First the nation’s president dubbed the coronavirus the “Wuhan virus” because the infection appears to have originated from that city in China. Soon came accounts from Asian Americans who were being harassed while on walks or jogs by people shouting racial epithets. Asian American doctors and nurses are reporting an increase in racial incidents, even as they care for patients. Now a recent report from the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council and Chinese for Affirmative Action groups documents almost 1,500 anti-Asian incidents over a four-week period through April 15, and they expect this trend to continue. Asians are being called “chink,” they’ve been hit by soda cups thrown at them, and have been spit on.
In the black community, the theory that the pandemic would be an equalizer fell apart quickly. Black communities across the country are racking up disparate death counts, with some families losing multiple family members. As of April 29 in Wisconsin, where blacks are just 6.3 percent of the population, they accounted for 23 percent of the coronavirus cases and 33 percent of the deaths. The growing consensus is that preexisting race-based health disparities are a significant factor in these alarming numbers.
Add to the mix white agitators protesting state-issued stay-at-home orders while outfitted in full military gear, carrying automatic weapons and waving Confederate flags, and it is impossible to deny that our society’s endemic race issues have necessitated yet more conversations in my house about race.
Other black and Asian families are talking about these issues because they, too, know they don’t have a choice. What about white parents? Just as families of color have always had to socialize their children on matters of race, white parents need to socialize their children about race, too.
Socializing kids into a race-based culture is referred to as racial and ethnic socialization (RES). It is the process by which parents and families educate and prepare their children to function in a racialized society like ours. It usually is discussed in research literature as a tool for black parents and generally serves two main purposes: to educate children about their heritage and to prepare them to face racism, discrimination, stereotypes and a host of other race-related issues.
“The main thing I think [black] parents do … is that they try to infuse their home environments with positive, affirming images of African American people," says Mia Smith-Bynum, associate professor of Family Science at the University of Maryland School of Public Health. "That may be decorating your home with cultural artifacts, making sure that your kids have an African American peer group, exposing them to literature and culture — all sorts of things where kids can see themselves.”
“The goal is to convey that parents are culturally affirming to children in a world that denigrates them” she says. “Doing these things is like psychological armor against racial stereotypes.”
Preparing kids to face what living in their black skin will be like is critical. “This country was built on racism. Our children have to be prepared for that,” says Janice Robinson-Celeste, co-founder and publisher of Successful Black Parenting magazine. “The resurrection of white nationalists and racial bullying keeps race as a center point in our children’s lives, and they have to be ready to manage their thoughts and responses at all times.”
Some ways black parents typically accomplish this is to take trips to cultural museums; participate in cultural spaces where black people are gathered, like black churches, hair salons or barbershops; join membership groups like Jack and Jill; and make sure kids can regularly visit with extended family and older relatives who can give them perspective and context on what it takes to survive in this country.
Asian American, Latin American and Native American families also engage in conversations and activities to help kids appreciate their culture and prepare emotionally and mentally for being targets of race-based discrimination.
As targets of coronavirus fearmongering, Asian American families are especially vigilant now to affirm their children and to protect them against racist attacks. Helen Lee, author of “The Missional Mom" and Christian publishing professional at InterVarsity Press, is dealing with the issue head-on. “We have had no choice but to have conversations with our three boys about the current racial rhetoric and climate that we are currently experiencing,” she says. “We don’t want them to be surprised if in the future they are out of the house and someone hurls a racial attack at them, or if someone does something like that to them online.”
“We know that RES is helpful to reduce the risk for mental health disorders and to foster strong ethnic identity," says Erlanger Turner, assistant professor at Pepperdine University and president of the American Psychological Association Division 37, the Society for Child and Family Policy and Practice. “[It] can also help children to develop positive self-esteem and promote resilience.”
So why should white parents socialize their children on race?
“There are so many messages in the broader culture that whiteness is both normative and also more highly valued, so white parents have to very intentionally counter those messages in how they communicate with their kids,” Lee says.
Another reason? Overt acts of hate are increasing. Data from the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism report, “White Supremacists Double Down on Propaganda in 2019,” shows that incidents of on- and off-campus distribution of racist leaflets, brochures and other material more than doubled between 2018 and 2019; and in a Feb. 5 hearing, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray stated that the threat posed by racist extremists is now a “national threat priority.”
Parents need to help their kids understand that behavior borne of hatred causes division among us, it incites violence that will continue to destabilize society, and it does not honor everyone’s right to live in peace and with respect.
“Parents ... need to look at life with wider lenses," says Valerie Lewis Coleman, author of the children’s book, “Oh, the Things I Can Be When I See Me.” "Hatred and racism are learned behaviors fueled by ignorance. Instead of ostracizing people for having different skin color … we should teach acceptance and educate children that differences do not make you right or wrong.”
So what should racial socialization look like for white families?
As is the case for families of color, there are many things white parents can do to socialize kids about race.
1. Normalize nonwhite ethnicities by including books, movies, TV shows and other cultural expressions by people of color alongside those by whites, and expanding your social, professional and faith circles to include people and families of different ethnicities and doing the same for your kids. This will show children that you value people from all ethnicities and count them worthy of friendship and social association.
2. Educate yourself and your kids accurately about history. Correct the prevailing narrative that promotes a benevolent and peaceful beginning to this country by reading accounts like the New York Times’s 1619 project, and The Washington Post’s project about teaching the truth about slavery in schools. Include historical accounts involving Japanese Americans and Native Americans as well as other ethnicities.
3. Talk often about current events and posts they might see on social media related to those events. The tendency is to think that children are too young to have these conversations, but any conversation can be adapted to be age-appropriate. The current coronavirus pandemic is a perfect time to talk, because there are loads of opportunities to help kids recognize harmful racism and understand why it continues to happen. Seek out stories that cover issues by including opinions and information from diverse voices and sources.
Parenting is hard, and addressing race issues doesn’t make it any easier. But even the FBI has told us that white supremacy and racism are a “national threat priority.” Jennifer Fink, founder of Building Boys parenting resource and host of “On Boys” podcast, puts our collective situation in perspective: “For far too long, white families have been able to avoid racial conversations. … [But now] we can create a chorus of voices that says, ‘No more, we all need to talk to our children about race.’ ”
We cannot wait.
Chandra White-Cummings is a freelance writer and editor and founder of CWC Media Group. She writes about the things she feels she can’t afford not to write about.