The term white privilege is often misunderstood. But experts explain why it's important to teach your children what it means and how to do that based on their age.

By Maressa Brown
August 05, 2020
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As parents continue to explore and discuss tough topics related to racial inequality and the fight for justice with their children, they're bound to encounter language that stirs up a host of emotions and raises a variety of questions. For example, "white privilege" is a phrase that is more frequently cropping up in conversation these days. But the phrase is often misunderstood.

"White privilege is receiving advantages, benefits, and rights that are unearned but given to white people solely because of the color of their skin," explains BraVada Garrett-Akinsanya, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in Plymouth, Minnesota. It's a specific type of privilege, which people of color describe as the ability to be in the world without having to think about what it means to be white, she explains.

"Being white means that society ascribes positive attributes to a person simply because of the color of their white skin," says Dr. Garrett-Akinsanya. "At the same time, society ascribes negative attributes to people of color. This process leads to providing unfair advantages to white people because being white means that the person is perceived to be superior to others who are not white."

Here's why the term "white privilege" is misinterpreted and how white parents can speak to their children about it, according to Dr. Garrett-Akinsaya and other experts.

It Doesn't Mean That All White People Have Had an Easy Life

The common misperception about white privilege is that it implies that being white inherently makes for a life of smooth sailing and that successes aren't hard-earned. People might associate the phrase with financial wealth or other types of privilege that they don't/didn't have, explains Dr. Garrett-Akinsanya.

"Some white people deny that advantages are unearned," notes Erin Pahlke, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Whitman College, whose research centers on how children form their views about race. "Often, these people see their own successes as entirely a result of their own hard work and others' struggles as a result of not working hard enough. And some folks mistakenly believe that they can't be privileged because they themselves have suffered personal life hardships."

Denial of white privilege might also stem from another belief: that the U.S. operates as a meritocracy, or a system in which you're rewarded exclusively for ability and effort, as opposed to wealth and social class. "There's some research that suggests that white parents are more likely than Black parents to teach their children that the U.S. is a meritocracy," explains Dr. Pahlke. "And, for people who strongly believe that the U.S. is a meritocracy, white privilege can be a hard concept to accept."

The misinterpretation of the term is fairly widespread. According to 2017 findings from the Pew Research Center, 46 percent of white Americans say they believe they benefit because of their race, compared to 92 percent of Black Americans and 65 percent of Hispanic Americans who believe that white people benefit.

"Because the advantages are so structurally ingrained, privileges are often unconscious and perceived as being unremarkable," explains Dr. Garrett-Akinsanya. "White privilege has a legacy of racism and is a cause of it, too."

How to Teach Kids About White Privilege

Just as it's so important to explain the problem with saying "all lives matter" or the issue with teaching color blindness, young people should be taught the concept of white privilege in order to understand the longtime reality of race in the U.S. "Scholars have written about the fact that it's easy for white people to ignore racial privilege; the system is set up to allow all of us to claim innocence," says Dr. Pahlke. "And so from early on, it is important to give children the tools to understand white privilege and motivate them to fight unjust systems."

Preschool and Elementary School Students

Dr. Pahlke recommends young children read stories about the Civil Rights Movement and learn about historical figures, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

There are also opportunities in everyday life to point to examples of white privilege. If a news story comes on about police violence against Black Americans, talk about the ways in which white people have been documented to be treated differently by law enforcement, suggests Dr. Pahlke. "Show your 10-year-old a picture of the white armed protesters at the Michigan capitol back in May and have a conversation," she suggests.

Metaphors also work well for younger kids, says Abigail Gewirtz, Ph.D., author of When the World Feels Like a Scary Place. In the book, Dr. Gerwitz advises parents say something like, "When people are in charge, they plant the type of flowers that they like the best, and they might not want to plant flowers in their garden that they do not like as much. That's the way people show privilege and prejudices. They choose the flowers that they prefer and don't give other flowers a chance to grow in their gardens. People sometimes do that with other people."

You might also be more direct, discussing how a Black person can be denied a job they deserve or certain grades in school and how they often aren't paid the same amount of money for the same amount of work a white person does, suggests Lea Lis, M.D., a child psychiatrist and author of No Shame: Real Talk With Your Kids About Sex, Self-Confidence and Healthy Relationships. "Discuss how white people don't get pulled over as often by police; they have better access to schools and education much of the time; and how some stores carry only products for white people’s hair and skin tones," she says.

She also recommends watching media, like Cut.com's "Black Parents Explain How to Deal with the Police," together to illustrate your point.

You can also read books like Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness by Anastasia Higginbotham and Race Cars: A Children’s Book about White Privilege by Jenny Devenny, suggests Nikki Josephs, Ph.D., an assistant professor of special education at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York.

Middle School Students

Tweens should learn about the Reconstruction Era and the history of redlining across our country, notes Dr. Pahlke. "Teaching children about the history of racism in this country—from 1619 to today—will help them develop a framework for understanding white privilege," she says.

They can be introduced to illustrations of privilege on social media, like dancer Allison Holker's viral TikTok, in which she and her husband, who is Black, take Big Mamma's "Check Your Privilege," which includes statements like, "Put a finger down if you have been stopped or detained by police for no valid reason" and "Put a finger down if you have been bullied solely because of your race."

Dr. Pahlke also recommends a family reading of the 1989 article "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" by Peggy McIntosh. And Dr. Josephs recommends The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas for this age group.

High School Students

"By the time adolescents are thinking about applying for their first job and studying for the PSAT, they should know about the explicit and implicit racial bias that continues to impact people's access to occupational and educational opportunities," says Dr. Pahlke.

She recommends talking to kids about persistent racial disadvantages built into our systems. "Make it clear the disadvantages necessarily mean that white folks were and continue to be advantaged," says Dr. Pahlke. "Empirical studies suggest that white people focus on the disadvantages faced by non-white people and almost never focus on the advantages that those disadvantages imply. So, for example, people may acknowledge racially discriminatory hiring practices but then ignore the advantages those practices create for white individuals."

You might also challenge teens to come up with examples from their own lives—school, work, and sports, suggests Dr. Garrett-Akinsanya. And Dr. Josephs recommends high school students read Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi. 

The more explicit you can be about the concept, the better. "Talking to older children and adolescents about racism leads them to both better identify issues and become interested in fighting for positive change," says Dr. Pahlke.

Ultimately, helping children understand what white privilege really means will not only prevent them from growing up to ignore race as an issue but to be actively anti-racist through their actions.

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