Talking to Teens about Race

Talking To Teens About Race Header
Summer Rose, Psy.D. Licensed Psychologist
By Summer Rose, Psy.D. Licensed Psychologist Jan 08, 2018

While young children are learning how to categorize things, like boys and girls, light skin and dark skin, older kids are beginning to consider more complex ideas, like who they are and how they fit into the world. Among the many identity issues that teens are considering is race.

Teens are aware of racial differences.  Given our current climate, teens also want to discuss this topic, but often are not engaged in conversations about it. This age is a critical period for adults to engage teens in a dialogue about important issues such as race and racism.  Adults can assist teens in developing a healthy understanding of themselves and others as they prepare to leave home and enter adulthood.

During adolescence, teens lean into their peer relationships and away from parental and other adult relationships. So one way for adults to bridge this transition is to talk to teens about their social group and the settings where they spend the most time. Racial differences within social settings provide students with an incredible opportunity to learn about others. Two students in the same school may sit next to each other in class and have entirely different experiences and world views.

Parents have the opportunity to help teens explore these racial differences. It may sound intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. Conversations can start by exploring the idea of friendship in general, with questions such as:

Who are your best friends at school and what do you all have in common? How do you choose who will be your friend? What are the important parts of friendship to you?

Answers to these questions may not be profound. Most teens are friends with people they went to elementary or middle school with, or kids they know from the neighborhood. They’re not necessarily seeking out friendships and weighing the merits of their peers. But these conversations plant the seed that who we surround ourselves with is a choice that we make. Further, these ice breaker questions open the door for deeper conversations.  They push teens to be thoughtful about who they engage and why.  

Race likely won’t come up in the answers to those questions (however, you might be surprised when it does!). You’re more likely to hear about the kids who have the new iPhone than you are about the demographics of the student body. But if race doesn’t come up naturally, you can layer it in with questions such as:

How diverse or segregated do you think the students are at your school? How diverse is your social group? Do teachers ever talk about race?

You can also ask broader questions to understand their views on race in general, such as:

How do you think the color of a person’s skin influences how they see the world? What can you learn from the experiences of people of a different race?

You can also use current events and social media, which is the world most teens live in, to help explore their reactions and what they might want to do in response to their reactions.  It’s important not to shy away from having these types of dialogues.  We should be empowering teens to think critically and to be change agents in creating a better classroom, school, community, etc.

Parents of children of color have likely already had conversations about race before their kids become teenagers. In this case, conversations with teenagers can build on previous conversations. You can say things such as:

We have talked about these issues before. How are they showing up in middle school/high school? Are these issues of race showing up among peers, among adults, or both? How have they been handled? Do you feel that other people know and understand your race/culture? Do you talk about race/culture with your friends?

White children may have gone longer before having conversations about race at home or at school. In some cases, White children have a sense of “white guilt” or “white shame” around the topic of race. Some White children feel that they are different from generations past and want to show that they don’t hold racist thoughts. Parents of these children can encourage their kids to simply listen and remain curious when interacting with people of different races. You can help them say things such as:

What did you mean when you said that? Can you explain your thoughts on ______? My family talks about ___ but it sounds like your family is different. Can you tell me more?

These types of questions communicate openness and allow teens to consider experiences different from their own. It may sound like I’m just suggesting that you ask a bunch of questions – and I am! With teenagers, one of the best ways to approach topics is to simply open the field for discussion. You may be surprised what your teen says. Sometimes you think they’re not paying attention and they come back with profound insight. Alternatively, they may say very little or nothing at all. Asking questions is still impactful for teens, because you are modeling curiosity and helping them to see that this is an important topic worth discussing. Even if the conversation feels pointless because your teen is not responding, trust that she’s hearing your questions and will go on to reflect on the topic as she sees issues arise in the world. 

©2018 Momentous Institute
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