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Psychologist Dr. Jenn Noble

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Family Focus

Talking to Teens About Race & Racism

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As mothers, we know it's in our power to create a future full of love, compassion and kindness—after all, change begins at home. But we also know that a conversation about race with a seven-year-old is very different than one with a 15-year-old. That's why, after sharing tips on having the talk with the younger set last week, we're turning the lens on having that difficult discussion with teens. And to help us, we've tapped another expert: Dr. Jenn Noble, a psychologist who specializes in adolescent mental health. Keep reading for her insightful advice on everything from protest participation to social media engagement.

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Q&A

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When talking to teens about race, how do we start the conversation?
With younger kids, you need softer entry points to this conversation. But with an older child, you can have a more direct conversation. You could say, "Come look at the news," and then ask, "What do you think about the protests?" and "What are your friends saying?" It’s important to ask a question that’s not a yes-or-no question, so you can get your teen to talk.
Developmentally, teens are ready to handle these topics, and it’s important to approach the conversations with "What do you think?" or "How do you feel about this?" You also want to make sure that you don’t tell them their answers are wrong, if you disagree. If you asked your teen, "What do you think of protesters?" and if the reply is "The looting needs to stop," a follow-up question would be, "Are there other things you are noticing in the protests? What about the people who aren’t showing violence?"
If it’s a Black teen, they’ve likely already experienced, observed or heard about racism already, and it won’t be new to them. But it’s important to have the conversation and ask them what they think of what’s happening with the protests.
This conversation is also going to be important for teens of color who are not Black. You could ask a teen if they've ever been treated negatively because of the color of your skin. You could then relate that question with what’s happening against Black people.
In these talks, there also has to be a discussion around anti-Blackness but also being anti-poor and how we feel about income inequality. Income inequality is also tied to racism against Black people and when you have both, that’s when you see the worst treatment of Black people.

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Are there more effective methods besides conversation to engage teens about racism?
It may be awkward for teens to tolerate a face-to-face conversation, so use what's going around you. If it’s the news, you could ask them to come watch the news with you or have them watch footage of protests, and talk about it over dinner. Watching documentaries is a great way to educate teens on history and racism.
Right now, I think the best documentary is 13th, by Ava DuVernay, which is about the 13th Amendment and the history of racial inequality and injustice in the U.S. Teens can appreciate this documentary because it talks about the past and relates it to what could happen in the future.
Another important piece of work that teens could watch is the documentary When They See Us, also by DuVernay, which explores the history of racism in the justice system through the story of the Central Park Five.

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If your teenager has experienced racism or bias, how do you help them navigate this? How should they respond and is it different whether it's coming from an adult or a peer?
Whether coming from an adult or peer, as a parent you want to bring the conversation back to understanding hatred and superiority, and that racism is built off of these two things. It boils down to one group of people who think they are better than another group and treat them with hate and like they don’t matter. And when you teach them that this is a faulty belief, a teen can remove themselves from this and understand that someone else has this prejudice. The discussion should be more about strengthening their confidence in their view of themself to respond and move past it. You can even tie this prejudice to other issues beyond skin color, like body size or LGBTQ issues.
With an adult, it’s harder for a teen because there are rules around talking to an adult and a hierarchy, if it's a teacher or an adult in a store. In that situation, you probably don't want to teach them to retort, and parents may need to advocate and get involved in the situation.

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“It’s important to ask the open-ended questions and tolerate the answer, even if you may not like the answer. If you keep asking questions, they can hear themselves in their answers.”

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Social media is such an important part of teenagers' lives now. What are the healthy ways they should be interacting with it?
I do think that social media is the way teens connect and communicate, especially now when they can't go out as much and hang out with friends to talk about the current issues taking place in the world. It’s so important to give them the ability to express their views. I wouldn't discourage them from talking about racism on social media, but keep an eye on your teen about how stressed these interactions are making them, and how their peers are reacting. And, hopefully, as a parent you've created healthy habits about social media.
Some of the teens I’m seeing feel like they can’t put their phones down because they feel like they need to say more or express more and it takes a toll on them. I would check in with your teen, and ask, "How are people responding on social media to you? Are you getting into Twitter wars or fights with commenters?" If that’s a yes, you may want to tell them to take a break, and model that break with them. Go for a walk together, and get ice cream, and rejoin the conversation after a break.

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How should we be talking to them about law enforcement and police brutality?
Every group of color has experienced discrimination or racism by the government, so make it relatable on your ethnic background. For families of color, you could approach this conversation by trying to tie it into their own experience. So, if you are Japanese, you could talk about the internment of the Japanese in World War II and then explain that's what's happening with Black people is another form of racism.
For Black teenagers, parents have “the talk”—except it’s not about sex. For Black teens, it’s about what to do if you are pulled over or stopped by the police. Parents need to sit them down and tell them, "Here’s where you put your hands, here’s what you say to a police officer, and here’s what you don’t say."
For white families, this is an opportunity to learn about the police and law enforcement together through the news, books or documentaries.

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And for teens interested in protesting…
I would ask them if they want to go to a protest, do they want to be in the masses with a poster? If so, I would ask if a parent could go with them, or if they could bring a few friends. And there are all forms of activism so if a teen doesn't want to protest, you could suggest they write a letter or give money from their savings to a charity.

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Above all else, what is the most important thing to remember when speaking to teenagers about racism?
I think it’s about trying to let them lead as much as possible in the conversation rather than telling them what to think. As soon as you sound like you are lecturing, they're not listening anymore. They want to know that an adult cares about what they think, and that their parents care enough to have a real conversation about this. It’s important to ask the open-ended questions and tolerate the answer, even if you may not like the answer. If you keep asking questions, they can hear themselves in their answers.
Also, be mindful that teens are watching their parents and they interact with people of all colors. If you are on a walk with your kid and a Black man comes toward you and you cross the street, your teen is going to observe this.

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