Part of being a good white ally—beyond sharing an anti-racist article on social media, educating yourself, and donating—is understanding there are ways racism shows up in your own life that you might not yet realize.

By Melissa Mills
June 09, 2020
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Credit: Pasquale Senatore/Pacific Press/LightRocket/Getty Images

So You Think You Can Dance couple Stephen "tWitch" Boss and Allison Holker recently participated in the "Check Your Privilege" challenge created by TikTok user @boss_bigmamma to explain the disparity in privilege in this country. In the challenge, you're asked to put a finger down if:

  • You have been called a racial slur.
  • You have been followed in a store unnecessarily.
  • If someone has crossed the street to avoid passing you.
  • If you’ve had someone clench their purse in an elevator with you.
  • If you’ve had someone step off of an elevator to keep from riding with you.
  • If you’ve been accused of not being able to afford something expensive.
  • If you have had fear in your heart when stopped by the police.
  • If you have never been given a pass on a citation that you deserved.
  • If you have been stopped or detained by police for no valid reason.
  • If you have been bullied solely because of your race.
  • If you have been denied service because of the color of your skin.
  • If you’ve ever had to teach your child how not to get killed by the police.

As the audio says, "Any fingers left? That's privilege." At the end of the video, Allison's holding up nine fingers while all of tWitch's are down. How did you fare?

Thinking about this challenge, it was even more obvious how white privilege affects every part of my life, including how I parent. I am a white, cisgender, 32-year-old woman living in a relatively affluent area of New Jersey. My husband is white, and so is our 21-month-old son. We believe that Black Lives Matter, in equality, and in justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless other BIPOC (that's Black, Indigenous, and people of color). And I have seen time and time again that I—and my entire family—have many privileges because of the color of our skin.

By understanding—and accepting—my white privilege, I know that the work is just starting. I can't just talk to my kid about racism or strive to make changes without acknowledging certain realities and having uncomfortable conversations about white privilege. I want to raise my son to be part of the next generation of children who will confront and denounce racism. That starts with us as parents.

How White Parents Benefit From Privilege

Before Birth

White privilege starts affecting how people parent from pregnancy. The United States is a dangerous place for BIPOC to give birth. About 700 women die from pregnancy and childbirth-related conditions each year and Black women are three times more likely to die during pregnancy and childbirth than white women. Black women are also more likely to receive a lower quality of health care because of implicit bias.

"From before she was even born, I feel that my daughter has had the benefit of white privilege because I am a white mother," says West Orange, New Jersey mom Jessica Gaeta, 32. "Some people might think that, being only 17 months old, she wouldn’t have had the chance to experience privileges, but privilege literally begins at pregnancy and birth. It always resonated with me that I was lucky that I could focus on welcoming a new life instead of fearing complications for me and my baby."

Along with the risk Black mothers face during pregnancy and childbirth, worries for their children also start the moment they learn they're pregnant.

Dimitra W., 31, of Portland, Oregon, who is Black, has a 1-year-old daughter with her husband, who is white. "They say a woman becomes a mother the day she knows. Well, for Black mothers, the worry also begins the day you know," she says. "You begin to formulate those 'talks' that you'll inevitably have to have at various stages of their life. And those 'talks' begin to differ after a certain age depending on whether your child identifies as a boy or girl, LGBTQIA+, or has certain interests where they will find themselves more often in white circles than not."

As Kids Grow

According to a 2019 study by Sesame Workshop and NORC at the University of Chicago, 46 percent of Muslim parents, 40 percent of Black parents, and 32 percent of Asian parents say their child has heard at least one negative comment about their religion or race, yet only 10 percent of parents say they talk with their children about race or ethnicity often. The same study showed that 64 percent of Black parents say race shapes how others treat their child. At home, 61 percent of Black parents discuss race and ethnicity with their kids, while only 26 percent of white parents reported the same.

Amanda Grooms, 33, a mom who is white and raising two white children in Birmingham, Alabama, says that worries about her children are "trivial" compared to what BIPOC go through. "I worry if a classmate will play with my daughter, but never that she won't make friends, or that someone will call her a racial slur," she says. "As white parents, it's much more about being hyperaware of our privilege so our kids understand that they have a leg up in life because of their skin."

In Schools

Like Grooms, white parents will never have to worry about their kids being bullied, left out, or discriminated against simply for the color of their skin. Their kids will go to school and camp with others who look like they do. They'll easily be able to find characters and toys that are white. They'll often learn about their ancestors in school.

"Education has been created for the white experience, so we supplement with children's stories about the hardships of some people of color. As [our daughter] gets older, we will expand on these stories," say Deb, who is white, and Phil O., who is Colombian, parents to a Latinx and white 3-year-old living in New York City. "We work to raise her to be a global citizen with empathy for all."

Mario L., 33, dad to a 1-year-old in Sacramento, California, knows that for his son, who's Nicaraguan from his side and Mexican from his mother's side, "There will be history he learns in school and history he’s taught at home. He needs to know about [his] Nicaraguan and Mexican history. Along with African American history and what they have gone through up to this point." By painting this bigger picture, he hopes his son will learn about people of all colors and backgrounds and have unbiased friendships.

Through Discipline and Law Enforcement

Black children are also more likely than white children to be put in threatening situations. White parents may never have to talk to their kids about avoiding confrontation to stay safe or how to deal with the police. This, too, is a privilege.

"The most obvious and saddening way privilege is apparent for my child is that I don't have to start warning him from an early age that people may try to hurt him because of the color of his skin," says Happy McPartlin, 45, a white mom to a white 4-year-old in Essex County, New Jersey. "When I became a mother I started to be hyper-aware of things that could hurt him—his skin is not one of those things. But for so many children that is something they learn early and often."

For Nikeya Young, 39, a former public school teacher and mom of three living in Crete, Illinois, racism in schools and the school-to-prison pipeline are factors she has to consider as an African American mom raising African American children. "A disproportionate amount of Black children—especially Black male children—grow up and become incarcerated due to harsher discipline practices," says Young. "Black children are more likely to receive suspensions, detentions, and expulsions than their white counterparts."

She and her family have decided to homeschool her children, so "my children would not have to be in a position where they are indirectly being taught that they are 'bad' or that something is wrong with them just because of the color of their skin or the way that their hair naturally grows out of their scalp."

Why It's So Important for Parents to Talk About Race With Their Kids

Experts suggest parents start having these conversations early, but the conversations are different for white children versus children of color.

"For children of color, it is imperative that parents employ racial socialization to help children make sense of their world as people of color so that they resist internalizing racism and discrimination as being their 'fault' (which it obviously is not)," says Alfiee Breland-Noble, Ph.D., psychologist, founder of mental health nonprofit the AAKOMA Project and host of the podcast Couched in Color with Dr. Alfiee. "For white children, we want to raise good citizens who understand that their experiences differ significantly from that of their peers of color and that their privilege is something that comes with having white skin in a society that places high value on that trait."

Research indicates that children as young as age 2 begin grouping people according to traits, such as gender, race, language, and more. "So just like we teach children to name objects in their world, treat people with kindness, we want to normalize conversations around race so that we do not inadvertently reinforce the idea that color blindness is something to strive for and that ignoring racial and cultural differences reduces conflict—it does not," notes Dr. Alfiee.

At the very core of these lessons is teaching children empathy, which is why the conversations should start early. "Talking about racism and white privilege with children allows them to strengthen core social and emotional skills and learn to listen, understand, and then respond," says Shelli Dry, OTD, a pediatric therapist based in Kentucky and director of clinical operations at Enable My Child. "Having conversations about race, racism, and white privilege now will benefit children in the long term, helping children learn to speak up against inequality and injustice, respect and embrace people who are different from them, and understand what they can do to address and solve systemic racism within their communities."

Talking to children about white privilege is just one step toward dismantling racism, but if we make a conscious effort in how we teach our kids about race, diversity, tolerance, and inclusion, then maybe we'll be one step closer to a society without racism. 

There's a quote floating around Instagram that says, "Your greatest contribution to the universe may not be something you do, but someone you raise." May we all raise a greater next generation.

Editor's note: We've used people's preferred terms to identify their race and some names have been shortened to protect the privacy of those who shared their experiences of racism with us.

Comments (1)

Anonymous
June 10, 2020
Do you really think that only whites are racist?? Reallly??? I am Native American/Irish and married to a black man. The number of times that I have been insulted by black women because he is married to me is unbelievable. Native Americans are the worst treated culture in America. Yet its all about the BLM....ALL LIVES MATTER!