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How Parents Can Help Prepare Students of Color to Respond to Racism at School

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If you’re the parent of a minority student, chances are your child at some point has been teased or taunted about her race or ethnicity. This can take the form of joking about stereotypes or even racist putdowns that attribute traits to certain groups.

Racism today may be less overt than in the past, but in American society, a person’s skin color or family origin remains very much a defining feature.

So what can parents and educators do to help students of color deal with racism and prejudice?

First, ignoring it is not an option. Bullying, teasing, physical attacks, and other forms of aggression are an unfortunate reality for many students throughout their K-12 years, but especially middle and high schoolers. Racial or ethnic jokes, insults, slights and other microaggressions can be damaging and make victims socially anxious.

Yet too few minority parents talk to their children about racial bigotry and how to handle it. The same is true of schools. As one longtime teacher in Philadelphia put it, the attitude of some schools is that race is a political topic, not an educational matter.

What's more, teachers - many of whom are white - often are ill-equipped to handle sensitive, complex discussions about privilege, power, and oppression. This includes conversations on race and racism, says Joseph Feola, a school counselor at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan and an adjuct professor at Counseling@NYU, which offers an online master's in school counseling from NYU Steinhardt.

So, it’s important for everyone — parents, guardians, teachers, counselors — to be ready help. Following are a few ways to help prepare children to become more resilient and tolerant.

1. Raise the Topic

Children aren’t colorblind. They notice that people are different. They’re also aware that they are different and may notice if they are or are not the majority at school, in terms of race and ethnicity. Tell your child to be proud of their differences that make them unique. Self-esteem can be a buffer against racism.

2. Give Words

Equip your child with tools to deal with slurs and insults. Teach them to respond with, “that’s not true,” or, “please stop.” Have them practice for questions like, “where are you from?” They can answer, “I’m an American, and my family originally came from …”

3. Examine Your Attitudes

Minorities aren’t immune to their own prejudices. Studies show that victims of bullying or racial taunts can also be the perpetrators. Teach your child to judge everyone by their character. Speak up if they say something intolerant or biased. It’s not enough to say, “Don’t say that.” Challenge their beliefs and explain why they are wrong.

4. Check Your Emotions

You may have strong views or even anger on the topic of racial intolerance. But take care not to transmit negative feelings to your child. Let them share their views first. Talking about injustice without reinforcing messages about how to deal with the unfairness can backfire and make them even more conscious of racial bias.

5. Do Something

Racism thrives on silence and inaction. If you or your child witness it, respond. Call out the teacher if they make a racially insensitive remark. Take it up with the principal if necessary. Empower your child by helping them find a way to take agency, whether by joining an advocacy group or writing letters to change the law.

6. Be a Safe Haven

Teach your child to tell an adult if they experience racism or prejudice — a teacher, a counselor, and especially you. Denying or ignoring racial discrimination, for example, can hurt self-esteem and raises the odds of depression or anxiety. If you have a close, nurturing relationship with your child, they’ll be more likely to confide and seek your help.

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