A protestor at a recent BLM march in London.
Photo: Alex Rorison
Life

The Race Chat: How White Parents Avoid Talking to Their Children About Racism

Black parents shouldn't be the ones asking their kids to modulate their behaviour.
23 June 2020, 8:00amUpdated on 23 June 2020, 10:10am

My parents have talked openly about race and racism my entire life. Of course, like all Black parents, they'd rather they didn't have to – but here we are. Sometimes it's a lighthearted joke about food or music, or how Arsenal's downfall came when they stopped being a predominately Black team. But more often than not, it's serious, and in those cases – when they start the conversation with "Please" or call me up in a mild panic when I'm out late on a Saturday night because they were "just watching the news and noticed a heavy police presence on the streets and they wanted to make sure that I knew what to do if I was stopped" – the fear in their voice alone is enough to make you want to burn the system down, twice.

By now, you should be aware that the vast majority of Black parents have the "The Talk" – a sit-down conversation with their kids about how to avoid being killed by an act of racist violence, by the state or otherwise. However, a common misconception is that it's just one big discussion, when in reality it's a never-ending series of conversations about how to manoeuvre up and around potentially harmful situations – personal, professional, political – morphing over time to respond to the temperature of society.

"Please, don't forget you're Black," they told me when I was ten, leaving Lagos (the Blackest Place on Earth) to go to school in Bath (the Whitest Place on Earth). "You won't be able to get away with what your new friends can get away with." The most recent conversation came last weekend, when they heard Nazis were roaming around central London and called every five minutes on my cycle home from dropping some essentials over at my aunt's.

This ritual is tragically necessary, but patently absurd. Racism has nothing to do with the actions of the Black community. Parents shouldn't have to ask their kids to modulate their behaviour to accommodate a broken system. It’s clear this is a conversation that white parents should be having to ensure that their children understand their responsibility in actively fighting prejudice – which is why, when I found out recently that most white families have no formal discussion about race and racism, I struggled to understand.

To find out how this was possible, I reached out to ten white people I know to be socially liberal and supporters of the Black Lives Matter cause – a group I had previously assumed were most likely to have had these open conversations at home – about how their families discussed race growing up.

Almost all of them admitted they had never had a formal conversation with their parents growing up, even when many wanted to. And almost all of them were left to navigate the intricacies of racism either on their own or by relying on Black classmates or neighbours to explain the challenges they faced.

'MAYBE THEY THOUGHT TWICE ABOUT TRYING TO EXPLAIN SOMETHING AS COMPLICATED AS RACISM BECAUSE THEY DIDN'T KNOW HOW'

"My parents didn't sit down for The Chat with me. I don't know if they felt like they didn't have to – since we grew up in a very racially diverse part of east London and lots of my school friends and youth team mates were Black – or they didn't want to. In private there would still be the odd off-colour joke, but I was taught the don't-be-a-cunt-to-people rule in principle. It was always made to sound self-preservative rather than actively kind; the ways you can make sure you don’t cause yourself trouble: be smart, watch how you treat others, show respect to those around you.

"Where they live now is one of the most Brexit boroughs in the country. There's a level of ignorance prevalent there that manifests as aggression when challenged, and my parents seeing that aggression firsthand in London as kids – in the National Front and racists in respective pubs their parents ran – has had a massive effect on my parents' personalities. They just want a peaceful life, and the easiest way to achieve that is to just keep your mouth shut. So I wasn’t raised to consider the external factors which saw my friends' older brothers being led out of our block of flats by police in the middle of the night. My parents moved away from politics as though they didn't understand it. Too smart for the reactive dog-whistle racism of the far-right and alienated by the perceived intellectualism of the left. Maybe they thought twice about trying to explain something as complicated as racism to me because they didn't know how, didn't want to say the wrong thing.

"As I've grown older and more conscious of issues of race and injustice, I’ve felt more comfortable interrogating them on their feelings. While cautious, they are broadly tolerant and accepting. But they acknowledge society's fundamental problems without seeing how they can affect change – 'It's always been this way.'"

– Will, 27

'THE ONLY TIME I WOULD EVER TALK ABOUT RACE WITH MY PARENTS WAS IN THE CONTEXT OF ME EXPLAINING WHY THEY CAN'T SAY CERTAIN THINGS'

"I grew up in the predominantly white outer suburbs of Leeds (there were two Black guys in my year at school). The only time I would ever talk about race with my parents was in the context of me explaining why they can't say certain things. Dad always referred to Black men as "cool". My mum’s best mate's daughter Molly has a Ghanaian boyfriend, and mum will always prefix a story about him with "Molly's Ghanaian boyfriend" with a slightly winking tone, as if what country he's from makes him cheeky or something. Other times, they might mention a person’s Blackness only in the context of something bad happening.

"I’ve moved back home due to the coronavirus pandemic, and since the Black Lives Matter protests my parents and I have started to talk about race in a way that goes beyond me wincing at them. Dad wasn’t sure about the statues coming down. 'Why couldn’t they just put up a plaque next to Colston explaining that he was evil?' he asked. So I told him what I’d heard others say: that black people shouldn’t have to walk around their city looking up at the faces of men who enslaved their ancestors. That it's so perfect that a man who transported people across the sea in chains for a life of misery and cruelty should fall in that very same water.

"Another dinner time, after the three men had been arrested for the death of George Floyd, dad said, 'Haven’t the protesters achieved what they set out to do now? When does this end?' I said it ends when racism ends. When the murderers of Breonna Taylor, Mark Duggan, Eric Garner have been charged. When Black people get the same opportunities I was given. He was distracted by the garlic bread he forgot to take out of the oven. But then another dinner time I started talking about how weird it was that I’d never had a Black teacher before, even at university. Dad perked up. 'So that’s when it ends?' I asked him what he meant. 'Maybe these protests are good because they draw attention to things like that?'"

– Claire, 25

Photo: Alex Rorison.

'MY HOMETOWN IS UNBELIEVABLY WHITE, WHICH IS MAYBE WHY RACISM NEVER SEEMED TO THEM LIKE AN URGENT TOPIC OF CONVERSATION'

"My parents are well-meaning liberals who didn't say a huge amount to me about race growing up, other than vague platitudes about everyone being equal. There was never a sit-down discussion, it wasn't brought up out of the blue; instead, they drip-fed my brothers and I the idea that discrimination was bad by reacting, as and when, to storylines in soap operas and tragedies in the news. In fairness to them, somewhere down the line they at least managed to convey the message, 'Racism is bad – just because!'

"My hometown is unbelievably white, which is maybe why racism never seemed to them like an urgent topic of conversation – unlike sectarianism, which, given we lived in central Scotland, they considered a more pressing issue. But in fact, growing up almost exclusively knowing other white people meant I needed to be taught about race more, not less."

– Richard, 27

'MY MUM TAUGHT ME ABOUT THE DAMAGE CAUSED BY THE BRITISH EMPIRE'

"Like a lot of white people, I don't remember ever getting The Talk about race. I was always aware that my sister is half Indian (her dad is Indian and our mum is white), but I don't remember that being talked about in terms of race, more parentage.

"I do remember the first time we went to India; my mum had taught me beforehand about the damage caused by the British Empire. Like a lot of white, middle class liberal people I know, my mum can be well-meaning but clunky. When we were in India and visiting an old palace for a picnic, she actually apologised to strangers for the way the Raj stole from their country. 'I'm sorry about the British,' she would say, smiling, endearing, candid. 'I'm sorry about what we did.' I was raised to talk about everything this way – class, sex, disability, money. Talk about it. Don't pretend it isn't there. That approach isn't very sophisticated, and sometimes it probably does more harm than good.

"Finally, as the mother of a 2.5-year-old, living back in my hometown, I know that I have to do a better job. Just before lockdown we had a Sudanese refugee staying with us for a while, and so I read my son some children's books about the refugee experience. We read him books featuring non-white characters and families (So Much by Trish Cooke is a favourite). We also took my son to a socially-distanced Black Lives Matter protest last week. But the truth is, I don't have many non-white friends. I am not bringing him up in a mixed household. In fact, at nursery, my son has more BAME friends than I do. I worry that, when it comes down to it, I might be repeating the mistakes of my own parents; I may be well-meaning, but I can also be clunky."

– Jess, 35

'MY PARENTS JUST ASSUMED I WOULDN'T BE RACIST AND HOPED FOR THE BEST'

"I can't recall any specific discussion, which is quite a massive gamble, come to think about it. One of the biggest deterrents for having children, to my mind, is the potential for inadvertently bringing a fresh new reactionary scumbag into the world. My parents just assumed I wouldn’t be, and hoped for the best.

"The extent to which I can remember racism appearing throughout my school career was in occasionally being set the task of drawing posters denouncing it. This would invariably result in the entire classroom – regardless of age group – producing identikit depictions of enormous arms of different colours, linking and shaking hands around an inaccurately rendered globe. I assume this was supposed to serve as a periodic reminder that racism was bad and diversity was good. If we were able to express this simple fact via a trite doodle we had been instructed to copy, this would be evidence enough that we understood. This was probably the sort of thinking that influenced those like my parents' non-interventions. I didn’t return home with swastikas carved into my arm, so I didn’t need to be taught.

"I am extremely grateful to my parents for the values they attempted to impart upon me. I also like to think of myself as someone who isn’t racist, who is vigilant of racist attitudes, and yet I am often still taken aback with total embarrassment upon learning things about the way in which it manifests that it feels I should have known long ago. It would be entirely unfair to hold my parents responsible for this. It is extremely difficult, after all, to teach things you might not know yourself – and there is so much we are actively encouraged not to know, that we urgently ought to start finding it out."

– John, 28

'MY DAD WOULD SENSITIVELY MAKE THE POINT THAT WE HAD DIFFERENT LIVED EXPERIENCES BECAUSE OF RACE'

"My family has Scottish origins, but for as long as I've been on this Earth we’ve been based in a south London suburb. Race came up, often. My nan would comment on how the area had 'changed', which, even as a kid, I knew was a euphemism for becoming less white. My dad addressed this with me. He asked me what I thought when she said things like this, and explained that she read 'right-wing' newspapers which 'didn’t like people who didn't look like us'.

"My dad was always the one who broached awkward conversations with me – he did the sex chat, too. I can feel my stomach turning just thinking about that one. He never seemed uncomfortable, but, at the same time, he had a skilful way with euphemisms, with saying a lot with very few words and turning it into a question to ask me to engage critically and form views. I never heard him explicitly say, 'Nan is a bit racist, don't listen to her,' or, 'What do you think of the fact our family friend is Black and we're white?' But my dad would sensitively make the point that we had different lived experiences because of race. For a baby boomer who didn't go to uni, I guess that's not so bad, but I like to think I'd be able to be more direct with my kids.

"When I was around 14 years old, I did work experience with my mum’s best friend in a kitchen where he was the executive chef. He’s a 6'4" British Jamaican man who grew up in Hackney. It occurred to me then that, though he’d been around for as long as I could remember, we’d never actually discussed race. I don’t ever remember my mum or dad raising it, either. It was only when I saw him at work, in an unfamiliar environment away from our home or his, that I realised how often he was 'the only person who didn’t look like him' in a room, and how often he must have been forced to think about that."

– Lisa, 32

Photo: Alex Rorison

'EVERYTHING I LEARNED WAS DRIP FED THROUGH MY UPBRINGING AND SURROUNDINGS'

"I don't remember having a specific race chat. As far as I know, everything I learned was drip fed through my upbringing and surroundings. I grew up in Leicester, which has a high British-Indian population and is pretty well integrated – we have huge Diwali celebrations that everyone attends, and an area called the Golden Mile that my mum took me to buy food, etc, on the weekends. At school, too, they made a big effort to teach us about different aspects of Indian culture, presumably to encourage the white students to be decent people.

"Otherwise, I remember a Black friend in primary school telling me about racism she’d experienced, so I'd say it was more a case of picking things up from different places than one big chat. However, while I think I generally benefited, and still benefit a lot from learning directly from POC themselves, my mum did make a specific effort to raise me to be empathetic to everyone I met. She is working class and disabled, and previously worked as a mental health nurse, so the importance of being open to different types of people was always ingrained in me.

"I don’t remember her teaching me specifically about race, but if she had heard something bigoted, like a slur or anti-immigrant opinion – in the pub, for example – she'd talk about it when she came home and tell me what she said in response. I don't think she was trying to teach me anything as much as vent, but it gave me a good example to follow on speaking up."

– Rachel, 27

'THE PREVAILING LOGIC IN MY HOUSE WAS ONE OF NOT TREATING ANYONE DIFFERENTLY BECAUSE OF THE WAY THEY LOOK'

"I can't remember ever having a specific conversation with my parents about race, which I know is a mark of privilege. I grew up in suburbia and my state school was predominantly white, although there were a fair amount of students from Asian and Black backgrounds. I remember the prevailing logic in my house was one of not treating anyone differently because of the way they look or their ethnic background.

"I was lucky that both of my parents spoke different languages and always encouraged us to as well, and to broaden our social circles beyond people who looked like us. My mum then became a TEFL teacher and would often discuss the difficult situations of some of her students, predominantly immigrants, and how the government was failing them. I definitely absorbed my parents' passion for equality for all, and confidence to push back against authority – particularly in instances of discrimination. I recognise that I am lucky to be able to do this without fear of consequence.

"My own white privilege and a deeper understanding of systemic racism and how I have benefited from it throughout my life are something that I've become much more aware of since leaving home. I've learned the value in acknowledging racism with young children and teaching them how to be anti-racist in their own behaviours."

– Emma, 32

'FOR WHITE PEOPLE, IGNORANCE IS BLISS'

"The white experience of a 'parental racial chat' is, as far as I’m concerned, non-existent. This would probably come as a surprise to many BAME people who have had chilling, sombre conversations about the base inequality in this country – but to me it chimes in with the maxim that, for white people, ignorance is bliss.

"The only time it ever became a 'thing' for me was when I was pulled up for telling racist jokes in school, to my majority white classmates, around the age of 13. Another student bravely made a point of complaining, and I was brought in for a meeting with my parents and his, and made to feel thoroughly ashamed. For my parents, though, this was no greater a misstep than, say, getting in a fight over a Pokemon card, or spraying someone with a water fountain. Racism to them is something that happens to other people, isn’t their concern. 'Other people', of course, who are not like them and are thus not afforded basic humanity. It was a lesson I didn’t fully grasp until years later, long after being totally cocooned in white schools, white offices, white bars, white parties – a thoroughly white life.

"This is starting to change now, and conversations with them are erring on the side of righteousness, thanks to depressingly hard, necessary work done by BLM and other rights movements across the world. Better late than never, I suppose."

– Rob, 26

'WE FOUND OURSELVES FORCED INTO UNDERSTANDING AND FIGHTING IT, BY THE DERANGED RAMBLINGS OF A DRUNKEN RACIST'

"When I was 15, a BNP membership was leaked. I downloaded it and hit search, tentatively punching in the letters. As I hit return, my heart sank. There it was, stained against the white pixels of the text document: my grandad’s name, address and home phone number.

"It shouldn’t really have come as a surprise. As a kid, we’d visit my grandparents house, and my granddad, swaying somewhere in the space between his fifth and sixth pint, would unload torrents of racist abuse at a variety of people, characters and things – some present, others not. Sometimes I’d argue back. Sometimes I’d just sit silently, glared at by my mum, urging me not to intervene and cause it to escalate.

"As we’d drive home, my mum and I would turn over the tirades. I just couldn’t get my head around it. Why would someone be so filled with hate? Where did it come from? My mum would say: 'The thing about people like him is that their lives are full of hate and sadness. I don’t know why he is like that, but you should never let yourself become that. People deserve to be treated nicely regardless of who they are, and you shouldn’t ever forget that."

My mum is the reason I am who I am – she taught me to treat everyone fairly and kindly, but I don’t think she ever set out to have the race talk with me. We sort of found ourselves forced into learning, understanding and, eventually fighting it, by the deranged ramblings of a drunken racist."

– Alex, 29

@DipoFaloyin

*Names have been changed to to protect families' identities.