure her that not all police officers are such heartless murderers, that many have taken a knee in the protests, that they many want safety and protection for everybody. I told her yes, but there are lots of police who don’t do this. “But they all could do this,” she said. 
In grief and in anger, we co-constructed this situation yet again, with her asking me not to go easy on police. Throughout the whole interaction, I felt in awe of her capacity to access sadness at injustice, sadness at the death of somebody she didn’t know. It is that emotional connection that I want to continue to cultivate and support––in her and others. I have heard parents question whether they should let their white children cry about racism because of the fear that they will be fragile. White tears in the context of fragility are to be avoided when white people use crying to avoid engaging, to avoid culpability, to shut down conversations on racism, or to focus those conversations on themselves and their own pain. But I believe that white people need to cry about racism—long and hard. We need to cry and feel the sadness. At the appropriate age, our children need to cry about it, too. Crying about racism is part of learning about racism. And what better place to do it than in the context of a loving and supportive family, where the crying helps to create connection to the focus, rather than distract from the focus?

Building Blocks

There was a silent presence in this conversation—my son. Throughout my conversation with my daughter, he listened. He didn’t say much. I think he took in what he was capable of, and if he’d been emotionally ready to join the conversation, I believe he would have. But he stayed on the outside, and I think that’s OK for now. He does have a foundation for thinking critically about police. 
When he was five, he became very interested in the police. He had the fire station Lego set, and he wanted the police station Lego set. He also had seen the police station in our community where they keep all of the police cars, and he wanted to visit. I didn’t buy him the police Legos, but I did agree to drive him to a parking lot near the station where he could look at the squad cars in the parking lot.
The whole time we were driving, I was thinking about how this excursion would be different if we were black. Would I even feel comfortable driving him to the police station? And what message would I want to send him about police? I didn’t want to shame him for being interested in police, and I didn’t want to give him the impression that all police are bad or untrustworthy. But I wanted him to know that police make mistakes and have bias like all of the rest of us, and that their authority to use violence makes them especially dangerous to people they have bias against. We sat together in the car, next to the parking lot of the police station, and looked at the patrol cars for a while. I’ve learned that if I’m going to critique something my child is interested in, I should engage in it first, understand his interest. Simply leaping to a negative critique of something that excites him would make him feel ashamed—and it could distance him from whatever I’d say next.
After we left the parking lot, I asked, “Do you know that police officers sometimes make mistakes?” He was intrigued. I said, “Yeah, sometimes they accuse people with brown skin of doing something wrong when they didn’t do anything wrong.” He said, “That’s mean! Why do they do that?” I said, “Well sometimes in movies and TV shows they make it seem like brown people are criminals, and police officers get those ideas in their heads. But did you know that brown people don’t commit more crimes than white people?”
He sucked his thumb quietly for a bit. I could tell he was thinking about it. I didn’t really know what to say. I didn’t know if this was right or wrong, but I knew I had to say something. Author and sociologist James Loewen says one of the main problems with how we teach American history in K-12 history textbooks is the “heroification” that we engage in regarding our leaders throughout history. The problem with this hero storyline is that it makes it difficult, if not impossible, to deal with either the truth of history or with the flaws of our modern-day leaders. I knew I had to say something so that my son could remember that police officers are not perfect. So I said, “Then what ends up happening is everybody’s time is wasted. And everyone’s money is wasted, and people actually become less safe, because the police are often stopping the wrong people.” He pulled his thumb out of his mouth and said, “That’s silly.”
That was it. I felt like he understood a little bit more than he had before, and that was all he could handle right then. It was also, frankly, all I could handle in the moment.
Foundation-building with kids is not something you do once and then it’s done. You lay the foundation day in and day out over the course of one year, and then the next year you realize with dismay that every cell in their brain and heart has regenerated in the interim, and they remember nothing. This is why the daily and weekly connections are so important. Foundation-building is like making baklava—it takes at least 15 carefully laid and buttered layers of phyllo dough to get even a quarter inch of pastry.

Anti-Racism Action

Learning about racism is—and should be—deeply disorienting. Given what we teach our children about how they should act and how the world should be, racism is deeply contradictory to the essential values that many parents hold. The more children learn about it, the more they look at us and ask, “Why aren’t you doing something about this?” Adults learn to live with a discordant reality—the way the world should be and the way that it is—in a manner that is developmentally impossible for children. The confusion our children express as a result of this discord can feel like judgment and irrationality. It can also be frustrating to hear because they are right; we should be doing more. Precisely because they are unable to hold this discord, children need to see action and take action so that their sadness can turn outward into change, rather than inward into helplessness and depression. What they need from us is support, love, truth, and strategies for action that can make them feel they can effect change. We also need to take action ourselves. We need to look at our own spheres of influence and do what we can to shift the systems we are a part of towards racial equity. Talking to our children about racism cannot be our only action.
I told my daughter that we could write on our driveway in chalk, “I stand with George Floyd.” She said, “But then police will come and put their knees on our necks.” I said, “I don’t think so. I think police in our community will see that and say, ‘I wish those police officers hadn’t done that because now they are making people scared of all of us.’” She is thinking about it. I am not invested in the action she takes because I am taking my own actions. But as her parent, I want to help empower her, help her to process. Whatever she does—whether she chooses to protest or not, whether she writes a letter, whether she says a prayer, whether she publicly declares support, it’s not about vindicating my own success as an anti-racist parent or demonstrating our woke-ness as a family. It’s about helping her process her emotions, and helping her feel like she can do something in the face of despair. 
It can be overwhelming to realize we need to be “consistent, persistent, and enduring” in our efforts as parents to help our children learn anti-racism. But at the same time, it means that we have second chances. We can come back to the conversation. It’s not about one big conversation when they turn 13; it’s about many tiny one-minute or five-minute conversations every day or every few days for their entire lives. In the meantime, as our children see us chart our own steps toward action, they will be able to more carefully calibrate the actual––vs. feared––risks of speaking out, so that they can begin to calculate their own steps today and every day.
Ali Michael

Ali Michael works with schools and organizations across the country to help make research on race, whiteness, and education more accessible and relevant to educators.