As protests against police brutality have blossomed into a new chapter of America’s civil rights movement this year, child welfare experts say it is never too early in a child’s life to begin the delicate but all-important conversations about race in the homes of foster families.
It could well be among the most important steps a caring adult could take in a child’s life — regardless of race.
“Ask questions, and acknowledge what happened whenever you know your child encountered a moment of racial tension. You can say something like, ‘I noticed this thing happened, and I wonder how that felt for you?’ Be curious,” said Melanie Chung-Sherman, a Texas-based therapist who has worked with numerous multi-racial foster and adoptive families and was adopted by a white family.
Talking about experiences of discrimination with children of color validates their feelings, she said, teaching them that racism is wrong, and that they did not do something to deserve being treated poorly. Because racism can also be alienating, allowing the children to share their experiences helps build trust with their caregivers, Chung-Sherman says.
And for white children, explaining about the origins of discrimination and showing them how it manifests itself today encourages them to identify and challenge racist behavior when they witness it.
The conversations foster parents must have are far from easy. For white parents, speaking openly about race requires being willing to feel uncomfortable, and to look at how and why they may have avoided confronting racism in their own lives.
A 2018 article in Young Exceptional Children on how educators might approach these issues with young children in the classroom suggests that adults should position themselves as learners, alongside the children, and adopt an attitude of curiosity, rather than fear of saying the wrong thing. This can work at home, too.
“So much of what we are facing right now during a global pandemic and civil unrest over inequality, racial and social justice are very fixable problems,” said Brittany Nash, a racial justice advocate who was adopted and raised in a multi-racial family in Minnesota, in an email. “As parents, we have to be just as committed to teaching anti-racism/bias as we are to surfing the internet for all the tips on how to rear children.”
White parents caring for children of color need to recognize that the dominant culture in the United States is white, and that the children coming into their care have likely already had numerous experiences with racism, Chung-Sherman said, including aggression from white people.
Parents cannot claim “colorblindness,” without alienating black, brown and Asian people, she added; doing so denies the racism at the foundation of this country, and the experiences that people of color have every day.
It’s not easy to tackle issues of race if you’ve been raised in a family or culture that had the privilege of not talking about such topics. But discomfort isn’t a good reason to avoid talking about these issues now, as a parent.
“Get comfortable with being uncomfortable or find the reason for your discomfort,” Nash said. “If these conversations make you uncomfortable because you don’t feel knowledgeable, focus on educating yourself. If they make you comfortable because you get emotional, figure out a way to process those emotions. Because your kids are going to ask you anyway.”
Caregivers can begin to tackle larger issues of race through the following actions:
Resources for Learning and Talking About Race
Between the World and Me