How Do I Talk to My White Son about Race and Gender?

Dear Cristy,

So. My brother in law offered to take my son and me to see Aladdin on

Aladdin on Broadway.

Aladdin on Broadway.

Broadway. I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, but Aladdin. It’s no Frozen. My son hasn’t seen it and my m.o. is to watch the movie and listen to the soundtrack lots before seeing a live show so he is invested and familiar. Why am I telling you this? Well, because Aladdin is problematic in those classic Disney ways — racist and sexist — and I need help figuring out how to talk to him about those elements in a way that is sort of casual, but honest and earnest. I don’t want to jam it down his throat and I don’t want to talk over his head, but I think he is old enough to have a little dose of critical analysis with his Disney (which is why we didn’t watch any Disney at all until recently and have only just begun.) Anyway. You’re good at these things. You’re good at understanding kids and how to talk to them at their level and also really good at decoding racist and sexist images and messages. Got a few minutes to weigh in on this? 


White Lady

Hey, White Lady, thanks for your kind words. Truth is, I love talking to kids about critical thinking and media literacy. So, thanks for noticing! Secondly, way to go wanting to have this conversation now, and I assume, many times again. This won’t be your only opportunity, and white parents tend not to talk about race with their kids, and parents in general don’t talk about gender. But these conversations matter, for all families.

I really love what Trudy at the Gradient Lair said on the subject last August when asked a similar question by a white reader. She suggests reading Black mamas’ writing as a start, and I am a big proponent of reading the work of folks who are marginalized (which is also why I am suggesting Trudy’s work) when it comes to processing our thoughts around those marginalizations. Trudy also recommends being honest, and not sugar-coating or falling down the “all people are equal” trap. I support these ideas!

While we desire or hope that all people are equal, the reality is that people are not treated equally. But it is true that we all have the same value and worth as human beings, and it’s okay to talk about that. I use money as an example. I use a quarter and two dimes and a nickel. I put the quarter in one place (hand, spot on the table, etc.) and the dimes and nickel in another. I ask how much money is there, in each place. The point is to show that even though the coins are different, the value is the same. The differences are fine, and we can and should respect them. But the value, the worth of those coins, is the same and we should respect that too (you could also use M&Ms or Skittles if using money is not for you. I am not 100% comfortable talking about people’s worth in terms of dollars and cents, but it can make the idea more concrete for kids-which they really need).

We can then draw an analogy to people-“My body looks different from yours in these ways (bigger, smaller, different plumbing, different skin color, different hair, etc.), and that’s really cool! I love it that we are different in these ways. We are both human beings though, and we have the same value as people. But, a lot of times, people get treated badly because of those differences, like women get paid less than men at work and black people get arrested more than white people. What do you think about that?”

Additionally, smaller kids struggle with abstract concepts, so I would bring it up watching the movie. In questions: “Why do you think Jasmine is dressed like that? Isn’t it weird that all the men have lots of clothes on and she doesn’t?” Or, “What do you think about how that brown guy was acting? Do you think all brown guys behave that way?” These are just suggestions, and the possibilities are endless. Be prepared to pause the movie or song and talk about what just happened. Be forthright and honest.

PBS Parents also made a list of helpful tips to navigate stereotypes in media, which is good broad advice, but borders on too generic. It’s handy though, as a starting point.

Cardinal Rule: When talking to your kids about race, or gender, or other marginalized identities, be honest and forthright. Don’t ignore the hard stuff in hopes it will go away (it won’t), but instead use concrete examples from real life AND the media to illustrate the different ways people are treated. Let them express opinions, and support their critical thinking. And be sure to have the conversations at least 800 times. Good luck! ❤





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