RaceTalk among White Families Post-Floyd. Now What?
In the wake of George Floyd's murder under the knee of a White police officer in May 2020, millions of people took to the streets, demanding major reforms to systems of policing, specifically, and tangible progress on issues of racial justice, more generally.
While the response in the street rightly commanded significant media attention, the nature of the response in the privacy of our homes did not. For example, did the circumstances of Floyd's death, at once shocking and unsurprising, nudge some White parents off their typically "colorblind" stances toward racetalk with their White children? Did parent-child conversations about race become more frequent in light of that high-profile atrocity? Where do we go from here, individually and collectively?
EmbraceRace: Hello, everybody. Welcome to RaceTalk among White families Post-Floyd. We're really excited about tonight's conversation. Those of you that have been with us for a while might recognize one of our guests, but we also have a newbie, which we're excited about. We are talking tonight about, the title is, RaceTalk Among White Families Post-Floyd: Now What?
We know that the murder George Floyd prompted lots of folks, and a real diverse group of folks, millions of people, to support Black Lives Matter, to protest in the streets. And the question is, what was going on, particularly with White families, in homes? Did that outward protesting and support and buying of lots of anti-racist books, did that support also translate into what was happening in terms of talking to kids in the house? So that is about race. So that's what we're talking about tonight. We know that there's been a lot of attention about all the legislation passed, some of it not passed. But all the efforts to essentially squash race talk in schools. A lot of very angry, hostile school board meetings, for example. What we're interested in is what's happening inside people's homes because we think that's actually equally important.
Nicky Sullivan is a PhD student in the Department of Psychology at Stanford. His research explores how children learn and think about race. And his current work focuses on how White families talk about race, inequality and identity. Nicky was born and raised in rural New Hampshire, where he is now in fact, but has spent the last eight years living in California. So Nikki, we'll have another conversation about why you chose to get as far away from New Hampshire as you could, although that's one framing, I'm sure there are other framings, right?
EmbraceRace: And Brigitte, welcome back. Always great to see you.
Brigitte Vittrup is an associate professor of Child Development at Texas Women's University, where she teaches courses in child development, research methods, and statistics. She holds a PhD in Children's Developmental Psychology from the University of Texas at Austin. And her research focuses on children's racial attitudes, parent's racial socialization practices, and media influences on kids. Brigitte is stalwart in the world of research on children's racial socialization. And Nicky is soon to be that, well on his way. So we're really glad to have both of you.
Nicky, tell us a little bit about, where's your personal investment in this game of White racial attitudes, in particular? Obviously, you're White, Brigitte is White. But is there more to be said about why you are invested in this question of kids and how they develop racial attitudes and what we can do about it?
Nicky Sullivan: Yeah, I think it comes, actually, back to what you mentioned earlier, to where I'm from. So I'm at home in rural New Hampshire with my parents right now. And New Hampshire as a state is extremely White. The place where I grew up is extremely White. The school that I went to is extremely White. And so growing up, it was Whiteness was everywhere, but it was not something that was talked about very much. And then when I first went to college, I moved out to California. There were all these people from all over the world with all these different racial and ethnic identities and backgrounds. And it was kind of this eye opening experience for me realizing about how other people experiences were so affected by their race or their ethnic identity. And that also, how mine were as well, even if I wasn't kind of aware of it. So I think that got me really interested in thinking about how I was learning about race implicitly as a child, both my own and others. But also, thinking about what role explicit messages might play. So if we had talked about race in school or in the household more, what that might have looked like. And so I've been curious about that ever since. And so, now I get to try and explore it a little bit, which is exciting.
EmbraceRace: That's awesome. Thank you, Nicky.
Brigitte, why are you invested in this work?
Brigitte Vittrup: Well, I grew up in Denmark, which was very White, especially at the time. So Whiteness was really never something salient, not really part of my identity, until I moved to the US. And I became very interested in the topic of how children learn about race, and studied that throughout graduate school. Personally, I am married to a Black man. I have two Biracial children. So race is a fairly salient topic in our family now. But also, how other families, especially White families, talk about race, or don't talk about it and how they approach it, will ultimately affect my children and my husband in this whole system.
EmbraceRace: Nicky, we want to turn to the study that you and your colleagues at Stanford did not long ago, looking at how race talk changed pre-Floyd, post-Floyd. The kind of talk and the frequency in White and Black households. What did you find in your study?
Nicky Sullivan: Yeah, absolutely. So this was work that I did with my advisor, Steven Roberts, and our collaborator, Jennifer Eberhardt. And we had happened to be doing some survey work out in the field with White and Black families in April 2020. So obviously, before Floyd was murdered. And after his murder and the ensuing surge and attention and protest, we decided that we had a really interesting chance to see, what has changed, if anything. Everyone was saying, "This is a moment that's going to really change things." So we felt really uniquely positioned to be able to begin to answer that question.
EmbraceRace: Just a quick reminder to folks that Floyd was killed in late May 2020. And you said you were doing your work in April, the first survey in April.
Nicky Sullivan: This is a good point. So Floyd is killed late May, so about six weeks after we had started doing our work. And so then we ran a second batch of the exact same study in June of 2020. So about three to four weeks after Floyd's death. So we have right before and right after with different families, but a way to really see what has changed in this time. So for Black families, first of all, in general, Black families were already much more likely to be talking about issues of race and identity with their children than White families were. And they were more likely to be sharing messages, really trying to prepare their kids for the biases they might face. And that just increased after Floyd. They were much more likely to talk about racial inequality with their children. They were having more frequent conversations, they told us. And they were even more likely than they already had been to send these messages.
Really doing things like telling their kids how to interact around police officers. Even children as young as five years old or four years old are being told, "Hey, here's what you need to do if you run into a police officer. Here's what you need to do in this situation." So really, that kind of preparatory message. And we also found that they were just more worried. They were more concerned that their kids were going to be targets of racial bias, even though that was already something on all of their minds before Floyd.
And then for White families, I think for us, what we saw pretty much was that White families didn't really change. They weren't more likely to have conversations. They weren't changing how frequently they were having them. They were actually less likely to have conversations around White identity. So what it meant to be White with their children, after Floyd than they were before. And they were more likely when they were having these conversations to be sending colorblind messages. So trying to emphasize messages like, "Oh, everyone is equal." Or, "The color of your skin doesn't matter. What matters is who you are on the inside," which we can talk about those. We know that those might sound really nice on the surface, but if you dig into them, they tend to pretty much have harmful consequences for children's understanding of race. And so that was pretty jarring to us. This moment that we expected to maybe see this big change, we mostly saw kind of a flat, flatness.
What we saw [in our study] was that White families didn't really change [post-Floyd]. They weren't more likely to have conversations [about issues of race and identity]. They weren't changing how frequently they were having them. They were actually less likely to have conversations around White identity... And they were more likely when they were having these conversations to be sending colorblind messages.
Nicky Sullivan, graduate student, Stanford University
EmbraceRace: Yeah. It makes you wonder what does it take? Such a big moment, and a lot of those same people who weren't talking to their kids probably were responding in other ways, just not bringing it home. Right?
Nicky, can you tell us more about how you conducted the study. How many people did you talk to? How did you find them? Were these open ended prompts? How did you get that kind of information? Were they volunteering the kind of conversations they were having, or did you have particular prompts for particular kinds of topics that they might be talking about?
Nicky Sullivan: Yeah. Great question. So total across the two time points, this is from surveys of about a thousand adults from around the US. So I think about 250 White parents and Black parents at each time point, roughly evenly split there. And these are parents that we recruited online, through an online platform called Cloud Research, that basically lets us pay participants for taking the time to do one of our surveys. And tends to be a pretty representative sample, which is nice, at least of the groups that we're looking for. So we have respondents from all over the US, which is nice. And obviously, it will probably differ depending on where you're living as I found out growing up in New Hampshire.
And then, it's a really good question about how we're finding this out. So it's a mixture of questions. So some of them are closed ended, maybe just asking, yes or no, do you talk about this? But then we also have a lot of open ended questions. Very often just ask them, "Can you share a recent conversation that you had with your child about race? Tell us in as much detail as you can. What did you talk about? What did you say? What did you tell them?" So that we can really try and understand what was going on in that conversation. And then we actually take those open ended responses and with a big team of research assistants can go through and do what's called coding and say, what themes do we see? So that's how we know how frequently are they these color blind messages in their responses. So it lets them share more openly about what they think they're sending to their kids, and let us try and process that from there.
EmbraceRace: And Nicky afterwards, in the one that came after Floyd, did you do any prompts particular to Floyd? I also want to remind folks that, so Floyd was murdered on the 25th of May. On the same day, Amy Cooper, a White woman, threatened Christian Cooper, a Black man after he asked her to put her dog on a leash, which indeed, there were signs in Central Park saying, "Please put your dog on a leash." And she threatened to call the police on him and tell them that he was threatening her. So that happened the very same day, and also it was part of the response in this moment.
Did the survey that came Post-Floyd prompt these incidents for people?
Nicky Sullivan: We did have one prompt at the very end. We wanted to keep it to the end because we didn't want to change how people were thinking about our responses and really make them think about Floyd, because we thought that might change. So we saved one question for the end, pretty open ended, just saying, "Have you talked about George Floyd or any of the protests?" And we saw kind of a mixed bag. A lot of people would say, "No." Some people would just say, "No, it hasn't really come up." Other people would say, "Oh yeah, we talked about it." And others would kind of give us a little more. So we have some sense there. I think from what I remember, a good proportion of parents at least said that they had talked about it or that it had come up, whether it was Floyd or I think some tended to kind of say they hadn't talked about Floyd but had talked some about the protests afterwards and sent messages to their kids around those.
EmbraceRace: Brigitte, you're hearing all this and you're familiar with this area obviously. Is the responses of the survey surprising to you, the before and after? Or what would you add?
Brigitte Vittrup: I think I would say yes and no, because I think originally when I first thought about it, I thought, well, that's surprising and sad. At the same time, when I really started thinking about it, I'm not sure I'm as surprised because I think what I've found is that, especially White parents, they think their kids are too young to talk about race related issues. This was a particularly violent event, and so I think for some they're probably also wanting to shield their kids. And then I think probably a large majority just don't know how. A lot of White people in America grew up just under this ideology of color blindness. "Everybody's equal. Everybody's the same on the inside," so they didn't grow up talking about race related issues. And so what I hear a lot is, "I don't really know what to say or what to do." And so I think with this kind of egregious heinous event that was so violent that it's probably even more difficult for them to talk about it if they don't really have resources or guidance on how to do so.
EmbraceRace: Nicky, here you said by and large the White parents, their engagement with race stayed flat before and after these incidents. I've read at least one of write-up of your study, which suggested in some ways it actually had gone down among White parents. So could you elaborate on that a little bit?
And then in so far as that's true, and I hear what you're saying, Brigitte, but why would it actually go down, even if only slightly, in the wake of these horrifying things, right? So presumably some people who were having some kind of conversation before stopped having it or were having fewer conversations after these things happened?
Nicky Sullivan: Yeah. So most things stayed pretty flat for White parents, but there were actually two spaces where we either saw it go down or kind of go in the wrong direction, I'll say. So we saw it go down especially in the proportion of parents that were saying they talked about being White with their child. So that we saw about half of parents before Floyd were saying that they were doing that, and that dropped below 40% after Floyd. So specifically engaging around White identity was where we saw this kind of step back. And then we saw an increase in the rate of colorblind talk. So I think that's an increase, but an increase in the wrong direction. So similarly I think there was this push to really distance themselves again from being White.
And so I think that actually kind of makes sense. I think there's some other great research that shows being White is this position of power. It puts you in a system in a position of privilege, and when people's kind of position in that hierarchy might be threatened, they tend to want to distance themselves from it. Right? So if you know that your role as someone in power is maybe under threat, which it might have really felt like after Floyd, right? There was all this talk that, hey, maybe we can finally get rid of White privilege and push back against racial inequality. It might have felt easiest to kind of step away from thinking of yourself as White. So that's one possibility for why we might see this change, but I'd love to hear also what Brigitte thinks about it.
Brigitte Vittrup: Yeah. I think, just like what Nicky was saying about this whole issue of White identity and people kind of backing off on that because the conversation became very much Black versus White. And I think what people find is safe is this whole conversations around color blindness. And I think we probably need to do a better job also of educating people about why that's problematic, because it sounds great. "We're all equal. Everybody's the same on the inside," and that was sort of the idea that we should aspire for that to happen. But it hasn't happened, and so by remaining silent, you are just perpetuating the status quo and essentially sending messages to kids that, "Everything is fine. We don't have to speak up about it. We don't have to do anything because everything is fine because we're not talking about it."
EmbraceRace: And maybe even what you actually see because they notice inequity is just normal. They're normalizing inequity.
Brigitte Vittrup: Kids notice it so early on. I mean, in preschool they're noticing.
EmbraceRace: Again, reminding folks your work was on Black and White parents. Obviously, there are lots of parents who don't identify as Black or White, and I think you'd agree, we need a lot more work on them and what they're thinking and going through and how they're engaging their kids.
One finding I saw that I thought was so interesting, that Black parents were actually more likely to express concern about whether their children might be perpetrators of racism afterwards. So doubtless, they were concerned about whether their own children might be victimized or they themselves or other Black people they love might be victimized by racism. But they're also concerned about whether their children might be perpetrators of racism, and in fact more so, if I understood properly, than White parents were concerned about their White children being perpetrators. Do I have that right? What do you both make of that?
Nicky Sullivan: Yeah, yeah. So we don't see a change from before to after, but consistently across both time periods, Black parents are more concerned than White parents that their children might perpetrate racial bias, which I think on the one hand speaks to, again, maybe why we didn't see any change among White families, right? If you're not concerned that your child is ever going to perpetrate racial bias, you might not see a need to talk about it. And indeed, we found that your level of concern did predict whether you were having these conversations. So the parents who are more likely to say they were concerned were more likely to be having these conversations. I think it's hard to know why that concern stays so low.
I think one possibility that I think is worth exploring is, as Brigitte mentioned, this is a really violent case of racism. And so parents might be able to kind of not want to talk about that with their kids, but also look at that and say, "Oh, my child wouldn't do that. If my child would never do that, then they would not be racist." Right? If that's the bar now for racism is what happened to Floyd, then it might be easier for a parent to say, "Cool, I don't have to worry about that." And so I think that's one concern of these really public and violent cases that we also want to remind that there's lots of ways that racism manifests in really obvious context like that and in more subtle ways.
[In our study,] Black parents are more concerned than White parents that their children might perpetrate racial bias, which I think on the one hand speaks to, again, maybe why we didn't see any change among White families, right? If you're not concerned that your child is ever going to perpetrate racial bias, you might not see a need to talk about it... parents who are more likely to say they were concerned were more likely to be having these conversations.
Nicky Sullivan, graduate student, Stanford University
Brigitte Vittrup: Yeah. I think that's a really good point because it has come to a point where people are pretty much equating racism with the KKK. I mean, it's got to be that extreme. And so it's sort of everybody can pat themselves on the back and go, "Well, I'm not a racist. I'm not a KKK member, and I wouldn't go out and kill a Black man and sit on his neck." And so I think that's part of the problem, and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva talks about it in his book, Racism without Racists that racism continues because everybody thinks they're not a racist. And I think, just a comment on this issue of White parents not thinking that their kids are biased, that is one thing that I've found, that a big reason why parents don't talk about race is because they really don't think their kids have any biases, like no biases at all.
There's one study I did, and it was around 100 people. And I think three people said that their kids might be just a tiny bit biased. The rest of them, it's like no biases at all. But part of it, I think, it's because they're measuring approaches are not really valid. They assume that because, "Oh, well, my kid plays with everybody on the playground, and my kid has never said anything that was racist or biased," and so those are the things they're looking for. But they're not considering just all of these inputs from media, from society, the social inequalities that children are exposed to. If they go to school, they see the principal is White, the janitor is Black, and throughout their lives this is what they see.
And so they start to develop these biases that some people are more important than others. Some people have more power, and this is just the way the world is. And they learn so early on that we don't really talk about it. So they don't say anything. They don't ask questions. And so I think parents or adults in general are just not very good at measuring. If we don't talk about it, if we don't have direct conversations with children, we don't really know what their thinking, and so I think they're just completely unaware. Whereas People of Color who have personally experienced bias and been the recipients of it, this whole concept of racial bias is much more salient to them. And so they're more likely, given that they see their kids experience it, they are also thinking, "Well, kids can perpetrate this at this age, so it's possible that my kid could do it too." Whereas we don't see the same thing in the White families.
People of Color who have personally experienced bias and been the recipients of it, this whole concept of racial bias is much more salient to them. And so they're more likely, given that they see their kids experience it, they are also thinking, "Well, kids can perpetrate this at this age, so it's possible that my kid could do it too." Whereas we don't see the same thing in the White families.
Brigitte Vittrup, Professor at Texas Women's College
EmbraceRace: So going back to what both of you were saying about White identity, I wonder about general discomfort, right? That people, the more uncomfortable they are, the less they are going to talk about it because parents think they should be comfortable if they're talking to their kids. Could that be part of what's going on?
Brigitte Vittrup: I think part of it is also that to a certain extent, if people talk about their White identity and sort of being proud of their heritage, sort of this fear that that becomes considered, oh, White power, which is White supremacy and completely different than celebrating your own heritage and where your family is from. So I do think that that has something to do with it, that trying to negotiate this role of being a White ally and it's still okay to be White, but nonetheless we know that White people have perpetrated all of this across centuries. And so I think it's just hard for some people to negotiate that and kind of find out where is sort of a comfortable medium.
EmbraceRace: Just going back, Brigitte, to what you said earlier about, and we know this is true, that a lot of White parents and White adults feel they don't know how to talk about it. And it certainly makes sense that if you're already uncertain of your footing and then this really dramatic fraught high profile thing happens that I think it's already true that lots of parents of all stripes, but certainly White parents in particular, don't think about having a routine series of conversations around race. Then, any one conversation feels so heavy, so fraught, so high stakes, and I imagine that would only become more so around those sorts of incidents where you think, "Oh my gosh, if I don't get this right, I'm going to traumatize my child."
Nicky Sullivan: Yeah, I was just going to say it only complicates this picture. It doesn't make it any clearer, but I think it's worth saying. So we actually asked parents as part of the survey, "How comfortable do you feel or would you feel talking about this with your child? How prepared do you feel?" We thought what we would see is that people would be like, "Yeah, I don't know what to say. I don't feel prepared." And we found the opposite, that across the board White parents were totally comfortable, "I feel totally prepared to do this." And we were kind of stunned as to why. And I don't know quite what to make of that.
I think it's possible that they feel really comfortable and prepared to do what they're doing, which is not really talking about it and saying, "Treat everyone equal," when they do. So it's possible that if we specifically said, "How comfortable do you feel to talk explicitly about Floyd or talk about racial inequality?" then maybe they'd step back. But even when we asked them, "Do you feel comfortable talking to your child about being White?" They were still kind of saying for the most part, "Yeah, I feel pretty comfortable with that," which was surprising. So again, it doesn't help us understand it more, but I think it's an interesting point to think about.
Brigitte Vittrup: I've found the same thing, that you ask people, "How important do you think it is to talk about race and race related issues with adults and with kids?" Very important. I mean, on a rating scale, they rate it fairly highly. And then we ask them how comfortable they are. They're fairly comfortable. And then we ask them, "How often do you talk about it?" or, "Do you talk about race with your children?" "Yes, we talk about it." But then when the question becomes, "What specifically do you talk about?" and, "Can you just briefly describe a recent conversation that you had?" That's when we start to see that it's a lot less. Whereas maybe 85% say, "It's important to talk about," maybe 60 to 70% say "Yes, we talk about it." But then when you start coding it based on are they really having these conversations? The majority are sending these colorblind messages. "We talk about it. We talk about everybody's equal. You should treat everybody the same. God loves everybody. Doesn't matter what people look like," which is well intended, but really says nothing at all to kids about race. So I think that's part of the issue. They're comfortable having these conversations about, "We're all equal and God loves everybody." But also if you then ask them, "Tell me about a recent conversation," a lot of people just left it blank or it was sort of vague.
EmbraceRace, Andrew: That is super interesting. I mean, they're the people who left it blank, but what I also hear you saying. And it makes sense. Melissa likes to talk about the emotional truth and we joke about that, but that the emotional truth for a lot of these people is that when they're having conversations that you don't code as race conversations, they do code as race conversations. Right? That a lot of sort of the emotional backdrop, why they may raise a colorblind conversation a week after Floyd is that Floyd just happened. They actually need to be having race conversations though race is never mentioned and the child probably never understands that this is supposed to be a race conversation. So that's interesting.
EmbraceRace, Melissa: And then the emotional truth when you say also, "I don't think my kid's biased." It's like, well, we've seen a lot of bias in our kids, you know what I mean? What does biased look like to someone? Conversations about who's pretty, who's well behaved, who's intelligent. All of these things you have to sort of deprogram because a lot of that happens through books and media and all that you've said about who's powerful. Right? We see it all the time in our kids of color.
How do we then relate to that? The flip of what we were just talking about, how does the parent code what the kid says? So if a child looks at a White mom and her child, who's a child of color, and thinks, "She can't be his mom, right?" That's obviously a race conversation that the adult may not see as a race conversation or the parent of that child may not see as a race conversation.
Nicky, you're an uncle, I believe. Is that right?
Nicky Sullivan: More or less. There's little kids around.
EmbraceRace: There are kids in your life. And Brigitte, you have your own kids, children in your life.
What do you say to White parents about why it's important to talk about race, and the guidelines of how? What is the conversation you have? We have this conversation all the time. We've said this a million times and it doesn't necessarily make people do it.
Brigitte Vittrup: I think a lot of times, I think it's important for parents to understand really how much kids are influenced by the outside world. And also, it takes some pressure off of them that if their kid says something biased or if they have to acknowledge that their kid has some racial biases, that it's not because they necessarily taught them that. That really, there's so much that kids are exposed to in terms of power, relationships, and systemic inequalities, and just what they see in the media, what they hear at school. So for parents to understand that this is happening. And by having conversations, you can't shield kids from everything going on in the outside world. I mean, especially in this day and age of 24/7 media and YouTube and tablets and phones, and everybody. The three year old's have their own phones and they access it and they're going to get access to it.
But what you could do as a parent is you can help interpret these messages. You can help serve as a buffer so that this influx of messages doesn't lead to these strong biases. You can actually help stop that by having these conversations.
EmbraceRace: So first of all, this is a little scandal. I think you just acknowledged that your three year old has a phone. That's what I just heard, Brigitte.
Brigitte Vittrup: She had an iPad when she was three. And she knew sometimes how to use it better than me. I mean, my son, pretty much everything he learned about George Floyd when we weren't really sure how much they knew, YouTube. I mean, all this stuff that he heard about and sometimes he would talk and I'd say, "Where did you hear that?" Even conversations. I mean, he would have pretty intelligent conversations at the age of... He was 11 at the time. Because of what he saw on YouTube. And all of a sudden, my daughter who was seven at the time, her and her little friends were on Kids Messenger changing their little image to Black power. It had the little fist. I mean, they were seven and they were talking about it! "This White man sat on this Black man and killed him. And that's just not right."
So the kids are really exposed to it. They're going to hear it. So we have to have these conversations with the kids to help them understand it because developmentally, they're not able to understand all the complexities of it, but you can have conversations, even with preschoolers in terms of what's fair and what's right.
EmbraceRace: Right. And we've definitely heard from preschool teachers and parents whose kids went to preschool and sort of brought it up or a kid brought it up and then the whole class knows and they're talking about it and really, it's good to be proactive.
Nicky Sullivan: I don't have too much to add. I'll just say that I think there's something that we're thinking about moving forward in our research. We're really curious. How do you talk to other parents? How do you encourage other parents to have these conversations? I think one thing that I've noticed just with family members or other friends is to often start by listening instead of start by telling. I mean, I think honor that I have not always been as aware as I am now about race and there might have been a time when I was like, "Why would I need to do that?" So rather than saying like, "Oh, I know what I'm doing. I need to tell you." First, listen and say like, "Oh, have you talked about this? Oh, why not?" And really try and hear why they haven't. Because it might be a totally different reason than the one that you're about to disprove. So you dumping all this information might not actually get at the thing that they're concerned about or that they're thinking about. Especially in those one on ones. I think that can be valuable too.
Brigitte Vittrup: I think a really important message for the parents is that you're not always going to get it right. And you're not always going to have the right answers and that's okay because it's not a one time conversation. It's something you're going to be talking about over and over again as the kids get older, the conversations become more complex, but it's okay to stumble through it and not think that you have to have it perfectly. There's recent research by Sylvia Perry and her colleagues that are showing that even when parents were uncomfortable and kind of anxious in having these conversations, it still had a positive impact on these children's racial attitudes. So just jump into it. Talk.
EmbraceRace: Thank you. As hopefully most or all of you know, this is a big part of our work, right? What are the conversations, not only White parents and caregivers, but all parents and caregivers can have with the children in their lives, as well as what you can do, what your practices should be. It's not only about talking. For sure, especially if you're new to us, please go to our website. We have lots and lots of content. When we follow up with an email to everyone who's registered, we'll have good things from this conversation, as well as a list of all the resources.
One of the things I want to highlight, just want to draw your attention to is Nicky, your study, of course, there's something really interesting about White parents' responses very broadly. Obviously it doesn't tell us everything. There's a great deal it doesn't tell us about White response, including that, of course, lots of White people did respond strongly, right? Just as one indicator, EmbraceRace membership quadrupled, right? The number went from 14,000 people on our email list in mid-May to 55,000, I think at the end of July and it's gone up since. And it's not only White people, of course, but a significant share are White and White adults who are very much looking for a response.
Here is a question we got from a participant: "As a White person, so this is for the White attendees to this webinar, what work are you doing to promote racial justice and equity? Are you working on your own beliefs, attitudes and/or practices around race? What's often called internal work. Are you working with your White children? Obviously we know that there are lots of White parents who have non-White children who have children of color, but we're asking if you are a White parent of a White child, are you doing anti-racist work with your White children? And third, are you doing work to change policies and systems?" Please, if you have anything to share about the work that you are doing in any of those areas or something related, please put it in the chat.
We've certainly gotten a lot of questions from people of all sorts of racial identities who want to sort of organize White people or do better. "How do I do this?"
And one question from someone who we do not know their racial identify" "Can we talk about the harm of performance activism among woke White progressives buying anti-racist books and sharing on social media isn't doing the work. What is the way in with this group? How do we get such people to do real anti-biased, anti-racist work individually and internally? How do we get them to dismantle White supremacy when they benefit from it?"
Brigitte Vittrup: I mean, I do see it sometimes. I kind of felt that's what was going on in a conversation in a work meeting recently, when people are performing wokeness. Again, "I've read the books. I do all this stuff," but yet you could tell from the conversations that they haven't really truly reflected on it. It becomes more of, "There's all these White racist people out there, but I'm not one of them. I'm one of the better ones."
But I think really to get to that point, you have to kind of look inside yourself and figure out what are your biases, because everybody has biases. We all do. Whether they're racial biases or gender biases or age or religion, they're there. And they're all based on our experiences and our influences growing up and what we have been fed from the outside world.
And I can give you an example that was really eye opening to me. I was teaching a graduate level class, and one of the students had said, "My husband's working. Is it okay if I bring my son? He'll just be on his iPad. He won't be disruptive." I said, "That's fine." She was a White woman and when I show up to class, next to her was a Black boy. And my first thought was, "Oh, I didn't know she had adopted a child." And it took me a little while. I mean, it took probably a good five minutes and I'm like, "Wait a minute. Why am I assuming that he's adopted?" And mind you, this is coming for me. I'm married to a Black man. I have two biracial children. Turns out this woman also... I mean, that was her child. Her husband was Black.
But it's because growing up, that's always been what I was exposed to and that I wasn't really used to seeing interracial couples and children that were a different color than their parents. I think we all really have to acknowledge that. I was walking around my neighborhood recently and a tall Black man was approaching me walking. He was out walking. Now about a month prior to that, there had been these reports that this woman had gotten attacked. There was one report that it was a Black man and then it was taken back that no, it wasn't. We don't know the race of this person. But still, this guy actually looking back, he didn't look that different from my husband. But yet I had this immediate sort of, is that the guy? And it's because over time, I've just been bombarded with these images in the media of these Black men attacking White women, Black men as criminals, Black men as dangerous. We're constantly getting these inputs from the media.
I had to go home and tell my husband, I'm like, "Oh my God, this is terrible. I feel terrible that I had that reaction." I mean, immediately, I kind of thought, "Wait, why are you thinking this?" So I started having this whole of conversation with myself about it, but we all have these immediate reactions and biases that we really need to acknowledge. And I think you can't get to a point where you are truly self reflecting and aware and not just performing, until you really allow yourself to acknowledge that you have biases.
EmbraceRace: Microagressions we commit are a great place to start. Right. And maybe not books as much, as the effective stuff or not only books. I just want to highlight two things that I think are just so hugely important, Brigitte, that in what you just said. One of course, is acknowledging the biases that we have is really. It's hard for me to believe that if most of us, virtually all of us, if we were truly honest. I mean, there are moments when we are aware. Right. That we are aware, just as you were, that whether it's along again, as you said, race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, whatever it might be. A, we have the biases and we have the research to show us. But I think really, most of us would acknowledge it, certainly adults that we have it, if we were honest.
And the second thing is that what you did, so the monitoring yourself. Trying to make what can be subconscious and implicit, making it explicit. Right. Monitoring, examining making it so that we can deal with it. It's not that the bias, if implicit, especially isn't a problem in itself, but the bigger problem is how does it translate or not into what you do? And surely, one of the best ways of making sure that translation doesn't happen is to say, "Okay, oh, I just acknowledge I'm monitoring myself." I'm acknowledging one of the things that I do fairly often when I catch myself like that is ask, "Gosh, let me change the identity of the person I'm I'm dealing with. Let me play through the interaction I just had and imagine that this were a differently raced person, a man instead of a woman or vice versa or a non-binary person. Would I have reacted the same way?" And it's remarkable how often I have to say, "No, you know what? I'm pretty sure it would've played out differently, my part in it." Nicky, what's your thinking?
Nicky Sullivan: Yeah. I mean, I think all of that is a really great answer. I mean, I think the question of what do you do, both in yourself and with others to avoid this performative wokeness, it's so hard, especially in others. I think one thing that I sometimes struggle with, but that I think is important too, is not making it a competition between you and other people. Not to be like, "Wait, what are you doing? Oh, I'm also doing this." That's not going to be helpful. That takes the goal away from where it should be. And I think that's sometimes why some of that performance is happening. Right. Because there's a need to really feel like you need to show what you're doing.
I think trying to do that with myself and not be publicizing everything that I'm doing, but publicizing some of it when I think it's important for others. And then also, listening to what other people are doing and supporting the things that they are doing. And if I have something that I think, "Oh, you might really like this book, you might actually find this opportunity to step in helpful," trying to share that in a more open way. That's not me to show that I'm the best in my friend group at this. That coming with a more open framework can be helpful there for me. But it's tough.
EmbraceRace: But this is exactly what we're hoping. What you're talking about, Nicky, is exactly what we're hoping for from people's sharing in the chat. Because what people are asking, and again, we got a lot of these questions is, they're actually looking for ideas. People don't know. A lot of people really don't know. I just want to share a couple of the responses that we got. One from Christine, who's a White woman who says that she's been working on her own internal reflection and anti-racist work while also trying to have some difficult conversations with her three children. Also learning to be an equity facilitator in her school district, which is great.
Jan, she and her friend started a nonprofit organization called Starting with Stories, to use children's literature to help parents start conversations with race. For sure. We know that books, there are an increasing number of really good books, especially for White parents and children that can be really helpful to scaffold that conversation.
As here is Melanie, who is a children's librarian who practices Race in Storytimes by Jessica Brat. And presents in her story times with the children almost every time. I think she means talking about race every time she can in her story time for the kids. And there are lots of other things.
We have a question: "As a POC parent of kids of color, I'm feeling burnt out by the inaction and complacency of White parents, White teachers, White administrators. I am active at school on two school accountability committees. And I feel like so often I am the lone voice, dissenting voice. For example, getting the school resource officers out of schools, et cetera. I guess I would love for the presenters to give me some hope to keep going."
Let me actually read just one more because there are actually six things here. Angie is reading constantly bell hooks. We have to give love to bell hooks, who passed just yesterday, Black feminist, also known as a womanist writer, author. Happens to have been my own mentor in college from whom I learned a great deal. Ibram X. Kendi, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Kimberlé Crenshaw and so on. "Confronting White supremacy in my independent school and being fired for doing." "Working in an all-White dominant spaces to shake things up so as to not be complicit in upholding White supremacy."
One thing I'd love to ask you both about if you have ideas, this idea that racism, which is a term we rarely use for various reasons. Although we certainly think there are some attitudinally and in terms of behavior, there are lots of racist things happening. What do you do? Now, this person mentions all White spaces. And obviously, we're concerned about the family and the home.
Do you have ideas for White adults who are listening to this conversation and wondering, "Yes. In my day-to-day. Not only with my children, but let's say in my workplace with my colleagues, with my White friends, I want to have these conversations." What are the kinds of ways that you engage the people in your life when you see something problematic happening?
Nicky Sullivan: Yeah, this is a big question, isn't it? I mean, it's difficult. I think it can be hard to step in, especially if it's someone that you're close to and you're worried about what might come out of that. I think if you're seeing someone doing something that you think is problematic, I think one thing that we often want to resort to that's not helpful is not to come out and say, "Oh, you're racist." Or, "That that was a super racist thing." Because it puts all this weight that we're talking about on that person. And then they're going to get really defensive.
Can you bring it up more gently? "Oh, Hey, I noticed that you used this term that's offensive." Or, "Hey, remember that that might actually have this harmful consequence." You can come from a place of, "Maybe you didn't notice this. Or I thought that this might have a negative outcome." Not assuming their intentions is one thing. And just bringing it up more gently can be helpful, I think. Or just taking the chance also outside of those times to start the conversation, not in a place where there's already maybe something going wrong. Part of the thing that I think we've been thinking about in our research is, how to encourage not just reactive conversations. When a kid brings something up or when there's conflict in an interpersonal situation. But stepping in before that happens and saying, "Oh, hey. Here's this thing that maybe we can talk about. Did you notice this thing happening?" Or, "Oh, look at this character on TV."
Starting those conversations early, because then there's not maybe already going to be this heightened intensity there. And it might make it easier later on, especially with your kid or a friend to bring that up and say, "Oh, this might be an example of that thing that we've already talked about." That's just a couple of thoughts.
EmbraceRace: There's one quick thing, Nicky, just to pick up. I mean, I love the specificity. I mean, this is one of the reasons that I personally rarely talk about racism or certainly about racist people. Or even because there is so much heat in the term and often not much light. It's so under-specified, like what do we mean when we say that? As opposed to pointing to the thing that you find problematic, as you did in the example. "Here's the issue, specifically. Here's why I think it's difficult. Let's talk about that. That often feels like a much more fruitful way to go and the general charge.
Brigitte, what advice would you give for folks navigating these conversations?
Brigitte Vittrup: I mean, I agree with all of that. And I think especially, the notion of being proactive, getting used to having these conversations and bringing them up so that it's not all of a sudden this big, illuminated thing. And it's the same thing when having these conversations with kids. If you can build it into regular conversations that you just bring up and you ask your kids, "What do you think about that?" Using books and videos as springboards, if they're little. Using news stories and events, if they're older and really getting them to talk about it. Because I think what you will find is that once you start having more and more of these conversations, that kids will start to initiate them too. And I think it's with kids and adults personally.
I mean, people get so uncomfortable. "I don't know what to say to kids." I personally find it a lot easier to talk to kids about it because you can really put it in much more basic terms with the little ones. And they seem more open to learning. They haven't gotten to this point yet where they're so defensive that you sometimes find with adults. But I think we really, to move anything forward, we also need to start having conversations across racial groups. I mean, we can have White people sitting here talking together there and Black people talking together. We have to talk across these racial barriers in order to really come to understand each other and learn from each other.
And just like the one person, Melissa, you were reading about being the lone person, being Person of Color, it really is. It takes all of us and People of Color have been carrying this burden for so long. Which is another reason that I just implore White people to start having more of these conversations. Especially with their kids. Then these kids will grow up and be comfortable 5talking about it, so that it's not the People of Color that have to be the ones carrying this burden that they have been carrying forever. That we all really need to partake in these conversations.
EmbraceRace: Right. Thank you so much. And at EmbraceRace, we have lots of resources to help with. We'll try to send some of those to you, including webinars that Brigitte has been on, tip sheet Brigette's done. Thank you both. Thank you so much for this conversation, for your research, both of you. And bringing in the heart and personal experience as well. And we're just really grateful for always the great chat. We can't wait to read more of the chat when we get off.
And these are both people, by the way, that with when we partnered in the past and plan to partner in the future and hopefully, turn out better and better and more and more good stuff for all of us to do better.
- Conversations about race in Black and White US families: Before and after George Floyd’s death by J. Nicky Sullivan, Jennifer L. Eberhardt, and Steven O. Roberts
- So You Want to Raise a White Ally - EmbraceResources for raising White children
- Previous webinars with Brigitte Vittrup