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What parents of white sons should tell them about racial inequality

Before we address this very deep subject together, there are a few things you need to know about me. I don’t have a son. I’m white. I’m a psychologist. That last part is why you should read this article and share it. For many years, I both studied and taught classes on racial identity, and it is in those lessons that you’ll gain a greater understanding and be prepared to have a real conversation with your sons.

I also want to point out that my take on this series is #WhatDoITellMyWhiteSon. In my view, as a psychologist, the real problem we need to address is privilege and racism, and this is how we can do it by starting with our white sons. For many years, I studied and taught classes on racial identity and I have learned that racism is a white problem when we stand idly by and do nothing. I encourage you to teach your white sons about race and their privilege. I’m here to give you a framework for that conversation and to prepare you to have a real discussion with your sons. What do they already know about race? Do you know the answer to that question? You should.

What is racial identity?

We can’t have this discussion until we’re speaking the same language. What I am about to tell you should change everything you think about race, especially your own and especially if you’re white. I’m also hoping to give you the tools you’ll need to help others, young and old, understand it.

There are a few rock stars in my world. One of them is a pioneer of white racial identity, and her name is Janet Helms. Her work has provided empirical evidence that it is not race or gender that affects people, but the psychological effects of being treated a certain way because of the race that you are.

Helms lays out how white people need to get in touch with their own racism and their own white privilege in order to develop a healthy, non-racist identity. And by the way, white privilege is about lots of things, but mainly entitlement that you may not realize you possess. Also, it’s about seeing mostly white faces in political decision-making realms, and it’s about study after study finding how many preconceived and positive associations people have with “white” versus other races.

According to Helms extensive research, white racial identity is broken down into six stages:

  1. Contact. As a white person, you are oblivious to racism and perhaps don’t (personally) know any people of color.
  2. Disintegration. The conflict begins. You perceive yourself as not racist, yet you wouldn’t want your white son dating a woman of color.
  3. Reintegration. The third stage, you take a big step back. But let’s think positively and move forward.
  4. Pseudo-independence. You start to see similarities between your life and people of color and you begin to think more deeply about them and their experiences.
  5. Immersion/emersion. This is the stage where you really get what white privilege is about. You start to understand racism as well as your own biases.
  6. Autonomy. This is where you abandon entitlement and you truly understand racial, ethnic and cultural differences. You begin to think about race in a healthier way.

What this all means for white parents

Teach your sons about what white privilege really is and how they must show compassion for their non-white friends. Your sons may not know what it’s like to be prejudged based on skin color. Keep the conversation age appropriate and don’t wait until your child asks you. What I and many psychologists suggest is to teach young children about nobel laureates, writers, great leaders and great thinkers of all races. Give them a positive association with all races before the world gives them negative ones. Parents who try to be “colorblind” are not only missing a major opportunity, but are doing the opposite of what that philosophy intends. Colorblind dishonors race, and what you want to do is honor it.

As psychologists, we know that kids start noticing racial differences as infants. There are studies that show an infant will stare longer at a face of someone of their own race showing a preference for that face. Studies have also found that children don’t start exhibiting racist ideas until about 6 years old . This means that kids notice race at a young age, which is why you need to have meaningful conversations with them about it sooner. Use their favorite TV shows or characters they enjoy in books as positive role models to start a conversation.

If your sons are not prepared by you, their parents, to be compassionate and understanding, then they are more vulnerable to become racist as they age. Because we live in a multiracial society, pretending race doesn’t exist is wrong and insulting. We should celebrate and understand differences very early, but white kids need to understand that their non-white friends will be treated differently and have very different experiences with everyone from store clerks to the police. This means that all races will be exposed to race-related issues sooner or later and they need to be prepared. Your son may participate in, or witness acts of racism against their friends. Therefore, your sons need to have a framework for understanding what to do and how to help. My best advice is to have them address the behavior and not the person. So, if their non-white friend gets hassled at the mall by a cashier, it’s OK to calmly say, “I think you singled out my friend because of his race, and that is not OK. I’m sure that if the roles were reversed, you wouldn’t appreciate that.”

That said, your son should ask his non-white friends about their experiences. Let them know that he would like to live in a world without racism and that he is on a quest to learn more so he can do what he can towards that goal. That is the kind of information that can lead to a greater understanding and a greater empathy. A 2014 study in the journal Society of Counseling Psychology found that “empathy” is the key factor in combating racism. More importantly, these conversations actually help to strengthen the bond between friends and subtly say, “I got your back.”

It is just as important for every white parent to talk to their sons as it is for black families (and other ethnicities) to talk to theirs. It’s a problem for all of us. And as soon as we understand that, the sooner we can help to change it.

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