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A tough conversation: How to talk to kids about white privilege

This week I had planned to talk about something else.

However in light of recent events I think it's really important and necessary to tackle this difficult, cumbersome and uncomfortable topic.

First off I want to say that I'm not an expert on race relations, I haven't figured this out and I don't have all the answers. I am writing this merely as an attempt to open and keep opening this conversation and to create a dialogue for anyone interested in being a part of this conversation.

I believe that this is one of the many ways we can move forward.

I also want to acknowledge that this is only a reflection of what I've learned, in my own life, education and experiences. This is what has been helpful in my own understanding of privilege, race and white supremacy. This is by no means all there is to say about the topic nor is it the only way to look at this issue. I will continue to learn, to educate myself and others about my findings and about new ways of looking at this tough issue. I encourage you to do the same.

Part of why I fell in love with teaching and why I'm so passionate about working with younger generations is because it gives me hope. I believe that with the right guidance and the right opportunities we can create a world that we want to be a part of.

Teaching children about how to treat each other on the playground or in the world reminds me that we are inherently good and if we teach our children these lessons early on then we have a chance for a better place for us and for our children to inherit.

As adults it is our job to be held accountable, to do this tough work, to feel vulnerable and awkward. It is up to us to keep looking inside to see and understand that we may be upholding systems of white privilege. If we want things to change, I see it as essential that we continue to learn, that we keep listening to each other and when things get rough or difficult that we step back and take care of ourselves until we're ready to keep fighting.

There are so many things that could be discussed in this but I will only choose a few of the key points.

1. Establishing containers

Whenever we discuss difficult topics with kids (or anyone) whether in a classroom or at home, it is essential to set some ground rules. Things like what does everyone need to feel safe in this conversation or to be able to contribute to this conversation. It is important that in these conversations no one is made to feel unsafe. This stuff is hard and sometimes our experiences can teach us that to be vulnerable is to be unsafe. Whatever needs to happen to make sure everyone that is partaking in the conversation feels safe needs to be established before the conversation takes place.

Also as a side note be aware of the age of the children that are part of the discussion, find ways to relate it to them and the world they know.

2. Explaining white privilege

This one is tough, but most likely it's more tough for adults than children.

This term carries a lot of weight but before we get uncomfortable let's go over a few things. White privilege is a term specifically used to describe the privileges and societal benefits allowed to people that have white skin. This is not a term that implies or describes any individual OR the experiences they have had in their lives. It does not deny hardships based on individual circumstances. It isn't about economics, religion, sexuality or gender. We don't need to apologize for being white and it is also not about shaming anyone who is white.

It is simply the acknowledgment that all over the world, people who are white are given an unearned advantage over other races based on history, and the systems that have been in place for many, many years.

Once we are able to acknowledge our privilege then we can move forward and acknowledge the pain of others and that I believe is where the healing can begin to happen.

If you are white you experience white privilege,whether you acknowledge it or not, it is how society sees you based on your skin color.


Another conversation to have for older kids might be around other kinds of privilege based on things like economic status, ability, age, sexuality, gender, these are all really important issues to acknowledge as well.

When explaining this issue depending on the age of the child you can get into specific details (history, confederation, colonialism etc.) or you can stick to the simpler stuff.

Some questions to lead with:

How would it feel to you if your friends with blonde hair (choose based on the opposite of the child you're questioning) got a special present and you did not?

How would you feel if you got a present because of your hair color and most of your other friends didn't?

Does it feel good when someone thinks they're better on you based on something you cannot control?

How does it feel to be given a gift based on something you didn't choose?

3. Perspective

When we are white we are taught that the way we see the world is actually how the world is, because of the aforementioned white privilege. It is important to show kids that the way they see the world is just their perspective and not the way it is for everyone.

You can talk about the definition of perspective to help the child more deeply understand the word.

For example (for smaller kids) the perspective your fish might have is very different because he sees the world through his glass tank. Or for older kids: the perspective of someone from China is very different than the perspective of someone from America because of cultural differences, the things they eat, the clothes they wear, the societal norms. You can talk about the things that contribute to our experience of the world.

With older kids you can talk about bigger terms like "Racial Stereotypes", "Race" etc

Some questions to lead with:

What are some things that make your perspective different than your friends?

Think about how someone from another country might think your perspective is different than theirs?

What are some ways you can change your perspective or understand someone else's?

4. Understanding power: Empowering yourself and others

What does it mean to be empowered? What does it mean to have power?

Starting this conversation with your kids is an awesome way to begin making a change, in your own life and in your community.

A great starting point is to explain that power is not finite. Just because one person (let's say the president or prime minister) has power does not mean that power is now gone and that there is none left for anyone else.

We can all have power and we can help each other find power.

This is the goal here; to keep finding our power to affect change.

But let's also be careful about how we talk about power. There are different kinds, there are good kinds and bad kinds;

for example, "Power over" vs "Power with" or "Power to"

If we have power over it means that we believe that our values, our view points are more important than others. If we talk about "power with" it means that we can stand together in our power, that our power comes from standing united with each other (this is the best kind!). If we talk about "power to" it means that we give our own power over to someone else.

This could be a good or a bad idea but it is in essence our own choice.

This conversation can apply to lots of different situations and it's one that as an adult I'm still understanding and coming to terms with.

Some questions to lead with:

What does it feel like when you have power?

What does not having power (or powerlessness) feel like, or how do you think it might feel?

What are some ways you can think of to help your friends feel empowered?

5. Keeping the conversation open no matter how hard it is

It's a hard conversation and we're all aware of that. However if kids learn young that it is okay to talk about these things we will be raising a generation capable of making change. When kids feel more comfortable and equipped to have these kind of conversations (that for us might be painful and uncomfortable) their energy is freed up to start making change happen.

Lastly, remind yourself and teach your kids that it's going to be imperfect, but whether it's imperfect or not doesn't matter. What matters is that you keep trying. Don't use your privilege to opt out of this conversation. If we don't own this story as adults, or kids the problems of our past will continue. We want a world where the systems do not favor anyone but instead we are all treated equally and fairly no matter what we look like.

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

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