Many white parents aren’t having ‘the talk’ about race with their kids

In the summer following the murder of George Floyd, a Black man killed by police officer Derek Chauvin in May 2020, the world watched as the United States continued its struggle toward racial equality.

From left to right: Nicky Sullivan, Jennifer Eberhart and Steven O. Roberts (Image credit: Kelty Green, Nana Kofi Nti and L.A. Cicero)

Floyd’s tragic death – which added to a spate of similar killings of unarmed Black Americans – sparked nationwide protests, but Stanford researchers found one pivotal group was missing from the conversation: white parents.

In a new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Stanford researchers show that Floyd’s death spurred Black parents to speak more with their children about race, while white parents were mostly unchanged or were more likely to have conversations with their kids that the experts say could be unproductive.

“If parents do not talk with their children about racism, they will be ineffective in teaching their children how to combat racism,” said Steven O. Roberts, an assistant professor of psychology in the School of Humanities and Sciences (H&S).

To talk or not to talk

Roberts, lead author Nicky Sullivan, and Jennifer Eberhardt, the Morris M. Doyle Centennial Professor in Public Policy at H&S, have been studying how Black and white parents talk about race and racial inequality with their children.

The team recruited parents living across the U.S. who self-identified as Black or white, with children ages 18 years or younger. Parents were asked whether or not they have conversations about race with their children, how frequently those conversations occur and to provide a sample of what they recently talked about. They were also asked whether they were worried if their child would be either the target of racial bias or racially biased themselves.

The first survey of roughly 500 parents was conducted in April 2020 a month before Floyd’s murder.

When Floyd was killed, an unprecedented cascade of international protests, media campaigns and calls for criminal justice reform followed. The team wondered: How might an event that sparks major attention influence the parents’ approach to talking to their kids about race? To find out, they repeated the same survey in June 2020 with a new cohort of about 500 parents, about three weeks after Floyd’s death. These two time points of comparison revealed who was engaging around the topic and who wasn’t, and provided a rare glimpse into the role of racially charged killings in parents’ racial socialization practices.

On average, Black parents reported talking more frequently about race, racial inequality and racial identity after Floyd’s death than before, and more Black parents were worried that their children would experience racial bias.

The content of Black parents’ conversations highlighted just how early Black children are prepared to experience racism.

“He was driving … and police shot the car up thinking it was stolen. They pulled [him] out the car and beat his dead body. His story was never on the news,” said one Black parent in a survey response where they reported how they told their 6-year-old child what happened to their godfather.

In sharp contrast, white parents overall did not differ in their engagement on race topics with their children from before Floyd’s death to after. Instead, fewer white parents talked about being white with their kids and more shared messages of colorblindness that minimized the significance of race.

“Everyone is treated equal. The color of your skin doesn’t matter,” said a white parent in a survey response where they reported what they told their 6-year-old child.

“Black parents may not see it as an option to not talk about race, because if they don’t, their child may become the next Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice or George Floyd,” said Sullivan, who is a PhD student in the Department of Psychology.

Meanwhile, white parents may not feel an urgent need to discuss race with their children – but they should, the researchers said.

“The colorblind approach has consequences that can actually impede our move toward equality,” Eberhardt said. “When people focus on not seeing color, they may also fail to see discrimination – in their own neighborhoods, at their own schools, in their daily lives.”

Systemic racism’s realities

In prior work, Roberts argued that passivism or passive racism, which includes an apathy toward systems of racial advantage or denial that those systems even exist, can be the most insidious form of racism.

American racism is alive and well,” Roberts said. “The first step is to acknowledge the history and contemporary reality of racism in the U.S. One cannot fight what one does not see.”

But some Americans deny the role that race can play, and has historically played, in our institutions. In fact, multiple Stanford studies have uncovered racial inequities and disparities across a wide variety of domains, from police traffic stops to housing to health care.

The burden of teaching kids about racism and bias cannot fall on just Black households, the researchers say. Yet there’s currently little research to guide white parents motivated to have meaningful conversations with their children about race, the researchers acknowledge. More studies are urgently needed to help identify strategies that parents can use to reduce children’s racial biases.

For their next steps, the team plans to explore ways to encourage more white parents to have those conversations and to identify effective strategies that motivated white parents can use when speaking to their children.

Dismantling systemic racism in the United States will require white Americans to step up and actively discuss race and racism, Sullivan believes. “A lot of it is up to white parents to educate and talk with their kids about these topics,” he said, “so they can grow up to be adults who can help dismantle the racist structures that are so ingrained in our society.”

The research was funded by Stanford University.

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