How to talk to your children about racism

By Brickell Quarles

Guest Columnist

With all that is going on during this global pandemic, one of the main topics being addressed in today’s news is racism.

However, what’s unfortunately not being fully addressed is the impact of racism on our children, and how to properly address it with them. Your children are very vulnerable to what’s going on — if not enlightened or equipped.

Therefore, I have written this to help parents effectively empower their children to manage and understand what they may be seeing in the news, hearing from their friends or even experiencing themselves.

First of all, when it comes to racism, parents need to know and be mindful of the following:

• Personal experiences of racism can be traumatic. If not properly handled, it can leave long lasting emotional and psychological scars on your child’s mental health.

• All traumatic experiences, including racism, need to be processed in order to prevent your child from internalizing those experiences.

The emotional and psychological effects of racism are remarkably similar to those that one experiences in an abusive relationship, where the dynamics of power and control are in action. So parents need to understand that racism can be used to shame, gaslight (make you think you are crazy), bully, terrorize, blame and humiliate your child, doing all without taking full responsibility for its actions.

Racism will respond defensively when confronted, will deny what’s blatantly true, and will try to charm you, to get you to side with it, to prevent it from having to own up to its’ abusive behavior. After racism has convinced you it did nothing wrong and has successfully blamed its victim — your child — it will continue to harbor the same oppressive and dehumanizing thoughts by displaying the same abusive behavior behind your back.

Therefore, depending on a child’s age, he or she may not understand what they are experiencing as victims, and may tend to blame themselves for racism’s oppressive behavior.

So as parents, it is imperative that you are equipped to identify “the enemy” when you see it; understand its tactics and empower your children to do the same. Children of color go to war everyday with racism. Sometimes its schemes are overt and obvious. Other times it is covert and can be difficult to discern.

Either way, know the likelihood is high that children of color will be confronted with racism — no matter how benign, wholesome and innocent their school, girls or boys club, white friends, neighborhoods, camps, etc., may appear to be. Always assume the possibility. Racism is very cunning and knows how to get what it needs to survive — power and control.

Therefore, I believe parents should address racism in a similar way that soldiers deal with the trauma they experience from battle. As with all wars, soldiers returning to their “safe zone” often have time to debrief with their officials.

So parents, every night spend some time with your children and ask them how their day went. Specifically, ask them if they experienced any acts of racism. You must first define it for them so that they know exactly what to look for.

If your child experiences an act of racism, allow him or her the opportunity to process this traumatic experience with you. Here are three action steps I recommend these conversations include:

Debrief: First, ask your children: What happened? How did it make you feel? How did you respond? How do you feel about how you responded?

Re-Program: Next, validate their feelings so that they do not feel crazy, alone, wrong, ashamed or unheard. Reframe their experience to prevent them from feeling invisible, incapable, inadequate or inferior.

Reframing is a technique used in therapy to help create a different way of looking at a situation, person, or relationship by changing its meaning. [It’s] also referred to as cognitive reframing, [and is] a strategy therapists often [use] to help clients look at situations from a slightly different perspective.” —

So I recommend that parents use this reframing strategy to help their children better understand their own reactions to racism and to help them to see who they truly are. Help them to understand that they are not who racism tries to make them believe and feel about themselves. Reinforce that they are more capable, beautiful/handsome, smart, strong etc., than that.

Re-Educate: Finally, parents should educate their children on what or who they are dealing with. Help them recognize racism’s patterns, motives, intentions, fears (Yes, racism is afraid), and why they themselves are racism’s target.

Tell them their true history instead of leaving them to accept racism’s narrative about who they are. Help your children to reclaim their identity by helping them to pen their own stories. A healthy identity based on truth is the seed that develops into a confident, competent, capable, emotionally intelligent and socially-equipped adult.

With everything that our children of color are seeing, feeling and/or experiencing in today’s climate, it is imperative that parents begin to talk open and honestly about racism. Your children deserve the opportunity to live out their fullest potential. And as parents, they will need your help and guidance to do this.

I believe parents should address racism in a similar way that soldiers deal with the trauma they experience from battle.

Brickell Quarles, Ph.D. has been a licensed clinical psychologist since 2003.  She holds master’s degrees in psychology, theology and biology. This is the reprint of a column originally published July 30, 2020.