It’s been months now since your daughter’s social media feeds have been flooded with horrific images, posts, and stories about racism. In the midst of a global pandemic, we are witnessing senseless police brutality against black people, protests, marches, and social unrest.
In my perhaps naïve attempt to promote social awareness, my conversations with girls, honestly, were disappointing. As I passionately talked about black lives mattering, systemic racism, and white privilege, specifically the murder of George Floyd and then the incident when Amy Cooper called the police on a black man in a public park as retaliation for asking her to put her dog on a leash (as is required by the park rules), girls seemed clueless, apathetic, and disinterested. Some even told me they just didn’t understand why we needed to talk about race much. What I needed them to know—that for many, not talking about it, is not an option because it’s a daily lived experience. We need to teach them how to care.
It can be uncomfortable and difficult to talk about racism. I know your instincts may be guiding you to steer clear of the topic altogether if you don’t know where to begin. Yet, now, more then ever, we need to talk to our girls about racism as a social construct and a collective responsibility. At the same time, we need to motivate them to take steps to be part of creating change.
Navigating race is complicated and conversations depend on socioeconomic class, educational background, family makeup, community, and life experiences. There’s no “one way” or “right way” to talk about race, but all parents need to know this: Girls need to start having these conversations in order to become more aware of their unconscious biases, their privilege, and their own actions (or inactions).
If you are ready to begin, here is what you can do to empower her to become an intelligent and racially aware young woman, an ally for the oppressed, and an advocate for social justice.
1. First, set the example: check yourself and your own beliefs, biases, and prejudices. We all have them. I know it’s a big ask—to look at yourself in the mirror but it is required. Take an honest inventory of what you think about different races, how you treat people, and, yes, even the stereotypes you may hold as well as any racial slurs in your vernacular. In short, be aware of your racial tendencies. It is imperative that you check yourself and apologize when you misspeak or misstep. She needs to see that you are being real with her and she needs to see that you are holding yourself accountable if you do offend someone with the ability to say, “I’m sorry.”
2. Talk about race, often, and don’t ignore it. They see differences and they learn early to sort people into categories—boy or girl, tall or small, and, yes, black or white—there is no such thing as being “color blind.” With this natural categorization, we can talk about diversity and, by extension, inequality—the fact that not all people are treated fairly. In fact, many cultures are mistreated because of the color of their skin. Differences exist and so does racism. Let’s talk about how various ethnicities have diversified experiences. Let’s talk about why. Let’s encourage her to intentionally seek out diversity in her own social circles and celebrate races, to better understand different stories and perspectives—this can bring her closer to getting to the similarities—that all humans want and deserve love and respect.
3. Learn with her. She is going to need to better understand racism so I can’t repeat this enough: It is not the job of the marginalized, to teach her about their history. The responsibility needs to begin with her. Together, learn history. Why? When girls become grounded in facts about the past, whether it’s slavery and black people, the Indigenous people, or the Chinese Canadians working on the railway, and the history of white people, they can start to understand others and answer some of their “why” questions so they become more confident when they speak. Girls cannot rely on what others tell them as this so often reinforces stereotypes and they cannot look to inaccurate social media platforms. Give her the knowledge she needs and learn together and hold space for her to ask her questions and formulate her own opinions and learn about race and reckoning. Teach her to be respectfully curious, to listen to someone else’s story without comparing it to her story.
4. Teach her to speak up and up stand up. With knowledge comes passion and girls can easily become impassioned to do something when it comes to social justice. Help girls to notice situations and see the truth so that they can speak up and stand up for the racialized who are often silenced. For example, when she is at a restaurant and orders food yet notices her biracial friend is overlooked by the server, she needs to say something and act quickly—as in, leave the restaurant. When her black friend is followed in the mall by a security guard who is suspicious she will steal, she needs to tell her friend they are done shopping for the day. It is never okay to ignore these kinds of truths, to “pretend” they are not happening, or to stay silent. Girls need to notice and then act when they witness injustices.
Now, more than ever is the time for girls to know they can embrace the words of Mahatma Gandhi: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” This begins with the ability to care. Let’s remind girls to continue to care and take action when it comes to race, even when the news stories fade.
To learn more, check out Growing Strong Girls: Practical Tools to Cultivate Connection in the Preteen Years and Rooted, Resilient, and Ready, and the websites Bold New Girls and Brave New Boys.