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UW study: How parents talked about Black Lives Matter differed by race

By Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks, The Seattle Times
Published: February 20, 2024, 10:40am

A new study led by researchers at the University of Washington and Northwestern University found about 80% of parents spoke to their children about the Black Lives Matter movement within a year of the murder of George Floyd.

But the way white parents and Black parents explained the social justice movement and talked about race in general with their children varied widely, researchers found.

Among Black parents, 78% affirmed the movement and/or acknowledged systemic racism, researchers found, while only 35% of white parents reported similar messaging.

Meanwhile, white parents were significantly more likely to discuss the movement by focusing on equality, without acknowledging racial injustice.

While emphasizing “everyone is equal” can be a powerful and important message for children, it’s a sentiment that may not answer questions kids have about why they see injustices, such as their Black peers being disciplined at higher rates compared with white students, said co-author Andrew Meltzoff, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington.

“So [for] parents who want to do the best thing for their children, it does become something families should want to introspect about — where are children going to learn about the racial and gender inequalities that exist?” he said. “Do you as a parent want it to be a taboo topic at home, where you’re having race-avoidant or evasive conversations?”

Data from the study came from online survey responses collected between November 2020 and January 2021 from 725 socioeconomically diverse parents living in metro areas across the United States. Respondents were evenly divided between Black and white parents.

Researchers focused on parents with kids between 8 and 11 years old, a period of “great development of identity” when many kids have started to display racial biases and also report experiencing racial discrimination by peers.

“Children are beginning to think, ‘Who am I in relation to society? What will I become when I’m older? How do I belong?’” said Meltzoff, who also serves as co-director of the UW Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences.

For decades, social scientists studying racial socialization — the process of teaching kids about race and racism — have found it is a part of healthy child development that can be beneficial for children.

For this study, researchers hoped to learn how the nationwide protests in 2020 calling for racial justice and accountability influenced how parents talk to their children about race. The study was published online in Developmental Psychology last month.

Past research indicates Black families and parents of color have historically been more likely to talk about race with kids earlier on and help children better navigate racism and bias they may experience, Meltzoff said.

White parents, in contrast, tend to avoid talking about race. If they do, it’s often in a way that diminishes the significance of race in society or emphasizes egalitarianism. Those trends persisted even after high-profile cases of police brutality against Black people and mass shootings targeting people of color, previous studies found.

But after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, when the nation became consumed by calls for racial justice, has found conversations around race have begun to shift, with white parents in particular being more willing to talk about race and racism with their children.

The study marks one of the first forays into exploring the nuances of what those conversations look like, Meltzoff said.

Among parents who talked to their kids about the Black Lives Matter movement, about 45% of Black parents explicitly acknowledged race and inequality, researchers found, compared with about 23% of white parents.

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One respondent, a 35-year-old Black mother, said she told her son, “People are protesting to help make sure that Black lives are treated fairly and that we get equal rights with others,” and that “it’s important to always fight for what’s right.”

About 20% of white parents emphasized all people are equal without acknowledging racial injustices, compared with about 9% of Black parents.

“In this world everyone have rights to live no matter what is his/her color, races or whatever. God created us equally,” wrote another respondent, a 43-year-old white father, describing to researchers what he told his child.

Researchers found about 14% of white parents (compared with 1% of Black parents) who said they spoke to their children about the movement did not share their own thoughts about how those conversations went in their survey responses, instead often just copying and pasting statements from Wikipedia or typing in nonsense.

For parents who didn’t talk about BLM with their children, white parents were more likely to give statements denying the existence of racism and less likely to say they talk to their kids about race and racism generally, just not about the movement specifically.

Moving forward, Meltzoff said he and other researchers would like to further investigate how these conversations occurred among other racial groups, such as in Asian and Latino households. He said they also hope to follow up with surveyed parents to see how the nature of their conversations around race have evolved since 2020.

“Society changes, and you don’t know what’s going to stick,” he said. “When it’s a salient topic and kids are seeing it on TV, many parents needed to have conversations with their children. [But] the issues with structural inequalities haven’t disappeared or dropped to zero in 2024, so we’re very interested in what current conversations would be like.”

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