Into an American Uprising: Talking to Kids About Racism
Trymaine Lee: I started having conversations about race with my mother when I was about seven years old. I remember us sitting in stunned silence as we watched news footage of the Philadelphia Police Department dropping fire bombs on a black neighborhood on a house called The Move House and seeing black children around my age running naked from the flames.
Archival Recording: Police helicopter drops it. There is the explosion. As you can see, a very dramatic explosion that occurs 30 seconds and really rips into the Move compound. There you see the...
Lee: We watched the miniseries Roots.
Archival Recording: You must hear your name first. You are Kunta Kinte.
Lee: And the film Mississippi Burning.
Archival Recording: I am sick and tired of going to the funerals of black men who have been murdered by white men.
Lee: We watched them together. She bought me books of black poetry, and black history, and black short stories. These were my mother's ways of filling me with pride and insulating me from what she knew would someday come from white America. She dropped to a knee each morning before school, looked me in the eyes, and she'd say, "I am," and I'd say, "Somebody." She got the idea from an episode of Sesame Street with the Reverend Jesse Jackson.
Jesse Jackson: Okay, here we go. I am.
Children: I am.
Jackson: I am.
Children: I am.
Jackson: I may be poor.
Lee: My mom told me that I am somebody, and I believed her.
Lee: But she'd also tell me about the hate and fear that some people would have for me just because and how some people wouldn't even see me at all. And I believed her then, too. She was right. Now, the fire this time has me talking to my own seven-year-old daughter about racism, hate, black resilience, and pride. The killing of George Floyd has sparked protest and uprising, jolting us all into a state of race interrogation. Today was Mr. Floyd's memorial service.
Archival Recording: You may be seated. We're honored that you have come to mourn the loss and celebrate the life of Mr. George Floyd.
Lee: And the truth is these race talks look a lot different in black families like mine than in white families. (MUSIC) I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. Right now, in this moment, the need for families to talk to kids about race and racism is more urgent than ever. I don't mean the, "We're all the same under the skin," kinda talk. I mean real talk.
What kids learn or don't learn about race and how it's weaponized in America has lasting implications because today's kids grow up to be tomorrow's police officers, and teachers, and judges, and elected officials with the power to damage or destroy lives, including black lives. And so if we're gonna talk about what's right and what isn't and whose lives matter, if we're gonna learn anything from this moment and move forward, then we have to start young and we have to start at home.
Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum is an expert on these conversations. She's a psychologist, a former president of historically black Spelman College, and the author of a book about race called Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? Dr. Tatum, thank you so very much for joining us.
Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum: Well, thanks so much for having me.
Lee: So before we get into this, I want to kinda make it plain here and I want to set the stakes. These aren't just benign conversations. This is about life and sometimes about death. And so if you could, would you mind just spelling it out for us? What are the long-term implications for ignoring these conversations, especially in white families?
Tatum: These are life-and-death conversations. We see the consequences of racism in action in the death and murder really of George Floyd. But of course this incident which has sparked so much protest is just one incident in many in a long history of racial violence that unfortunately has been longstanding in our nation.
So for white families in particular, if we want to see change, right, assuming we want to see change, it will be important to 1) educate yourself absolutely that long history if you don't already know it; and 2) to be able to talk to your family members, your friends, people in your circles of influence about why change is necessary.
Lee: How do you advise them to even start constructing the conversation with these children?
Tatum: Well, I think the very first thing to say is if you can prevent your children from seeing the video, you should. Having said that, I know that kids will see it, sometimes without parental guidance or permission, because they're on the internet and there it is or they pass through the room at the wrong time and see it on the television.
You can certainly talk about the fact that a bad thing has happened which is upsetting to you as the adult, to say, you know, "I've been watching the news and I've seen something that is very concerning to me." And, you know, I think it's important for us to talk about it as a family.
You can say that there are times when people are not being treated fairly. And in fact, sometimes it's happening a lot to black people because of racism in our society. And I think we should be trying to do something about that. You know, let's talk together about what we as a family can do.
It might be going to a peaceful protest with your children. Depending on their age and the context, that is a perfectly appropriate and sometimes empowering thing to do because even as we're talking about the bad things that happen, we want to remind children that there are caring adults that want to keep them safe and that there are concerned adults who want to make things better and that they can also be part of making things better.
That's a message that works for either white children or black children, or children of other groups. But there is a particular need to talk to African American children, depending on their age, about what they themselves need to do to be able to stay safe should they have an encounter with a police officer.
And, you know, as I'm sure you know, people refer to it as "the talk." And that talk has to be had with any child. If they're old enough to be out by themselves without parental supervision, they need to have some awareness of how to respond if confronted by a police officer.
Lee: What age do you suggest families start having these conversations?
Tatum: The first thing is that it's important to say children notice racial differences. They notice those differences. They have questions about it. And it's not a bad thing to respond to those questions in a very matter-of-fact way because people come in different colors. Just like they have different hair color, sometimes they have different skin color.
It doesn't have to be a heavy duty conversation. And there are lots of wonderful books that are appropriate to be read with two- and three-year-olds, picture books and, you know, stories that illustrate children of different backgrounds playing together or talking about, you know, hair texture or skin color, or, you know, questions that children have that are appropriate for their developmental level.
When they get a little older, let's say, you know, going to preschool or even kindergarten, first grade, they are likely to have interactions with other kids that may raise questions. I have a TEDx talk called "Is My Skin Brown Because I Drank Chocolate Milk?" which is rooted in a story about a conversation I had with one of my kids when he came home from his preschool and said, "Tommy says my skin is brown because I drank chocolate milk. Is that true?"
And that prompted us to have a conversation about skin color differences. That wasn't such a hard one. But then a year later, he said, you know, "So-and-so says I'm black. Am I black?" And I said, "Yes, you are." And he said, "But my skin is brown." And that started me down a conversation about "black" being a term used to describe African Americans.
And I wanted him to feel good about being an African American, so I was talking about, you know, the wonders of Africa and our ancestors from Africa. And then he said to me, precocious four-year-old, "If Africa is so great, what are we doing here?"
Lee: Wow. Great question, first of all. Amazing question. He was on it. (LAUGHTER)
Tatum: So then how am I, you know, to answer that question honestly without talking to my four-year-old about slavery. So I did. You know, I gave my four-year-old version of the unfairness of taking people from their homes. You know, I talked about when Europeans came to what we now call the United States they had a lot of work to do to clear fields and grow food and they needed the smartest, strongest workers they could find. So they went to Africa to get them.
But unfortunately they didn't want to pay them. And they captured them, brought them here. It was very unfair. And, you know, I went on to talk about how they struggled against that unfairness because I think it's important to talk about not just victimization but resistance to victimization.
So I talked about, you know, rebellions and I talked about, you know, the freedom, underground railroad, and effort to escape. But I also talked about the fact that there were white allies from the beginning, abolitionists who didn't agree with slavery, who also thought it was unfair, and that finally it was eliminated.
And the good news is I was never a slave. You were never a slave. Grandmommy and Granddaddy were never slaves. It was really a long, long time ago. You know, as a mom having that tough conversation with my four-year-old in the grocery store. You know, he was sitting in the basket.
But I share that story to say kids ask questions. And if you're paying attention, it gives you the opportunity to share information in a way that is digestible. But having those conversations and starting those conversations gives kids language that helps them think critically about the unfairness they see in the world.
And to the extent that we're able to give them words and tools to interrupt the unfairness, they will be more empowered to interrupt the cycle of racism, whether they're the targets of it or whether they are the beneficiaries of it. Everyone needs to be able to say, "This is wrong, and here's how we're gonna change it."
Lee: How do you jump from the characteristics of people are different, the hair, the skin to what it might mean socially, to the messaging that your skin might send to other popular, the messaging that your hair, or your nose, or your lips might send to other people? How do you get to that point? Do you allow that to come, the child to ask the questions? Or do you say at some point, "Some people feel this"? How do you do that?
Tatum: Well, you know, unfortunately the news cycle gives us a lot of opportunity, right? So let's say you're sitting with a grade school child, you know, a six-year-old, a seven-year-old who is aware of the news or maybe hears people talking about it. You know, one of the questions might be, a white child might say, "Why did they do that to that man?" And then there's an opportunity to talk about the history of racism in child-appropriate ways.
But a black child will ask, "Why did they do that? You know, why is this happening? And why are people protesting?" And the parent can say, "Because unfortunately there has been a history in this country of treating people of color, particularly black people, African Americans, in ways that are unfair and are sometimes violent. And people are protesting because they don't want that to happen anymore."
So, you know, in that message you're hearing, "A bad thing happened, but people are trying to make it better." A child might say, "Could something like that happen to me? Is a policeman going to shoot me? You know, would someone want to harm me?" And that, of course, is a heart-wrenching question for a parent to answer because you can't for sure say no.
But if the child is young enough to still be in your company most of the time, what you can say with confidence, even though there's exceptions, right? But what you can say with confidence is, "No, honey, I am here to protect you." And you also want to say that, "Most police officers are not trying to harm anyone. They're trying to help people." I think that's an important message.
"But sometimes there are people who are not doing good things. And that's why, you know, I'm here to do whatever I can do to make sure you stay safe." Fast forward, that same child, you know, that five-year-old maybe now is 15 and, you know, out with friends at the mall or soon to be driving. And then it's a very different conversation, of course.
Lee: So a study from last year showed that 22% of black families say they often talk with their children about race. I know I've had these conversations with my almost eight-year-old daughter. It's kind of been like a steady stream of it since she was very young. We can black parents do right now to balance the need to keep their kids informed and affirmed in who they are but also care for their mental health?
Tatum: Yeah, so this is, you know, as they say, put your own oxygen mask on first. So I think it's really important for parents to not have these conversations at a time when they feel overwhelmed and stressed themselves. You know, to try to vent your own anger and frustration so that you are able to speak to your child in a more calm and soothing way than you might otherwise be.
But I think it is certainly okay to say, "This makes me feel angry. This makes me feel frustrated. And that's why it's so important for us to vote. That's why it's so important for us to join the protest," if that's what you're choosing to do. "That's why it's so important for us to make sure that we're doing everything we can in the ways that we are comfortable with."
You know, and there are lots of different ways. Writing letters, you know, signing petitions, boycotting businesses, whatever it might be. And that's why it's so important for us to do these things. But I think it's also important to say, you know, and I personally am appreciating, the fact that there are not just black people protesting. And I appreciate the fact that, you know, there are multi-racial coalitions because at the end of the day we do need white people to step up.
Lee: Earlier in her career, Dr. Tatum did some really interesting research on black families who moved into predominantly white communities.
Tatum: And what I found out was that there were some parents who were very proactive in talking about black identity, who were very proactive in trying to ensure that their kids had a social network with other black kids in it. And then there were other parents who said, "You know, I wish I had this for my kids, but it's just not possible for me to provide it."
Then there were families who said, "You know, it's not that important. It's not that important. And in fact, we don't really like to talk about issues of race." I call those families race avoidant. And what I found was that those who had grown up in the race-conscious families, those kids had a lot more self-confidence. They were much more resilient in the face of some of the racism that they experienced in college.
But the ones who had grown up in the race-avoidant families were much more likely to feel depressed, much more likely to feel like they were not quite good enough. As one said to me, "I always feel like I'm not quite smart enough, not quite pretty enough, not quite good enough." And the difference seemed to be that the more resilient young adults were able to recognize other people's racism as the problem of the racist person, as opposed to, "There must be something wrong with me." (MUSIC)
Lee: We'll be right back.
Lee: As we said, about a quarter of black families talk to their children often about race. But on the other hand, the same study found that just 6% of white parents do this. Why is this difference so glaring?
Tatum: Well, one of the reasons I think the difference is so glaring is that of all the racial groups in U.S. society, white people are the most racially isolated. By that, I mean many more white people live in entirely white social networks, white neighborhoods. Their kids go to entirely or mostly white schools.
And so if you're in an environment when you're basically surrounded by other white people, you may not feel a need. And it's also if you grew up not having those conversations with your own parents, I hear this from white adults sometimes, you know, "I don't know what to say, and I'm afraid of doing it wrong. And so in the absence of having any skill about it, I just avoid the conversation."
They think the kid won't notice difference or won't absorb racism. "If I'm not using racist language, or if I'm not using offensive language, then, you know, my kid's gonna be good. I don't have to worry about it." But the reality is that children without parents to give them guidance are gonna absorb other people's racism, even if they're not getting it from you.
So they are likely to absorb the stereotypes they see on television or in the media or, you know, lessons they're getting at school. They're likely to hear language and hear attitudes expressed by some of their white friends and without a critical lens to understand what that is and why it doesn't make sense. They may just take it in.
It's like breathing smog in the air. It's so pervasive in our society. Unless you're giving your kid a gas mask, they're gonna be a smog breather. And that silence does not protect kids. You know, parents think it means they'll be good, but it just means they have a void that somebody else can fill.
Lee: At what age do we tend to start seeing evidence of racism and anti-blackness in children?
Tatum: Oh, you can see it in preschoolers.
Lee: That early?
Tatum: Yeah. Oh, definitely. I mean, they can have absorbed those messages, particularly if those messages are prevalent in their home. But if, you know, you're welcoming, you're inclusive, your child can still pick up assumptions.
Lee: It sounds like anti-blackness is one hell of a poison.
Tatum: You could think of it as poison in the water, right? Poison in the water. And so what do we do? We have to try to filter it out.
Lee: How do you suggest white families and non-black parents start to talk to their kids about anti-blackness for the first time?
Tatum: Well, I think they have to take a deep breath and have it. And by that, I mean, you know, first of all, they can start with young children trying to promote not anti-blackness but positive blackness, right? You know, white children can have dolls of color. White children can have books that portray kids of color in positive ways.
And you can promote a sense of inclusion and embracing diversity as just part of the natural narrative. You can look at who's in your circle of friends, "Who does my kid get to play with?" So, you know, actions speak louder than words. You can say, "You know, we love everyone." But if you only have white friends, that leaves a question mark there, right?
But now, still, something bad might happen. And then you can talk about understanding what racism is. "Do you know what racism is, honey? Racism is when people are treated unfairly just because of the color of their skin. There's a long history of black people in particular being treated unfairly that goes all the way back to when they were enslaved."
We can have the four-year-old, or the five-year-old, or the six-year-old conversation about slavery. "And ever since then, there has been unfair treatment. It is really a problem, and that's why we are working so hard to make sure that it doesn't continue. But I think it's important for you to know about it so if you are with your friend Imani and somebody says a mean thing, you will know why that's happening."
"And if somebody does say a mean thing, what should I do, Mommy?" "Well, then you should do whatever you think Imani would want you to do. She might want you to speak up for her. She might want you to say, 'That's hurtful. You shouldn't say things like that. I don't want to hear those things.'"
So, you know, learning to be an ally, how to stand in solidarity, these are lessons that kids can have. So on the one hand, we want to always acknowledge that racism is there. But we also want to give tools for resisting. Resisting victimization but also resisting being a silent or an active perpetrator.
Lee: Is there a right way to talk about race? Because there are a lot of parents out there, especially now, want to have these conversations but they're, like, really caught up and concerned about fumbling and failing at this conversation.
Lee: Is there a quote/unquote, "right way"?
Tatum: I don't know that there's a perfect way. And so if we wait for perfection, we will never start. But at the end of the day, I think starting the conversation and doing your best is better than being silent. And if you make a mistake or say something that you then regret, you can always come back and say, "You know, I was thinking about that conversation we had the other day, and I said X.
"But the more I thought about it, I was thinking really I was wrong. Maybe it's really Y." And so, you know, it's not like you don't get do-overs. You know, as Dr. King said, "Our choice is chaos or community." If we don't choose community, we are subjecting our children to a life of chaos and nobody wants that.
Lee: Thank you for all your work, Dr. Tatum, in this conversation. I really appreciate it.
Tatum: Well, thank you so much for having me. I appreciate the work you're doing.
Lee: That was psychologist and author Beverly Daniel Tatum. You can find a link to her work on our episode page wherever you're listening to this podcast or at NBCNews.com/IntoAmerica. Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back tomorrow.