Conversations about race can be seriously beneficial to children. Research has highlighted multiple positive outcomes for young people of all backgrounds — enhanced ability to accept different viewpoints and perspectives, increased levels of empathy, a better understanding of their own identity, and less racial bias to name but a few. Yet some parents are still unwilling to take the time to have such conversations.
A new study, published in PNAS, finds that readiness to have such conversations has a lot to do with the racial identity of parents themselves. Looking at family conversations in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, the Stanford University team finds that even in the context of the global conversation that followed the racially charged killing, White parents were far less willing to have conversations about race than their Black peers.
Participants, who were either Black or White parents of children aged 0-18 living in the United States, were initially recruited in April 2020, six weeks before Floyd’s murder. First, participants indicated whether or not they have conversations with their children about race, racial inequality and racial identity, as well as how often those conversations were instigated. They were also asked to share a recent conversation they had had with their child, and rated how worried they were that their child might be a target of racial bias or might be racially biased towards others. Another set of parents also completed these measures two months later, in June 2020.
The results showed that, overall, a higher proportion of Black parents discussed race, racial inequality and racial identity than White parents. After the murder of George Floyd Black parents became more likely to discuss inequality, but White parents did not. There were also striking differences when it came to conversations about identity: Black parents remained just as likely to discuss being Black with their children after the murder of Floyd — but White parents were actually less likely to discuss being White.
Among just those parents who discussed these topics, Black parents increased the frequency they spoke about them with their children after the murder, while White parents maintained the same frequency as before.
The next focus of analysis was the content of parents’ conversations, shared through open-ended answers. White parents were more likely to give their children colour-blind messages — one White parent, for example, reported telling their child that “the colour of your skin doesn’t matter”. But Black parents had far more realistic conversations with their children, preparing them to experience racial bias, police targeting, and injustice. Interestingly, White parents were also more likely to share colour-blind sentiments after Floyd’s murder.
Black parents were also more worried that their children would not only be targets of racial bias but actually biased themselves — but White parents had a low level of worry on both counts, and this remained low even after Floyd’s murder, perhaps suggesting a further resistance to engaging with questions of race.
So, overall, Black parents were both more willing to engage in questions of race than White parents and more willing to explore issues of injustice after a particularly traumatic event. White parents were also more likely to engage in conversations about race not mattering: colour-blindness, while potentially well-meaning, is ultimately unproductive as it reduces people’s willingness and ability to identify and engage with racial inequality. In the US, where the study took place, race certainly does matter.
The authors of the study note that part of White parents’ reluctance to talk about race could be down to simply not knowing how to address the subject, and suggest that work could be done on the effectiveness of different strategies. Future research could also look at why White parents are so unwilling to have such conversations. Do they feel uncomfortable and out of their depth? Do they (wrongly) think children are too young to understand? Or is it that they simply don’t care? As the team puts it: “given the reality and brutality of racism and racial inequality, the time to answer these questions, and to have these conversations, is now.”