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Why I told my sons about their white privilege

My older son is 9 years old. I don’t know if it’s because he’s on the autism spectrum or if it’s just part of his personality, but he never brought up race despite attending a very diverse school. His lack of questions or comments lulled me into a flawed way of thinking. I assumed modern kids were “color blind” and didn’t judge people by the color of their skin.

Then my 6-year-old came home from kindergarten and proclaimed, “All black people are so mean.”

Well, crap.

“That’s not something you can say,” I told him, flustered and panicked. How had I raised a tiny racist?

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Then I calmed down and started a real conversation. I asked him why he felt that way. He told me that his bus driver yelled at him a lot and that a little black girl in his class wouldn’t be his friend. I told him that those situations must have made him feel sad but that they had nothing to do with the color of his bus driver’s skin or his classmate’s skin.

And then I realized I wasn’t being real.

Are all black people mean? Of course not. Is there a reason a little black girl might feel the need to be aggressive with white boys in her class? Sure.

Did I feel qualified to talk about race relations and systematic racism with my kids as a white woman? Not really. But I did it. And I felt foolish and unsure, but I knew my relative discomfort was better than silence.

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We talked about the history of slavery in the United States. We talked about the N-word they’d both heard from peers and the horrific past it represented. We talked about racial profiling and discrimination. Our nation’s legacy of racism felt heavier, and so terrible, when spoken in terms a small child would understand.

“There are lots of people who hate black people or don’t trust them or think they’re bad because their skin is a different color. There are lots of people who won’t hire a black person. There are lots of people who are scared of black people and don’t want to be around them.”

I told them what happened in Charleston.

And I told them that they’ll never, ever experience the kind of racism their black peers face every day and will face in the future. My kids are half-Hispanic, but they’re white. White privilege got them pulled out into the predominantly white gifted program at their school. White privilege means I won’t worry about them getting shot by the police when they become unruly teenage boys. White privilege will give them a head start when they hit the job market.

A lot of white adults hate being called out on white privilege. They feel like they’re being persecuted. They let themselves be ruled by defensiveness instead of seeing a broken reality and feeling galvanized to change that reality.

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The terrifying part of explaining white privilege to my white children was my hoping they didn’t see it as a good thing — as superiority over their black peers.

So we’ll keep talking about it. Every day. For as long as it matters. And I have a feeling that will be a long time.

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