How Do Parents Teach Racial Literacy?

As difficult as it is to raise children in America and to ensure that they have access to what they need to grow into healthy, successful adults, when your child is of a different race, extra challenges cannot be avoided.

Even before they start school, children absorb cultural messages about race, gender and privilege. This awareness impacts lives and influences African-American children’s self-concept, experiences in school and their worldview. Especially noteworthy is the way they interpret these messages from others and then determine their ‘place’ in the world. We can safely attribute this to the by-products of a societal construct called ‘race’ by which others systemically assign and ensure white privilege.

That privilege has led to an internalized belief of entitlement, and feeling of superiority that has been supported by a flawed imagery, inaccurate ‘facts’ and omitted historical truths regarding blacks in America and around the world. It is also reinforced by policies and practices that guide our everyday lives. Thus, we mustn’t think that racism is not systemic. Prevalent in our lives, though, African-Americans see it more clearly, the more it continues to be denied by the ‘privileged’ and ‘entitled’.

A ‘blaming the victim’ mindset emerges, and no one wants to be viewed as a victim. Still, unacknowledged inequities, no matter the subtleties, go on unaddressed and un-altered, as though we have not evolved or advanced in this country at all.

“Same sh.t- different day.”

The term “racial literacy, refers to a set of practices designed by parents to teach their children how to recognize, respond to and counter forms of everyday racism. The emphasis here is on teaching children as well as adults how to identify routine forms of racism and to develop strategies for countering it and coping. It is a form of racial socialization and training that parents of African-descent practice in their efforts to defend their children against racism.

I recently had an impromptu conversation with the mother of a son, a 15-year old adolescent, as she was speaking to him about the police treatment of African-American young men in her community and elsewhere. She was giving lessons in ‘etiquette’ for when he is confronted by law enforcement. The strategies were for ‘when’ not ‘if’ he was ever confronted by police. It’s seen as an inevitability. She briefly turned to me and said, ” No parent should have to teach this to their child.” She also said, “I can deal with an arrest, because whether right or wrong, he still has a fighting chance at life, but the death of my child is what I fear most. They treat us like criminals in school and out on the streets, too.”

” My child gets excellent grades, plays football and chess, and wants to go to college. He doesn’t want to be a rapper; he wants to be a lawyer. I just want him to make it out of this neighborhood alive. To white people who don’t know him, he is seen as just another ‘n’ word or a ‘thug’ .”  What could I say in response to her statements?

She was right. No parent should have to forewarn or forearm their child with coping skills to withstand negative and hurtful stereotypical messages, racial profiling, or police brutality. Implicit bias, racism and other expressions of intolerance, prejudices, or race-related ignorance that people exhibit can negatively impact self-esteem, diminish cultural pride, and may be internalized and surface as disengagement or anger. Worse than that is the real possibility of physical harm or death.

Although we live in a global village, and encounter diversity on a daily basis, people are still very disconnected . And, in an information-driven society, we aren’t accessing enough information to acquire an appreciation of cultural differences. Instead, we fear it, rage against it and view ‘different’ as inherently flawed.

So, parents offer strategies and teach coping skills to their children to protect them from the messages they may receive or the treatment they may become subject to from police or peers. When communicating with their child, a parent may take this tone and utilize the following approaches [also the most positive means to teach racial literacy]:


Make statements that affirm who the child is; embrace your child’s difference, and explain how his or her difference is a gift, not a liability even though not everyone will see it as a positive.


Promote emotional protection so your child can avoid internalization of harmful messages.

“Let me teach you about the world. Hurtful statements may come at you, and I want you to tell me when that happens, but let me be clear: those are problems with the people saying those things, not with you. It’s their issue, not yours.”


“You’ve got to counter the narrative. Look for opportunities around you. It could be cartoons. Do you notice that all the people making the decisions in this cartoon are male?”

Some people believe that racial equality has been achieved and issues surrounding racism only occur at the micro level. However, lightly digging at the surface immediately reveals policies, laws and other larger barriers that discriminate against people of color. Until w become an equal opportunity, non-discriminatory, non-prejudiced, culturally responsive nation of diverse ,  we must acquire racial literacy.  For now, we need to deconstruct racism in its many forms, promote the continued resilience of people of color and dispel incorrect assumptions about race.

African-American  parents at all income levels teach their children to navigate their lives with a critical lens. While motivating them to triumph over challenges, parents also prepare their children  for the oft negative perceptions and disparities that impact their lives. African-American parents know that their children will probably be misunderstood, underestimated, and extremely challenged to succeed. Determined to show the love, acceptance and support that only they can, wanting the very best for their children, they teach and raise racially literate resilient individuals. That’s the way parents teach racial literacy.

Next question: How can schools promote racial literacy? Please share your ideas!



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