I’m White, Here’s How I Talk To My Own Child About Black History

by Stephanie Kaloi

For better or for worse, my husband and I have a rule when it comes to our kid: We decided a long time ago to be very, very honest with him about anything and everything.

That doesn’t mean that we give him every sordid detail about a topic unprompted, but if he asks a question, we’ll give him the most detailed answer we have available to us in a way that helps him digest it. The reason we’re so open is that we both believe that at home with us, in an environment where he feels supported and safe and he’s with people who love him unconditionally, is the ideal place to have conversations that might feel hard or scary.

This rule also applies to the information we expose him to in general. It makes some people mad, but I don’t personally believe that a child is ever “too young” to know about something that’s hard to talk about, just that sometimes the way you talk about it is what needs to change.

I’m bringing all of this up because it’s been really important to us that our child is a full citizen of this world we all live in. Among other things, that means that we really make sure that he is introduced to a lot of history and information that extends outside his cultural and ancestral makeup. So he knows a lot about Hawaiian culture and loves his Hawaiian family, and he is also steeped in relationships with plenty of white people and knows tons of European history. We have also lived in a whole bunch of places in the US, in all kinds of neighborhoods and homes, and he has had real friendships with kids from all kinds of cultural and ancestral backgrounds. We’re lucky that way — we’ve almost always lived in cities that are enriched by their diverse populations.

Because it’s so easy for many white people and families to live their entire lives without forming real relationships with people who aren’t white, we really want to also make sure that our son knows the stories of various groups of people who live in the United States and in the world in general. That is obviously a huge task, and it’s a lifelong goal — it’s the kind of thing that none of us will ever stop learning about. But since we are American, and particularly since we are from the southern United States, it felt natural to begin this journey by really exploring black history in America and what it really means.

We aren’t black, and we knew that if we wanted to have conversations about black history, we would need to put in a tremendous amount of care and research. We also knew that we would need to step back and let the voices of black people ring louder than our own. Luckily, we have been aided by the wealth of knowledge and tools available, as well as many sweet friends who have no problem telling us when we’re wrong (and will even tell us when we’re on the right track).

I am by no means an expert, but here’s what has worked for us in our son’s 10 years so far, as well as other things you might want to keep in mind when having these conversations with your own kids.

1. Understand that black history does not = slavery.

YES: The history of slavery in the United States is inherently tied up in the history of black people in the United States. And yes, it is crucial to offer your children a real, detailed account (or really, several accounts) of what slavery meant for enslaved people. It’s important to own that history as an American. It matters.

BUT: Keep in mind that slavery is not all that you need to talk about when talking about black history. Black people have contributed so much to our country and to the world. And it’s really important to make sure your kids understand that black history and black people are more than a horrific period of time that they had no control over.

When we are talking about slavery with our son, and especially when we’re talking about slavery in the United States, we make sure we discuss that slavery is inherent in the history of white people in this country, too. Because even if your family’s family’s family didn’t own enslaved people, if they’re white and were in the US at the time, it’s really likely that they participated in slavery in some way and benefited from it.

I have no idea if anyone I’m related to ever enslaved people, but I am sure that at some point, members of my family benefited from the system at the very least. The 1860 census shows that on average 32% of white families owned enslaved people, and in several states, the percentages were much higher. Plus, each of those families also hired people who directly terrorized enslaved people, both psychologically and physically.

(Also, for the love of all things important, do not perpetuate the myth about Irish “slavery” in the United States in your discussion.)

2. If you don't know any black people, own that.

I understand that everyone doesn’t live in a city that can boast a lot of ethnic and racial diversity. I also understand that a lot of white people are socialized to mostly know white people due to the schools, events, and extracurricular activities they pursue, along with the socioeconomic structure of the United States.

So. If you are talking about black history and black people with your kids and you don’t actually know any black people, you need to just own that … and own the reasons why. This might require that you really get down and dirty with yourself and ask a few questions that are hard, but in the best interest of honesty, I encourage you to do so.

3. The internet is FILLED with tools. Use them.

black history month

At this point, if you’re not black and the only thing you know about black history is that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus, you are willfully staying ignorant of a history that is just as rich and diverse and fun as your own. Plus: Black history is intricately woven into the fabric of what the United States is.

Think about it: Who are your favorite musicians? Who were they inspired by? What social media accounts do you follow? What shows and movies do you watch? Black people have been creating  culture in the United States as long as they’ve been free to live here.

One quick and easy tool that we use is the Black History Flashcards from Urban Intellectuals. Each pack contains cards that highlight the achievements of different black heroes. There are so many more stories to know than the same two or three that get recycled each year, and it’s so easy to use these cards to love them. You can also buy cards that focus on women, and even cards that focus on the achievements of black people pre-1492.

Also, I am a giant fan of two books in particular: A Young People’s History of the United States and A Different Mirror for Young People: A History of Multicultural America are extremely helpful when talking about the history of the US with my son. We read both together and came away with a lot of knowledge about the country we live in.

4. Know it, don't colonize it.

Another really important thing to understand any time you’re talking to your kids (or anyone) about a history that isn’t yours is that it’s one thing to learn about the history so you can discuss it … and it’s quite another to learn about the history and kind of take it over.

For example, my kid really wants to learn to speak Hawaiian. His dad was born in Honolulu but doesn’t know much of the language, and his granddad grew up in Hawaii but also doesn’t know too much of the language. Since I’m home with our kid more, I took it upon myself to see if I could make this happen. I found an amazing resource on YouTube, and we printed out worksheets and watched videos and had an amazing time trying to learn a language that was totally new to both of us.

Throughout that time, however, I was really careful to make sure it was clear that this wasn’t my language, and it wasn’t something funny to just try on. I didn’t use a Hawaiian accent when I pronounced my words, and, in fact, I encouraged my blue-eyed, very white-presenting child to just speak in his voice. It was small, but it was important.

When you’re talking about the history of a group of people you don’t belong to, it can feel like the best way to nurture understanding and empathy is to take on that history like it’s your own. Don’t do this. Study it, understand it, but don’t live and breathe it unless you and your ancestors actually did.

5. But also ... don't 'otherize' it, either.

This might feel like it runs counter to what I said above, but the point here is that you also don’t want to go so far in the other direction that you make black history sound like something that happened to a group of people who aren’t relevant to your life. Because … if you live in the United States, that’s just not true.

It can be easy for anyone from one group of people to speak about another group in a way that “others” that group and their history. By this, I mean that it can be easy to treat a group of people like they’re different from you, especially if you don’t know a lot about the group in the first place.

I have been a big fan of learning history first and then talking to my kid about it, but sometimes questions come up on the fly, and we end up learning together. In those moments, I always try to make sure parts of the conversation circle back to parallels in our own lives, and in the lives of people my son loves, to just emphasize that we all have more in common than not.