White Kids Need to Start Using Their Privilege for Good — Here’s How to Teach Them

I still remember that Grey’s Anatomy episode where Miranda Bailey gave her son “the talk” about police violence. My white mom friends started asking me some odd questions.

“Should we be having ‘the talk’ with our kids too?” they asked.

Initially, I shook my head. I thought about how whiteness is always centering itself. These women are completely overlooking the point of that talk, I thought. The point, of course, was that Black people are disproportionately targeted and killed by police. The point was that this issue is so pervasive that Black parents must teach their children special tactics for interacting with cops. But these white women were coming from another angle. They realized: Cops are killing people. How, they wondered, could they protect their own kids?

I was relieved, though, that as I engaged the women in discussion that questioned their centering of themselves in regard to the issue, their questions turned from “How can we protect our (white) kids?” to “how can we teach our (white) kids to act as allies to Black folks in such a situation?” Now, that was a real conversation. That was something I could work with.

There have been so many incidents in recent years, such as the Amy Cooper dog-walking racism fiasco of 2020, in which a white person called the police on a Black person, but ultimately, the situation was de-escalated or jail time was avoided. And in many of those incidents, that de-escalation happened precisely because a white person used their privilege and became an ally. The infamous Starbucks arrest in 2018 was just one example of that, and there are plenty more. In fact, in my opinion, the only way to inhibit the systematic racism that is fueling these racist police calls and overaggressive police responses is to teach white kids about becoming allies right now.

Allyship is a complex concept that even parents themselves might need help understanding. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance magazine explains, “[B]eing an ally means recognizing oppression broadly and standing in solidarity with anyone who experiences oppression — whether or not the ally belongs to a targeted group.” For parents, this definition opens up a variety of ways in which we can teach our kids how to be allies.

The most important and often the hardest part of allyship is standing in solidarity with the oppressed because this can lead to a certain amount of risk for the ally. However, in today’s age of cell phones and social media, white parents can teach their kids to be allies to their peers of color in ways that are more effective (and easier) than they’ve ever been before. Kids just have to remember three things: Be witnesses, get receipts and spread the word.

Be a witness

teens confidence

One recent example of allyship in the form of witnessing was the aforementioned Starbucks incident in which two Black men were removed from the coffee shop simply because they were in the coffee shop (supposedly “loitering”). In response to the un-called-for arrests, several white people spoke up, gave witness statements and explained to authorities that the Black men had done nothing wrong — and weren’t even in the restaurant long. By standing up and speaking up as witnesses, these white customers were able to sway the cops to release the men. Furthermore, their outcry caused the story to go viral and get the attention of the head of the multibillion-dollar company.

Why does this work? Plenty of people of color will give you endless accounts of having their ideas and voices ignored until a white person speaks up on their behalf or with the same ideas. In our society, the white voice is considered more credible and is thus more powerful. That is the privilege of whiteness. It’s not anyone’s fault, but rather a consequence of living in a country with a racist history. Having privilege is a fact, and it can be used to aid in allyship.

Get receipts

I don’t mean literal slips of paper from a register (unless that is vital to proving your story, in which case go for it). By “receipts,” I mean proof of the story. These days, a video is the most common form of receipt or documentation that something happened. After all, the world would never have known about George Floyd or Philando Castile or Eric Garner or countless others without cell phone videos.

White parents can teach their kids to whip out their cell phones whenever a Black friend is being harassed — by a classmate, teacher, cop, customer, you name it. Kids can also gather witness names during or after an incident of harassment and turn them in to be used in court or during internal investigations. Of course, you must encourage your child to think of safety in these situations; this may mean stopping a live incident recording in order to head to safety or forgoing it entirely. Instead of a live photo or recording, allies can make an audio or video retelling of what they saw soon after the fact. Encourage your kids to gather all these receipts and give them to the person who was or is being targeted. They’ll know how to use them.

Spread the word

White and black kids playing

Our kids are more tech-savvy than any generation before them, and social media has the power to enact positive change. Several recent social media campaigns have made serious strides on social justice issues. That’s why it’s so important that allies use their privilege and their social media to spread the word about racist incidents — especially if there is a video. After all, pointing out injustice and inciting public outcry is how the masses have been changing the system for ages, and it’s the best way for your kid to stand with the oppressed and to do something about the system.

Allyship is the larger message that white parents need to teach to their kids while discussing the issues of racism, harassment and police brutality. White allies have long stood beside Black activists — from slavery abolitionists to the civil rights movement and beyond. So, talk to your child about joining a long and rich line of allies who have worked to effect change — even despite narrow-minded American leadership.

By teaching your kids to become allies, you are not only training them to help their peers; you are also instilling compassion, empathy and activism — three things that have been proven to help oppressed populations throughout history.

For more resources: For help starting these important conversations with your kids, go to the Teaching Tolerance magazine website, which offers discussion starters as well as lessons for teachers. Parents can turn these class lessons into easy ways of explaining allyship and how to achieve it. Charis Books, a feminist bookstore, even curated a list of books for kids on race and allies. These are just a few of the wide array of available materials on race and allies. Just make sure to study up and educate yourself before you begin the conversation with your kids; Zeba Blay’s handy list for the Huffington Post, “16 Books about Race Every White Person Should Read,” is a great starting point.

A version of this story was originally published in May 2018.

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