Coffee hour delves into tough parenting topic – talking to kids about race

August 05, 2020
photo of the back of a young boy's head watching TV
Kids may have questions about some of the current events they see on TV. Photo by Vidmir Raic on Pixabay.

When images of protests in response to police violence and debates about statues and flags were flooding social media and television, many white parents had to decide how to talk to their children about race. But figuring out how to do that proved tricky – even for highly educated professionals. 

head shot of Dr. Are 
Dr. Funlola Are

“I don’t think anything really makes that comfortable besides continuing to do it and practice it,” said Funlola Are, Ph.D., a clinical psychology postdoctoral fellow who works in the National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center in the Medical University of South Carolina College of Medicine Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science.

She served as the guest speaker recently for the Diversity and Ethnic Relations Committee’s virtual coffee hour. The committee is a part of the Center for ARROWS (Advancement, Recruitment and Retention of Women Scientists).

Cristina Lopez, Ph.D., an associate professor in the College of Nursing, serves as committee chairwoman. She’s passionate about the monthly coffee hours and their ability to bring people together despite differences in academic disciplines or their personal backgrounds.

“We get to have a lot of conversations that don’t naturally happen in the workplace, but that are important for mentorship and grooming and retention of women in academia, particularly minority women,” she said. “The stories that get shared are very personal at times.”

head shot of Dr. Lopez 
Dr. Cristina Lopez 

Coffee hour is usually just that – an in-person early morning coffee session held at rotating locations around the Charleston campus. Guest speakers have been leaders from across campus, ranging from Marvella Ford, Ph.D., associate director of cancer disparities at Hollings Cancer Center, to MUSC President David Cole, M.D. The speakers usually talk about their own career trajectories and experiences with diversity.

COVID, of course, required the committee to adapt, so the coffee hour has gone virtual. And with so much in the news about racial inequities in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in May, coffee hour organizers decided to focus the session on how to talk to kids about race rather than one person’s biography. The informal, free-flowing format allowed for Are to lead an exchange of ideas among the staff and faculty members who attended.

Are’s day-to-day research at MUSC focuses on innovative methods for identifying and treating child maltreatment and expanding the reach of evidence-based trauma interventions. But some of her prior research looked at parenting and how parents of different cultural backgrounds incorporate culturally focused parenting practices with more universal parenting techniques. Black families have long had discussions about race, starting when their children are young, but many white families haven’t had such discussions. That halting unfamiliarity was evident as some attending the coffee hour shared some of the awkward discussions that have come up with their children in recent months.

Lopez said the coffee hours are a perfect place for such discussions. “You want to speak with the marginalized population, not for the marginalized population,” she said. Having members of both the majority and minority populations in the same room allows for deep conversations and the beginning of change, she said.

Actually speaking about race within white families helps to promote allyship and empowers children to call attention to injustices rather than being bystanders, Are said. In the past, the approach by some well-meaning white people has been to avoid mentioning race in pursuit of a colorblind approach. But by declining to acknowledge race, they may have sent the opposite message than intended to their children.

“The approach was ‘Oh, I don’t see color,’ which inadvertently says, ‘If I did see color, I would see yours as negative,’” she explained.

One good thing about this pandemic is that parents are already having difficult conversations with their children – about why they can’t see friends or why they had to leave school – and so they’re primed for challenging topics, Are said. She offered some suggestions based on recommendations from the site Embrace Race, an online source of resources that guides parents and educators in how to raise a generation of children who are thoughtful, informed and brave about race.

It’s important to speak in concrete terms, especially with younger children. That could mean pointing out that even though we call people “white,” they are not white like a piece of paper, and this is just a word we use to describe people who share a certain characteristic. It could mean talking about how stereotypes form. In group therapy sessions, Are often asks children to think of something different about themselves and then think about something they share in common with someone else. Because they have something in common with someone, she asks, does that mean they are the same? Of course not. Because they have something different about themselves, does that mean they can’t be friends? Of course not. The goal is for children to get comfortable acknowledging and celebrating differences among one another.

Are said parents can find opportunities to weave these discussions into daily life – for example, by talking about what they’re seeing on TV.

It’s critical for white families to become engaged in this topic, Are said, because these are issues that affect us all and people in the minority don’t hold enough power on their own to make changes to structural and systemic racism.

It’s inspiring in this moment to see the nation come together as a collective and consider these as human rights issues rather than a fight for Blacks or Latinos to tackle on their own, she said.

Lopez made a similar point.

“The burden doesn’t fall on just the backs of minority faculty to help improve diversity and inclusion – it falls on everybody,” she said.